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Let’s Forget About ‘Hip-Openers’ (PART 1)

in Practice, YogaDork Ed

by Jenni Rawlings

Welcome to Part 1 of my 2-part hip-opening article! In Part 1, we’ll examine the anatomy of tight hips and what it truly means to open them. In Part 2, we’ll discuss some specific hip-opening alignment tips that most yogis are missing in their practice. Enjoy, and as always, just let me know if you have any questions/thoughts/feedback at all! 

hip-opener-pigeon

Let’s Forget About “Hip-Openers”

We talk a lot about “hip-openers” in yoga, but hip-opening is actually more complex than we often realize. Pigeon pose and its variations are usually considered the main group of poses which “open our hips”, but surprisingly, most people unknowingly practice these poses in a way which bypasses the actual hip-opening they offer. The truth is that nearly all yoga poses are hip-openers, but we haven’t learned to think about them this way, and we therefore don’t align our joints to find this hip-opening potential that our bodies so desperately need.

Instead of thinking about the small group of poses we usually classify as “hip openers”, we should broaden our focus and learn to open our hips throughout our entire yoga practice.

Anatomy Lesson

We can all point to the general area of our body we have in mind when we talk about our “hips”. To be specific, though, we can say that the actual hip joint is located where your femur (thighbone) meets your pelvis (hip bone). And for the anatomy geeks in the room, let’s be technical and define the hip joint as the place where the head of the femur (the ball-like prominence at the top end of the bone) articulates with the acetabulum, a concave hemispherical socket located on the side of the pelvis. (Fun fact: did you know that “acetabulum” means “little vinegar cup” in Latin? And are you a new fan of anatomy trivia now?)

The hip is a joint, which means that it’s a moveable part of your body.  Motion at the hip takes place when the femur and pelvis move in relation to each other.  There are lots of movements available at the hip joint, including hip extension (moving the thigh behind you, as in shalabhasana), hip flexion (think diving forward from tadasana to uttanasana), hip abduction (moving your thigh out to the side, like your back leg in warrior 2), hip adduction (moving the thigh toward your midline – think eagle pose), and internal and external rotation.  Ideally all of these motions would be fluid and easy for you all of the time, but all too often, our hip joint movement is restricted in one or more planes (or all of them), resulting in hips we experience as “tight”.

What Does It Mean to Have Tight Hips?

Even though we might casually talk about our joints as being “tight”, the truth is that your joint itself isn’t really the issue. It’s actually the muscles and fascia that cross your joint that restrict your movement. And how do these tissues become tight? As my biomechanics teacher Katy Bowman says, “your body adapts to what you do most frequently”. And the one body position that we as a culture tend to assume most frequently is sitting with our hips and knees flexed at 90 degrees. Even if you don’t think you sit a lot, or if you have a job which requires you to stand, you’re probably forgetting all the other time you do spend sitting because it’s so ingrained in your daily lifestyle that you almost don’t even realize it.

In a nutshell, our over-use of the sitting posture shortens the muscles that cross the front of our hips (hip flexors) and the muscles that line the back our thighs (hamstrings), as well as effectively “turns off” our otherwise powerful glutes, and basically just throws our whole hip package out of balance. The result is unhappy, tight hips which drive us into yoga classes in search of some much-needed opening.

Why is Having Tight Hips Uncool?

There are many reasons that our tight hips are uncool, and the general discomfort we experience from stiff, unyielding muscles is just the beginning. Most people don’t realize the incredibly huge role that our musculoskeletal system plays in our body’s overall health. But check this out: our blood vessels and lymphatic vessels are embedded inside our muscles. Blood carries the oxygen which feeds our cells, resulting in cellular regeneration, and lymph is our body’s waste-removal system. But blood and lymph can only flow through muscles which are at their optimal, supple length. A tight muscle will resist the circulation of these vital fluids – picture a fist gripping a hose and how that would effect the flow of water running through that hose. Put another way, tight muscles work against the flow of your cardiovascular system (blood) and your immune system (which your lymphatic system supports). The result is increased blood pressure, decreased metabolism, waste accumulation in your tissues, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. If optimal health in our body is important to us, bringing suppleness and circulation back to our tight muscles must be a priority. Had you ever thought about your muscles from this bigger-picture, whole body health perspective?

Another reason that tight hips are no bueno is that when we want to get something done that requires hip motion, like picking something up off the floor, or pressing up into urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) in yoga, we will move from somewhere else more than we should because we can’t move from our hips as much as we should. Unfortunately, the alternative body part that is all too often over-used when our hips are tight is our vulnerable spine. Hello, spinal joint degeneration, herniated discs, impinged nerves, and back pain in general!

Understanding a bit more about our anatomy reveals to us that tight hips are actually about much more than the inconvenience you might experience when you can’t get into lotus position in yoga class.

What Does “Opening the Hips” Mean?

For much of my yoga-practicing career, I was under the impression that if you wanted to open your hips, you basically just needed to do pigeon pose a lot, and that pretty much summed up all you need to know about hip opening. :)

But hip-opening is about so much more than simply pigeon pose. There are a total of 22 muscles that cross the hip on all sides and at varying angles, including your hip flexors in the front, your hamstrings, glutes, and deep lateral rotators in the back, your inner thigh muscles (collectively called your “adductors”), and your outer thigh muscles (collectively called your “abductors”).

A “hip-opener” is technically any stretch that lengthens any of the 22 muscles that cross the hip. This means, for example, that all hamstring stretches are hip openers, all inner thigh stretches (think baddha konasana) are hip-openers, all standing poses (warriors, lunges, etc.) are hip-openers, many of yoga’s twists are hip-openers, and as counterintuitive as it may seem, all backbends are also hip-openers. (Crazy, huh?)

Can you see that once we have an anatomical definition for what hip-opening is, it’s difficult to name a yoga pose which is not a hip-opener? (Inversions aren’t really hip-openers, but I wish they were! :) ) Our whole yoga practice is basically just one big hip-opening opportunity.

However, most yogis are very (very!) good at compromising the work we need to do in order to stretch our hips in our poses. This is because we simply don’t understand how to position our joints (a.k.a. alignment) in a way that actually stretches our hips, and we end up leaving our mat without much change in our tight hips at all.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, guys! Stay tuned for Part 2 for some great tips on refining your practice with hip-opening in mind!

~

Jenni Rawlings loves to weave her natural interest in anatomy and biomechanics into her yoga teaching. She is grateful to so many teachers who inspire her, most notably amazing biomechanist Katy Bowman. You can find out more about Jenni at www.jennirawlings.com.

Read Part 2!

22 comments… add one

  • kate

    Really useful info!I practise yoga twice a week but have an inflamed.SI joint at present so am not doing any physical activity while it heals.I have tight hip flexors and hamstrings with it and am having physio.Do you reccommend any poses i can practise at home for when i am healed
    I am a regular cyclist and weightlifter.Thanks :)

  • Thank you for this educational article about the issue with tight hips and yoga. It may be beneficial for yogis to practice poses that stabilize rather than ‘open’ the hip joint since women get the majority of the half million hip surgeries every year. Men are much less ‘flexible’ than women in the hips yet it is women who lose the natural integrity of their hip joint that leads to SI joint pain, labral tears and hip replacements. Why do our hips lack stability? It is because we have more elastin and relaxin in our ligaments to allow a baby to pass through the pelvic opening. Our hips feel tight but in reality they are loose and tense because we lack the strength in the gluteals, trunk stabilizers, and spine extensors to keep the pelvis in neutral. One of the most frequent injuries or complaints from yogis is that the SI or sacroiliac joint is painful. Many yoga poses reverse the natural tilt of the sacrum stretching the necessary ligament tension to keep the sacral platform ‘strung’ to act as a shock absorber between the trunk and the hips and legs. Constant forward bending in yoga classes with both knees straight flatten and strain the sacral ligaments and the ligament continuity that connects the hamstrings to the sacrum. The hamstrings have an important function to help stabilize the sit bones of the pelvis and when we lean over without bending the knees, this strains and weakens our ‘tense’ hamstrings. Constantly bending forward to touch our toes strains the entire posterior line of ligaments needed for upright posture. Ligaments and connective tissue do not stretch in the ways we imagine, they break. I think that the word tight so often used to describe a tense muscle prompts most of us to think we need to ‘stretch’ the muscle. Muscles are not tight, they are tense because they are performing functions they are not designed to do. I have been working with hundreds of yoga practitioners with sore hips, torn labrums, and inflamed SI joints. What is most important is to stop the forward bends with the knees straight because these poses weaken the gluteals and make the posterior body strained and tense. Also stay out of yoga poses which flex the spine. A flexed spine has no natural curve at the lumbar and cervical region. People age by going forward into spinal flexion and losing their shock absorbing curves. Tucking your tailbone, keeping the navel pulled in and bending over with your knees straight are all actions which put pressure on your hip joint function and pull you forward. If you have been injured, please go to http://www.yogainjuries.com to take a survey. All yoga poses ideally should simulate how your joints are designed to function in real life; especially your spine and hips.

  • Molly

    The problem isn’t in so much in forward bends, or in saying that the primary focus of a posture is a ‘hip opener’, it’s in teaching a ‘one size fits all’ posture, full stop. I am alarmed to hear that people would be taught to ‘tuck the tail bone, pull the navel in and flex the spine’ in any forward bend, to be very honest. That’s just irresponsible anatomy, physiology and kinesiology. I do not feel that another one size fits all instruction of ‘bend the knees’ for every student is useful. Some students are ready for forward bending with the knees straight when they can effectively contract the quadriceps, keep the pelvis in a anterior tilt and the keep the spine extended. To limit them with ‘bend the knees’ at all times is the equivalent of telling everyone to straighten their knees. It is in education, and a teacher who has a keen eye on providing healthy and individual alignment instruction, not a ‘one size fits all anatomy instruction’ that will prevent injury and help practitioners. Thanks for the article. Namaste.

  • Not a complete dissent, but I’d just say that if you’re teaching privates, it’s obviously much easier to accomplish individual alignment instruction. I do think in a class situation it’s wiser to err on the side of safety, and I’ve long thought that there’s a danger in forward bends (such as Urdhva Hastasana to Uttanasana and vice versa) with straight knees. The reward is not so great as to justify the risk, and it is something you see over and over in many classes.

  • I agree with you on the one size fits all classes; an experienced teacher will always make specific recommendations as needed even in a group setting. However, I strongly disagree with keeping the pelvis in anterior tilt for all; for some, this causes over stretching of the hamstring attachments with a loss of abdominal tone. In my own classes I’ve been teaching my students to feel their legs are active; if they can feel a “stretch” in their hamstrings they should bend their knees (a little or a lot) until they feel the “work” of legs and abs. Then they can focus on releasing tension along the spine as long as their legs and abs are still “working”. Each student can then adapt this cue set according to how they feel in the pose.

  • The reason that we need to bend our knees when we lean over is so that we can engage our gluteals and protect the necessary ligament tension that keeps us upright. Plus you get much stronger by using your muscles when leaning forward rather than just hanging from the spine, hip and knee ligaments as many yogis do.
    People age by going forward and they shrink and loose the space that keeps them expansive and youthful. Many yoga poses are about compressing, folding and wringing the body in ways that actually reinforce the collapse forward that happens in aging. The numbers of yoga teachers with hip replacements is rising. Forward bends with the knees straight are like driving a car with the brakes on. Try to walk without bending your knees and it will become very clear why we should bend our knees and do an eccentric ( lengthening contracting engagement) of the hamstrings, calves and gluteals. Also the spinal column should never be flexed under pressure as it does in forward bends. Anyone with osteoporosis should NEVER do forward bends and this is advised by every expert in biomechanics. The human body is made of curves. Stretching with the knees straight makes the body flat. Just because someone can easily touch their toes without bending their knees does not mean that it is healthy. It shows the gluteals are weak because strong butt muscles do not allow one to touch their toes without bending the knees. Just watch any infant before they have been stuffed in chairs. They always bend their knees, keep the spine neutral and move from the core.
    Flexibility is a liability. See my article http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/07/when-flexibility-becomes-a-liability-michaelle-edwards/

  • Patty Cargill

    Thanks! I have long believed that the nuances of yoga-cues that contrubute to stabilization and alignment in movement/held poses–is the best boon to a safer, saner practice! Many teachers I have had more or less parrot the script they learned in teacher training. Anatomy study has opened up my practice and teaching, and led me to alter certain standard poses such as pigeon. There is no chisled-in-stone, correct way to execute certain poses, no one-way for all. Bone structure alone impedes certain configurations. An excellent resource for yoga anatomy is Dr. Ray Long’s anatomy books. His workshop in December (I attended in 2012) in Costa Rica is excellent and highly recommended, both for his offering and the incredible Blue Spirit retreat center in the jungle, right on the coast line. Sigh.

    In closing: Do bend the knees gently in forward bends! And my favourite: “On an exhale, engage mula bandha, the thighs and glutes, and finally your abs as you come up”–from a forward fold, seated or standing. Protect the spine.

    Bandha Yoga: Scientific Keys to Unlock the Practice of Hatha Yoga
    http://www.bandhayoga.com/

  • See the article on womens hips and yoga injuries in the New York Times
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/sunday-review/womens-flexibility-is-a-liability-in-yoga.html?_r=0

  • Thanks for explaining something that I had suspected but had not yet put into words. I’ve found as my practice develops that my “quick hip stretch practice” gets longer and longer as I incorporate more and more poses to articulate my hips in more ways :)

  • Julie Tinker

    Very engaging, informative article AND intelligent comments from all. Regarding the sentence about inversions not being a hip opener — try adding eagle legs to your next shoulder stand, then unwinding your eagle legs and take your legs wide (abduction) into a wide-legged shoulder stand. The advantage of adding the legs to your inversion is that there’s less strain on the knees. And it’s fun.

  • Maureen

    Not only do I have tight hips and suffer from pain caused by them, I’m also in yoga teacher training at the moment and we have anatomy next week. Thanks for getting me psyched for class!

  • Wondering

    A good physical therapist is a great resource, and you know they have received more than a weekend of anatomy training.

  • TL:DNR

    Can someone make cliff notes of this article?

  • Nice article Jennifer! It is important to note that, like Michelle mentioned above, athletes that participate in extreme range of motion activities (Ballerinas, Yogis, Hockey goalies) are at much higher risk [1] for labral tears, arthritis, and eventually total hip replacement. Some people’s bodies are designed in a way (cam or pincer lesions of the hip) that won’t allow them to safely reach a pose without causing damage.

    Great article, Jennifer, just my $0.02.

    [1] Arthroscopy. Duthon, Et, al. Volume 29, Issue 3, Pages 411–419, March 2013
    Correlation of Clinical and Magnetic Resonance Imaging Findings in Hips of Elite Female Ballet Dancers

  • Chris, thanks for providing the science examining the liabilities of flexibility. Pulling on muscles as in stretching is kind of a myth because muscles will not change shape by cranking on them but ligament collagen bonds can break with enough force. The body needs a balance of the tensional forces that control movement and keep us upright but many yoga poses are based on stretching parts to somehow make the tense muscles get longer. What if the muscles are strained and locked long and not short?
    Most areas of our body that feel ‘tight’ are actually tense because the poor posture habits we all have from chair sitting has enlisted our periphery to control the infrastructure. My work with YogAlign is about creating lift and expansion using breathing and natural body positions so the inner core shifts on and the fast twitch muscles in the periphery can relax. We shift the innate software that controls posture to reboot the dynamic tensional forces so movement is efficient and effortless as with other animals in nature. Man is busy trying to stretch parts and put his body in straight lines. All of organic nature including the human body is made of curves not straight lines. The curves provide shock absorption and the tight ligaments keep our joints stabile. Pulling on our parts will not change the big postural software but will illicit the stretch reflex as the body tries to protect the joint forces. Many yogis spend a lot of time flattening the natural curving forces of the sacrum and lumbar spine. Can anyone tell me how poses like staff, plow, and straight leg forward bending benefit the shock absorbing functions of the sacral platform or support the natural curves of the spine? When that ligament tension loosens, the hip joint sags . Having weak gluteals and tight flexors from straight leg forward bending does not help the global anatomical picture. Our hips need stabilization not opening.
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/07/when-flexibility-becomes-a-liability-michaelle-edwards/

  • Alison Rowe

    Very helpful thank you.

  • david

    After hip and pelvic surgery pigeon is by far the hardest pose. Reading here I’m thinking I am better than I think, just that movement of laying on my leg stretches the ouch spot.

  • David, external rotation in combination with flexion is contra-indicated for hip replacements! At least in the beginning and certainly depending on your rehabilitation. From a (dance, Pilates and Somatics ) teacher’s point of view, I would never work through pain at all. A sensation of pain or discomfort tells you to stop doing what you’re doing – you might not yet be ready for the movement or your body structurally is not happy to do it. if you look at full body patterns (you’re NEVER only tight in one place and where you feel tension most is not necessarily where the problem is ), the sensation of tight hips comes from contracted waist muscles, which is a stress reflex of your body to protect an injured part, especially in one sided injuries/surgeries. A good place to start is gently releasing the back muscles into their natural relaxed length and then move on to your waist. Look for Somatics and ‘arch and flatten’ on youtube and then perhaps move on to a hip hike (lie on the mat, legs long and contract your right waist muscles to hike up the ri hip, then very slowly move out of that contraction again and completely relax. This is a pandiculation, which helps resetting the muscle length). Somatics is amazingly complimentary to yoga and you will be able to move more freely with less pain!

  • Karen

    Fabulous post! Thank you! I have been on an anti-chair campaign at the school where I work for years, but, as you say, the chair is SO ingrained that it’s like talking into the wind. Still, I do have a bunch of yoga balls in my classroom, and some students love them! Wish teachers did too. . . . . perhaps with time. . .

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  • jane

    Thank you for your understanding of the ‘why’ related to what we want to achieve and how to think about the way our bod inter connect and change.

  • Alison Rowe

    Oh my God. Now I finally understand. Thank you for explaining it so well.

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