I was convinced I was a fairly inflexible person when I started practicing yoga. Then when I learned how to work with my body more intelligently, I discovered I had a lot more flexibility than I’d originally thought. However, as I wrote in my column last fall, flexibility does not always mean better, and in fact, hypermobile yogis need to work hard to not overextend or injure themselves when they try for their favorite bendy poses.
For these yogis, conscious strengthening can be your best buddy. In other words, strength helps flexibility. Engaging the power of our muscles is a great way to stabilize hypermobility in many poses. In this week’s column, I’m focusing on hip openers, or deepeners, if you will, since when one thinks flexibility, the hips tend to be among the first areas we circle.
Before You Crack Open A Hip Or Knee
It pays to pause for a basic anatomy lesson. The hips and knees are exceptionally linked, so when one goes, the other feels it. A complex network of muscles, ligaments, and tendons connects the pelvis, thigh bones and knees so we can stand, sit, walk, run, jump and yoga.
The hips by themselves are a fairly immobile area for most, since their prime job is to be weight bearing stabilizers, but when you consider the hip joint, where hip socket meets femur bone, then you get more action. The knees, somewhat less limited in mobility than the hips, function primarily in flexion and extension but do have a slight range in rotation. All of these players need to be considered as you approach hip openers.
Start With A Balanced Bowl
Your pelvis is like a bowl, and to cultivate neutral alignment, you strive to keep it upright and level by not letting it tip too far forward, an anterior tilt, or backward, a posterior tilt. When you have a firm grasp of where neutral is, you can better shift the alignment to suit the needs of your body in a particular pose; in this case, when hip openers call for a forward bend like the fold in One-legged Pigeon pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana).
Consider Your Rotation
Though your pelvis is less mobile, it also pays to understand the primary movements of internal and external rotation in the legs. For example, Pigeon asks for more external, or outward, rotation in the front leg and corresponding hip joint, and more internal, or inward rotation in the back leg.
For Garland Pose (Malasana), both legs are externally rotating. And for Wide-Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padattonasana), there is more emphasis on internal rotation through the legs. When you approach your next hip opener, ask yourself if you’ll need to cultivate external or internal rotation through the legs or both. If you don’t know for sure, ask a knowledgeable teacher. When you tune into the correct actions, you will become stronger for it.
Balance Hip Flexibility With Two Subtle, Strengthening Self-Adjustments
The dynamic movement for most hip openers is spreading the legs wide like in a Wide-Legged Forward Bend or putting one leg in front of the other like in Monkey Pose (Hanumanasana), but these are just part of the equation. Balancing hip opening includes cultivating some contraction as well. These are two analogies I like to use in my classes to help guide these actions:
1. Squeeze your inner thighs like you’re using the world’s tiniest ThighMaster.
This usually gets some laughs (thank you, Suzanne Somers!), but it’s easy for people to tune into those adductor muscles when they think about squeezing a ThighMaster. You can apply this contraction in most poses, but you can more easily cultivate the action in Garland Pose, Crow (Bakasana), and even lunges like Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana II).
It might be a bit trickier to understand in Crescent Lunge, aka High Lunge, but it happens there, too. Hugging your legs toward each other will prevent you from sagging into hips’ surrounding ligaments and tendons, which means fewer strains, pulls, or tears.
2. Scissor your legs together like you're cross-country skiing.
Let’s stick with the ‘90s exercise fads, and imagine we’re on a NordicTrack skier. You can also achieve the same action by thinking about curling your tailbone towards you pubic bone. This movement can help in asymmetrical, or one-sided, poses including lunges, one-legged standing balances, seated hip openers like Pigeon or Monkey Pose, and supine hip openers like Reclining Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana).
By cultivating your own resistance from within, you safely measure the depth of the hip opening and protect the same ligaments and tendons at the same time.
These adjustments, though less dynamic than widening the legs, are no less important to helping yogis walk out of the room injury-free after a hip-intensive practice. May you be hip happier as a result!