Your Hip Health and Your Yoga Practice
Everyone’s hip joint structure is not the same. Which makes it important to approach yoga with a sense of inquiry and being prescriptive with your practice. Alignment cues are helpful if bodies are aligned according to accessibility and safety. Yoga teachers align people, not posture!
Deep hip opening may not be accessible to you, not because of tight muscle tissue, but because of the shape of your hip joint. Forcing this structure to behave other than it was intended will lead to wear and tear, eventually. Regardless of the activity you engage in (yoga or any sports), if there are elements which involve deep external hip rotation, squats, lunges… then knowing how to accommodate and work with limitation in range of movement safely whilst working on developing flexibility is the key to hip health.
Bony Structure of the Hip
The hip joint is made up of a socket in the pelvis (acetabulum) and a ball at the top of the thigh bone (femoral head). The joint is surrounded by muscles, joint capsule and connective tissue.
There are anatomical variations, which can explain why hip mobility for one person is not the same as another, and it may not always be about tight piriformis or general openness and flexibility of surrounding muscles. Have a look at the image below of variations in the angle of inclination of two femur heads. Accessible range of movement in certain activities is going to vary for these two individuals and no amount of tissue treatment will change this.
The angle of insertion of the femur head into the socket is another feature, which will affect ability to access certain movements. Example on the right shows an upward insertion compared to the one on the left and squatting with the legs a little wide and toes turned out may work better for their hip structure.
The socket position when looked at in the image of the two pelvises below, show variations. We can see into the sockets of the one on the left, this individual may be able to accommodate narrow legged squats and be able to transition from Downward Facing Dog to a lunge, taking the leg directly to the front of their mat. The one on the right may literally run into themselves as the femur head moves into the acetabulum. They may benefit taking the legs wider in a squat and taking the leg slightly lateral when transitioning to a lunge (providing the knees align with the first toe – the one next to the big toe – or toward the little toe).
Some Muscles involved in Healthy Hip activity
What needs to be active, and what needs to be “released”
Having explored the bony anatomy, there are of course other reasons that some people find squatting and lunges difficult. It may be the case of weak Gluteal muscles. During the eccentric (lowering) phase of a squat or engaging in a deep lunge eg. Virabhadrasana or Ashta Chandrasana, there is a chance of tipping forward. Core strength is secondary as the first step to maintaining an upright torso is eccentric glute control. If this is not the case, then the lower back compensates. And it is not suited to this task.
Another issue with poor gluteal control is that the hip flexors begin to fire as we try to balance as we lower. And they attempt to pull us deeper into flexion bringing us lower than our glute control should allow.
Hip flexor tightness is usually due to passive position maintained throughout the day rather than being the result of activity. And can therefore benefit from stretching activity to counter balance this. Few of us are at our full hip range of movement and activity, which safely develops hip mobility, is encouraged.
Tight hip flexors give rise to overworking the quadriceps as demonstrated in a squat or lunge where there can be a tendency to lean forward. This shifts your center of gravity and activates the quads, decreasing the activation of the glutes. Furthermore, as we transition out of squat or lunge the pelvis remains in an anterior tilt because of the tight hip flexors. This can present potential for “dumping” into the lower back (as it is difficult to activate the posterior hip muscles) when transitioning from Lunge into Plank/Chaduranga, where it is safer to engage belly with neutral pelvis (belly on, tail long).
The simple seated posture while sitting with erect torso and legs extended in front (Dandasana) is one where we can experience the hip flexors shortening and tightening, the quads firing and the glutes deactivating.
Translating this information to your yoga practice:
Patience and practice is the key. Never force yourself into positions or stretch beyond your current limits. For example, give yourself space and permission to take a squat with the legs a little wide.
In tiptoe squats, Dandapada or Horse pose only lower yourself so that you maintain an upright torso, shoulders stacked above hips, glutes active, weight sinking into the feet (without toes lifting). Going beyond your limit where you tilt forward only leads to further exacerbating patterns of misalignment and chronic muscle contraction.
When transitioning to lunges from Down Dog, take the leg slightly out rather than directly forward onto your mat, as long as the knee follows the first toe and does not go beyond the arch of the foot (in high lunges).
When folding forward, fold from the hip joints rather than the waist (which can put pressure on the lumbar spine)
Taking an attitude of patience and temperance when working with tight hips will also help with preserving knee health. When the hips are tight, the primitive hinge joint of the knee can take the pressure (padmasana,virasana…) or the load (dandapada, vira I, II, ashta chandrasana…)
Postures that can release tight muscles around the hips
Supine hip circles
Start lying. Take the left knee, towards chest, shin parallel to ceiling. Take the leg across the midline of the body; extend the leg pointing toes towards the right corner of your mat Sweep the leg across to the left allowing an external rotation of the hip. Bend the knee back towards chest and repeat 8 times. Change direction.
Seated in chair
Supine (option of foot on wall)
Begin in Down Dog. Take navel to spine belly as you exhale, pull your left knee toward chest and externally rotate toward your left hand placing your left foot in front of the right groin. The outer shin lies at a diagonal to the front edge of your mat.
Keep your back leg long and keep your hips even as you relax your weight through the middle of your hips.
Breathe and hold for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Step back into Down Dog and switch sides.
From a standing position, step the ball of your left foot to the back of the mat. Keep your feet slightly wider than one another like standing on railroad tracks.
Extend both arms straight overhead and bend the right knee, releasing the root of the thigh towards the floor, tracking the knee towards the first toe. Ground the back heel, firm and lengthen the leg.
Keep the space at the tops of the shoulders as you firm the upper arms towards each other.
Begin lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor close to glutes.
Place arms flat on the floor next to you, release the back tips of the shoulders to the floor, keeping space at the tops of the shoulders. Align knees with hipbones.
Exhale, and as front body moves to back body, press the spine gently into the mat and begin to peel the sacrum and each vertebrae off the floor. As you lift the hips, keep the legs engaged, feet firm. Allow the breastbone to move towards the chin, keeping the space in the throat. Keep neck relaxed on the mat. Come onto balls of feet to lift hips in order to place a brick under the sacrum for support (keep the legs and feet working).
Continue to breathe and hold for 30 seconds to one minute.
Begin on feet, crouched down with tailbone between ankles and hands in prayer at chest.
Continue to press hands firmly together while at the same time pressing elbows against inner thighs.
Hold and breathe for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Start by sitting with knees bent. Take the feet close to the glutes. Place the soles of the feet together, hooking the interlinked fingers around the outsides of the feet and allow the knees to relax towards the floor. Press the feet into the hands, lengthen the spine, staying broad across the upper chest, shoulder blades connected to the back ribs.
Option two, lie back before taking the legs into position. If the groin is particularly tight, use a bolster of cushions to support under the thigh/knee.
Know how to connect with your hips, learn how to move your hips, and resolve to respect their range of motion. Don’t forget to give them a little space.
Mum, teacher and therapist, Linda has beenpracticing as a therapist for 16yrs and teaching yoga since 2010. Linda classes are aimed athelping people to find the value of yoga’s teachingsin everyday life. Whilst staying true to traditionalphilosophy her classes are structured to help deep concentration whilst refining postures with accessibility in mind. Linda is in her third year of continued training with DavidCurtis of Vinyasa Yoga Ireland. She offers yoga and meditation as away to approach our world with realistic reverence and gratitude.
Her classes are, a candid blend of artful alignment and attention cues for your body, mind and heart.
For more information on Linda, Classes,Workshops and Retreats, go to http://www.sadhanayoga.ie