Our hips bear immense weight of our physical body as well as emotional. Hips are a region that get tight from sitting hours together at a desk, lack of exercise, leading a sedentary lifestyle and the hip region is one where emotions get trapped. Hips also bear the brunt of weak knees or painful knee joints. Hip-opening yoga poses stretch the muscles around the hip joint and pelvis. This includes the buttocks, hamstrings, inner thighs, groin, and abdomen. These are common areas that are tight due to our everyday lifestyle and cause lower back pain, weak joints and more.
Benefits of Practicing Hip-Openers
Practicing yoga asanas are helpful in releasing tension and tightness from the hip area, improving flexibility and mobility, reducing lower back pain, encouraging better balance, posture and letting out trapped emotions. By developing a better range of motion, the hip joints also get stronger and healthier.
Other benefits of practicing hip-openers include avoiding issues such as a mis-aligned spine which can occur from excessive tightness in the hips. Blood circulation improves along with better oxygen supply to the hips, legs and back. Stress gets released, leading to better mental stability. Hip-openers are also a great practice for cyclists, runners, dancers and athletes.
Anatomy of the hips
Types of hip movements
The hip joint is a ball and socket joint that is capable of a wide range of motion. The femur can move in six ways in relation to the pelvis. The beauty of the hip movements is that up to three types of movements can be done at the same time in certain poses. The hip movements are:
- Flexion: moving the thigh towards the chest like you would in Pawanamuktasana.
- Extension: moving the leg in the opposite direction, that is, bringing it behind the line of the torso as you would in Cobra pose.
- Adduction: moving the thighs towards each other or towards the midline, like you would in Eagle pose.
- Abduction: moving the thighs away from each other, like you would in the Wide-legged Seated Forward Bend.
- Internal rotation: where the fronts of the inner thighs move towards each other. For example, in Hero pose.
- External rotation: where the fronts of the thighs move away from each other, like they would in Baddha Konasana.
Muscles of the hips
The exact categorization of the hips muscles is a little blurred and confusing. The hips muscles run from the lumbar spine (the psoas muscles) down to the knees (the quadriceps). To understand from a yoga perspective, we can look at them as:
- Quadriceps and hip flexors: These are four each at the front of the legs and hips.
- Hamstring group of muscles: These are three major muscles and one mine at the back of the leg.
- Groin, internal rotators and adductors group: Consisting of seven muscles inside the leg.
- Gluteal group of muscles: Consisting of three glutes, three external rotators and the IT Band (the largest tendon) on the outer side and back of the hips.
Understanding hip flexibility and mobility
Two main factors limit our range of motion, thus influencing flexibility and mobility.
- Flexibility of the muscles and connective tissue: Hip movements are determined greatly by the tightness or elasticity of the muscles, fascia and tendons in and around the hip joint.
- Skeletal system: An important factor is the skeletal structure. Each individual skeleton system is built differently and no matter how much you work on it, bones cannot shift position and move ahead of another bone. The width and angle of the pelvis, femur and the point they meet at varies in each individual. Moreover, you’ll often feel like one side feels more flexible or stronger than another. For some this could be the left side and for many it is the right.
Skeletal variations impact the width of the hips, posture, whether we are more internally or externally rotated, the degree to which a flexion or extension movement is possible and more. This means as we keep working on hip-openers to improve flexibility and mobility, different postures will look slightly different in each individual, and some poses may be more accessible than others.
Popular Hip-opening Yoga Poses
Working on all four muscle groups and all types of movements will have a collective effect on reducing stiffness and improving flexibility and mobility. When practicing under the guidance of an experienced teacher, you will also learn the right modifications and variations to adapt to your body type and level of practice.
- Quadriceps and hip flexors: High and low lunge, reclined thunderbolt pose, pigeon pose, bridge pose and camel pose are a few examples of yoga asanas to stretch tight quadriceps and hip flexors.
- Hamstring group of muscles: Downward-facing dog pose, standing forward bend, forward bend in bound angle pose, seated forward bend and one-legged forward bend are a few examples of asanas to stretch the hamstrings. When doing these poses ensure your knees remain straight and your back is not rounded.
- Groin, internal rotators and adductors group: Helpful poses for this muscle group includes the happy baby pose, butterfly pose, standing wide-legged forward bend and seated wide-legged forward bend pose. Keep your awareness on the lower back and muscles along the inner thighs and near the groin.
- Gluteal group of muscles: Postures such as the cow-face pose, easy pose, lotus pose, downward-facing dog pose, chair pose, warrior 3 and half-moon pose are beneficial for this group of muscles.
Throughout these practices, be aware of the position of your knees and back. Do not allow the wrong pressure to come on the knee or back, or sacrifice alignment in any form.
Tips to practice hip-openers safely
- Always do your warm-ups and a few rounds of Surya Namaskars before practicing hip-openers. Standing Series hip opening and in some cases supine hip opening series are important starting points before one explores seated hip openers.
- Practice regularly but slowly and gently. Do not rush a pose or overdo a stretch. Be aware of your body’s limits and practice within those limits.
- Keep awareness on the knees and ensure you do not add any excess pressure on the knees. If you have sensitive knees, place a cushion or blanket for added padding.
- If you feel discomfort or pain, immediately release the pose and relax.
- Take advantage of props such as yoga blocks, bolsters and the wall to support your stretches safely.
- Practice under the guidance of an experienced and certified yoga teacher so you are aware of modifications and variations to apply that suit your body type and level of practice.
Releasing Emotions with Hip-openers
It’s popularly known that emotions tend to get stored in the shoulders, back and hips. With regular practice of these poses, one experiences emotional release. Negative emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, sadness and worry get released when the deep connective tissues get stretched and nourished. When tension is released, the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated, relaxing the mind and body. In fact, the psoas muscle is connected to the diaphragm and when it is tight or stiff, one may experience shallow breaths.
Hip-opening poses also can be connected to the Svadhisthana Chakra, the Sacral Chakra located within the pelvis, along the spine. Activating this energy center encourages self-expression, creativity, and passion. It is the source of sexual energy and passion. The element associated with this Chakra is water and water represents the emotions. Thus, opening up this region frees up emotions as well.
Hip-openers also require a fair amount of effort to ease into the pose, relax in the posture and to stay present with the breath and sensations in the body. This helps create strength that we tend to apply in daily and a resistance to giving up.
Making hip-openers a critical part of your daily yoga practice creates a strong and balanced routine as well as in opening up the body and maintaining balance. They can be challenging and difficult initially, which is where a teacher’s guidance and motivation is beneficial. Regular practice encourages greater physical well-being, emotional release and stress relief.