Mary Johlfs sent me this question about Setu Bandhasana or Little Bridge Pose.
I would like some clarification on setu bandhasana. I have had several teachers cue that the glutes should be totally soft and not engaged at all. I understand that you wouldn't want to purposely clench and hold the glutes, but is it even possible to "turn off" the glutes in bridge? Since the hips are extended in bridge and glutes are hip extensors, don't they have to be engaged? I have had teachers say all the work should be in the quads in bridge. I feel my quads isometrically contracted, but aren't the glutes the main movers here?
In this picture of Little Bridge my thoracic spine is straight. However, I have a little bit of a bend in my lumbar spine causing my pelvis to tilt forwards. The feeling is like my pelvis is hanging down from my lumbar spine.
First of all, in bridge pose (I like to call it little bridge,) you lay on your back with your knees bent. You then press your hips up to the ceiling. Your shoulders and head stay on the floor.
You can reach your hands towards your feet or you can reach them behind your head.
I like to reach my hands behind my head (like in the picture) if I am using bridge as a preparation for wheel pose. With your arms behind your head you can look for a feeling of opening your chest and reaching through your arms at the same time. And that is one sort of feeling you can look for when doing wheel pose.
However, if you reach your arms towards your feet and grab your hands, you can use your arms to pull your shoulder blades together. You may find it easier to open your chest. This option is thus a good preparation for inverted yoga poses like shoulder stand or plough pose.
When you pull your shoulder blades together, your shoulders move backwards relative to your ribcage making your chest appear to open.
Actually, what you are doing by pulling your shoulder blades together is pulling your shoulders back.
I like to think of this as opening the front of the shoulders.
As an example of this, if you are sitting or standing, you can grab your hands behind your back right now. (Use a towel, strap or cloth if this is too difficult.)
The purpose of this exercise is to help you experience how the shoulders and ribcage can move independently of each other. Just because you are pulling your shoulders back doesn't mean you are opening the front of your ribcage.
That being said, you can pull your shoulders back and open your chest at the same time. And that can be one thing that you choose to do in little bridge pose.
With your hands clasped behind your back and your pelvis lifted, you can move your shoulders a little bit towards your ears. Prior to doing this you might want to tuck your chin in so that the back of your neck feels long. This is ideally to give you the space you need to pull your shoulders towards your ears without jamming or pulling any muscles. It is not critical in bridge pose but it is something to be aware of when sitting or standing and reaching your arms over your head.
With your shoulders pulling towards your ears a little bit you may find it easier to move your shoulder blades together. Now since your shoulders are on the floor in bridge pose, moving your shoulders back (or in this case down into the floor) will cause your ribcage to lift off of the floor.
Press your shoulder blades into the floor to lift your ribcage up.
Now lets say that in little bridge pose you want to focus on opening your chest. How do you do that? By bending your thoracic spine backwards.
The thoracic spine is the part of your spinal column that your ribs attach to. It's made up of 12 vertebrae.
The twelve sets of ribs attach to those vertebrae.
Although individually, the ribs and thoracic vertebrae don't have a lot of movement potential, added together, the possible movement of your thoracic spine and ribcage together is quite large. Large enough that you might start to think of your ribcage as a flexible structure.
Bending your thoracic spine and ribcage backwards is one way of getting back that flexibility or maintaining it.
One way that you can bend your thoracic spine backwards is to use some of your Spinal Erectors. This group of muscles extends up the whole back of your spine from your pelvis to your head but there is one group of erectors within this larger group that can be used to act specifically on the back of the thoracic spine to bend it backwards. The feeling when these muscles are active is like you are pulling your spine into your body.
A group of muscle called the Levator Costalis reach downwards from the backs of the thoracic vertebrae to the tops of each set of ribs. These muscles are located quite close to the spinal erectors. These muscles can be used to lift the back of your ribs upwards towards your head. If you do this, lift the back of your ribs, you may find it easier to bend your thoracic spine backwards.
Generally, to get the feeling of bending the thoracic spine backwards, I have my students practice bending their spine backwards while sitting and then while laying down on their back. Incidentally, I get them to bend their lumbar spine backwards at the same time. Generally my students seem to be more comfortable or used to the idea of bending their lumbar spine backwards. It's the thoracic spine that usually needs a bit more attention. Also, depending on the level of awareness of my class in general I start them of with tilting their pelvis forwards and backwards.
If you keep your ribcage upright while you tilt your pelvis forwards, then your lumbar spine will bend backwards. You can add the action of bending your thoracic spine backwards to bending your lumbar spine backwards.
While laying on the floor, you can bend your knees and have your feet on the floor. Then from that position tilt your pelvis forwards to bend your spine backwards. As mentioned above, getting the lumbar spine to bend backwards is easy. Focus on moving the back of your ribs towards your head and arching your thoracic spine as well as your lumbar spine.
Generally when you bend something like a ruler, the end points of that ruler move closer together (assuming that we started with the ruler straight.) Bending the spine backwards does the same thing, it causes the pelvis and shoulders to move towards each other.
To keep your spine bent backwards when lifting your pelvis, you may find it helpful to push your pelvis upwards and back (towards your head) so that you can keep your spine bent backward.
If you are sensitive enough see how relaxed you can keep your body while keeping your spine bent backwards and lifting your pelvis.
Now then, to Mary's question.
To lift your pelvis, you can focus on straightening your knees.
(You can't actually straighten your knees in little bridge pose, but you can make them more straight or perhaps I should say less bent.)
If you focus on straightening your knees then you will most likely be using your quadriceps since these are the muscles that act to directly straighten the knee.
Note that you may find it helpful to activate your feet and ankles. You may find it easier to use your quadriceps to elevate your thighs and pelvis. At the same time you can push your feet slightly forwards into the floor so that you knees and your pelvis push back.
Another way to lift your hips would be to use your gluteus maximus (your big ass muscles.)
Pushing Your Pelvis Forwards or Your Leg Back
Because gluteus maximus is so big, when active it may actually prevent the leg from going to far back.
The effect might be similiar to trying to help someone move a couch or bed up a tight stairwell and then you get caught between the bed and a wall.
While you may have been helping at first now you are in the way.
When you are laying on your back with your knees bent, if you tilt your pelvis forwards, you close the front of your hip joint and open up the back. If you keep your pelvis tilted forwards then the back of your hips will still be fairly open. That means that if you choose to, you'll have more room to activate your gluteus maximus without it getting in the way.
The glute max attaches to the back of the thigh bone as well as to the fascae latae, the band of connective tissue that runs down the side of the thigh from the pelvis to the fibula and tibia. (The Tibia and Fibula are the names of the two lower leg bones.)
One part of Gluteus maximus can be used to pull the thigh back. The other part can be used to externally rotate the leg and/or pull it out to the side (adduction.)
Personally I think it's possible to activate these fibers independently. You can use your glute max to pull your thigh back or you can use it to help rotate your thigh externally. Or you can do both actions at the same time.
To do the backwards pulling action you'll feel the back part of your gluteus activating. To do the rotation you'll feel it activating more at the side.
With practice you can control which action happens.
Why might external rotation not be desired in a back bend? Why might you not want your thighs to externally rotate in bride pose or wheel pose?
One reason that I have heard is that "Because it will cause the back of the pelvis and the sacrum to jam up."
What that may actually mean is that because the gluteus maximus attaches to both the pelvis and the sacrum, when the glute maximus is active it may stop the sacrum from moving forwards relative to your pelvis.
To prevent this from happening, focus on relaxing the fibers of the gluteus maximus that attach to the sacrum. Or focus on pulling the tailbone towards your pubic bone. (You can use mula bandha to do this.)
Again, with enough awareness you may be able to focus on "relaxing" your sacrum so that this doesn't happen. If you can relax the fibers of your gluteus maximum that attach to your sacrum, you may avoid any danger of damaging your sacroiliac joint (the joint between your sacrum and pelvis) if there ever was any danger in the first place.
Note that damage to the SI Joint may be more likely in extreme back bends or in cases where someone was pushing up into the pose with brute force and a total lack of sensitivity.
If you go up into bridge pose smoothly, maybe even slowly, if you are aware of your body as you do so, you'll be able to notice any warning signals informing you that you are about to mess up your body.
As for the rotating the thighs outwards bit. If you want to stop your thighs from rotating outwards, use your feet and lower legs as anchors to prevent this from happening.
Now then, say your goal was to use little bridge pose as a way of stretching your hip flexors. Would you still want to bend your spine backwards? Possible yes.
Say you are trying to stretch your psoas. It attaches to the front of your lumbar spine. If you use your spinal erectors along the length of your lumbar spine and your thoracic spine you stabilize one end of your psoas. Then as you push your pelvis up and back and open the front of your hips, the other end of your psoas is pulled away lengthening your psoas. (This end of the psoas attaches to a point at the back of your inner thigh bone close to where it attaches to the pelvis. The attachment is on a point of the thigh bone called the lesser trochanter.)
Now just because you are lengthening your psoas doesn't mean your are stretching it. Ideally, to stretch the connective tissue of a muscle that is within the belly of that muscle, the muscle has to be relaxed.
Using the spinal erectors to bend the spine backwards and keep it bent backwards gives the psoas a stable foundation so that it can relax. You can then focus on stretching it.
So is it possible to relax the glutes in little bridge pose?
Let's say that it is. One way that you can try to find the positioning that allows you to do this is to play with the distance between your feet and shoulders. Try moving your feet closer to your shoulders (or your shoulders closer to your feet.) And then try the opposite. Notice what happens. Also try to go up without deliberately bending your spine backwards. Instead focus on pressing your pelvis up as high as you can.
Fine tune this intent (pushing your pelvis upwards) by focusing on pushing your inner thighs upwards.
The adductor magnus is the largest of the adductors. Some of its fibers attach the sitting bone to the back of the thigh bone just above the knee joint. These fibers can be used to pull the thigh backwards. In the case of little bridge pose, with your feet on the floor, if you can activate this muscle you can use it to push your pelvis upwards. You may find then that you can relax your buttocks.
Because the belly of the adductor magnus is along the inner thigh, if you put your awareness in your inner thigh, and focus on pushing your inner thigh up you are more likely to be able to activate this muscle at will. (The "Belly) of a muscle is the part of a muscle that does the work. In the same way, if you want to try and relax your glute max where it attaches to your sacrum, then put your awareness on your SI joint, where your sacrum connects to the two sides of your pelvis, and relax it. Then see if you can feel it relax.
P.S. One other thing that I forgot to mention. If you want to open you chest even more in bridge pose, use your neck. First of all lengthen the back of your neck by pulling the back of your head away from your ribcage. Then pull your chest to your chin. Normally you pull your chin to your chest.
Because of your body position in little bridge you can use the muscles at the front of your neck, most probably the sternocleidomastoid, to pull your chest to your chin.
And to close, personally I think it's fine to activate your glutes in Bridge. As Mary pointed out, they are hip extensors and why not use them to push your hips up in bridge. But do use your thighs as well.
While laying down with your arms beside your and your knees bent with feet flat on the floor, move your shoulder blades towards each other.
Tilt your pelvis forwards and arch your spine off of the floor keeping your shoulder on the floor. Focus on bending your lumbar and thoracic spine backwards. Open your chest.
With your feet under your knees so that the fronts of your shins are approximately vertical, lift your hips. Keep your spine bent backwards as you do so. Focus on using your thighs to press your feet down and your pelvis up. Feel like you are using your thighs to drill your shins vertically downwards into the floor.
To open your chest more, press your shoulder blades into the floor and open the front of your ribcage. You can keep your arms besides you or reach them over your head. In either case keep pushing your shoulder blades into the floor.
For extra fun and excitement, lift one leg off of the floor. You can keep your supporting leg in the same position or you can move both feet together before lifting one foot. Use the thigh muscles of your supporting leg to press your pelvis up. Press your bottom foot into the floor and your top foot into the sky.
Then do the other side.
So one final word, (in light or recent experience) if you do want to strengthen the back of your legs, both your hamstrings and your glutes, then use them both in this yoga pose to push your pelvis higher.
For another look at bridge pose (without worrying about whether or not to use the glutes check out bridge yoga pose.