Mini Yoga Practice: Hip Opening

Margaret Burns VapOne of my first yoga teachers called the hips “the attic of the body.” Like the attic with its forgotten clutter, we frequently forget about the tension in our hips. It’s easier to recognize when tension shows up in our necks and shoulders, and often easier to release that tension (especially if we’re lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a massage). Hip tension caused by too much sitting, and even by being active if you’re a runner or cyclist, can lead to low back pain and physical and emotional stagnation. Sweep away the tension from the attic of the body regularly, and you’ll be more balanced.

The hip area has lots of deep muscles that can be difficult to access. That’s why the longer you hold hip opening poses, the more you’ll be able to break through accumulated tension. Revisiting the attic analogy: sometimes we hide stuff in our attics, stuff that isn’t serving us. Cleaning house and letting go of what no longer serves us can be uncomfortable, and an intense process sometimes. You have to give yourself a chance to open, to air things out, which is where the longer holds in the poses come in.

Physically, hip work counteracts the effects of our sedentary lifestyle. It also frees up many muscles for the safe practice of more intermediate/advanced asana, like backbends (think urdhva dhanurasana, wheel pose, which requires a full extension of the hip joints). And hip work definitely has an emotional component too, which can catch you off guard when you start crying in pigeon pose. (Here’s some interesting reading from Yoga Journal on getting emotional during yoga.) It’s tapping into a release mechanism that you may not have known you needed. So in three words: it’s all good.

After a long day of sitting (or a long run/bike ride), try this hip opening mini practice. Make your hips happy.

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Think about it: most of the non-Western world hangs out in a squat. And I’m pretty sure they have less trouble with their backs and hips as a result. The squat is a simple antidote for the effects of our sedentary society. But sitting in chairs makes this pose challenging, especially for days when you do nothing besides sit in chairs with a little walking around in between. Find ways you can incorporate hanging out in a squat into your day. The longer you can be here, the more you will release tension in the low back and hips.

Yogic Squat with a Twist

  1. Stand with your feet wide apart, toes turned out slightly, hands in prayer position at your heart center.
  2. Keeping your spine straight, lower your hips down as far as they will go. You may have to take your hands to the floor to help you balance, but you need to take the weight into the heels as much as possible.
  3. Adjust your feet width and toe turnout as necessary, but don’t allow them to turn out farther than 45 degrees. Your knees should line up over your toes. If your heels don’t touch the ground, roll up a yoga mat, towel or blanket to put under them; you need to be able to release them completely so you aren’t taking weight towards the balls of your feet. Make sure any heel support isn’t too high, and you need to work towards lowering it as your calf muscles open more.
  4. With your hands at heart center, use your elbows to gently press your knees open. Lift your chest into your thumbs to lengthen your spine.
  5. Stay here and breathe. Work up to 3-5 minutes. Every day.
  6. Add a spinal twist by extending one arm down, fingertips to the floor and elbow against the inner thigh. Push gently against your thigh with your elbow to leverage the twist, as you reach your other arm up and gaze towards your hand. Repeat on the other side.


Sit down out of your squat into the next hip opener, bound angle pose. Your mantra for these two poses is “thighs to the sky”; tune into whether you are holding your knees up. The more you can release the extra hold in your knees, the more your thighs will open (and the hips will externally rotate).

Baddha Konasan into Tarasana

  1. After you sit down, reach back to take your butt cheeks out and back so you feel the sit bones at the bottom of your pelvis connect to the floor.
  2. Bring the soles of your feet together, about 6-8 inches from the hips. Interlace your fingers lightly underneath your feet. Keep a light and relaxed grip (don’t pull the toes up).
  3. Tune into your posture; draw your navel in toward your spine to activate your core and straighten your back. Relax your shoulders and tuck your chin slightly. Think about the knees dropping a little closer to the floor with every exhale.
  4. Hold for 15-20 slow, deep breaths.
  5. Move into Star pose by taking your feet further away from the hips, keeping the soles together and making a diamond shape with your legs. Lightly hold your ankles as you round forward, letting the head release towards the feet. Stay here for 10-15 breaths. Before getting up, straighten your legs out in front of you for a moment.


Lunges will lengthen and stretch the front of the hip (hip flexors), to counter balance the shortening of these muscles caused by, you guessed it, sitting.

Low Lunges

  1. From sitting on your heels, bring your right knee forward, and line it up directly over your ankle.
  2. Move your left knee way behind your left hip, so you can feel the stretch in the front of the left hip (you can adjust this to be more or less).
  3. Use your hands to gently press off your right thigh, to lift the upper body and straighten the spine. Be sure not to hunch your shoulders here. Stay for 10 deep breaths.
  4. Option to intensify: Turn your right toes towards 2 o’clock (10 o’clock when you do the left side). Take your left hand to the floor, and your right hand to the inside of the thigh just above the knee. Apply gentle pressure with the right hand as you come onto the outside edge of the right foot. Keep the hips melting forward for another 5 breaths.
  5. Repeat on the left side. A downward dog in between sides is a perfect transition.

EKA PADA RAJAKAPOTASANA (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose)

I tell my yoga students to watch television in pigeon pose to extend their hold time. I know, distracting yourself from the work isn’t super yogic, but there is a lot of value in breaking through that initial resistance that can lead to deeper, more rewarding benefits. Your bum muscles are the core of hip joint movement and flexibility; pigeon pose stretches the external rotators, which can often end up in “lock down”. After 5+ minutes of pigeon on each side, you won’t walk – you’ll sashay! Make pigeon more restorative for a longer hold by placing a blanket underneath your hip as shown in the picture.

One-Legged King Pigeon Pose

  1. From downward dog position, bring your right knee up behind your right hand. Drop your left knee to the floor.
  2. Place your right shin at a diagonal, with your knee slightly outside your hip (pointing towards the right corner of your mat) and your foot pointing towards your left hip. Important: If your right knee is too far in towards your midline, you will be collapsed onto your right bum. The goal is to even out the hips as much as possible, and if you cannot do that on your own, place a towel or folded blanket underneath your right bum.
  3. Keep the left leg active and aligned by pointing your toes.
  4. Gently press off the hands to lift the upper body, savoring the backbend this provides. Think of lifting your heart, and puffing up your chest like a pigeon. (And you were wondering why it’s called pigeon…)
  5. Stay here for 5-10 breaths.
  6. Carefully come down onto your elbows. Align your forearms and hold here for a few breaths.
  7. Bring your hands together, palms down, as your elbows flare out. Be careful not to tense up through the shoulders. Let your head rest on your hands.
  8. Keep your navel drawing in and your upper body lengthening forward; if you just collapse forward here, your right leg will fall asleep quickly. Maintain awareness and light energy in the upper body.
  9. Stay here for 25 breaths, longer if you can. Use a timer to work towards 5 minutes. Repeat on the other side.


Yes, there is a double pigeon pose. Not only does it double up the hip stretch (with both hips in external rotation), it adds in a glute stretch. I find it interesting that I can rock one-legged pigeon, and then be totally tight and resistant in double pigeon… and my bum is to blame. Did you know you can hold tension in your bum?

Double Pigeon Pose

  1. From a seated position, arrange your bottom shin to be parallel to the front of your mat (or as parallel as possible). Flex your feet, hard.
  2. Keeping your feet flexed (this is very important! If your feet are not flexed, you will just be in a different version of cross-legged position, sukhasana), carefully stack your top shin over the bottom one. Position your top knee over the bottom ankle, and the top ankle over the bottom knee. You may need to position your ankle off to the side more, to avoid the bone-on-bone pressure.
  3. Did I mention keeping your feet flexed? Imagine you are going to put footprints on the side walls. Your shins should be stacked as much as possible. Often the top knee won’t drop; you can apply some gentle pressure with your hands to encourage it to do so. You may also place a yoga block underneath it (as pictured), or a folded blanket in between the legs; these can help quite a bit.
  4. Stay seated with a straight spine, or the option to intensify is to start to hinge forward from your hips with a straight spine. This intensifies things quickly, so take care and be aware of your limits.
  5. Hold for 5-10 breaths. Repeat on the other side. Do a down dog in between for a smooth transition.

Finish this hip opening practice with a brief savasana, placing a rolled up blanket or towel under your knees for additional low back release.


Photo Credit: Larry Stanley,

Kerri O

September 20, 2010 at 9:45 am

Thanks so much for this! I’ve had hip issues since starting long distance running.

J Jones

September 20, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Wow, imagine a whole yoga session just on hip attic cleaning


September 21, 2010 at 7:13 am

Thank you!! Emotions are held in our hips…mine are so tight, these poses are helping me drive through my pain…they will be shared with others experiencing my plight.


September 21, 2010 at 11:23 am

I have had painful lower back pain. It became so chronic my everyday movements were limited. My chiropracter diagnosed it as hip maladjustment causing tension. His therapy has helped but what timing for me to become proactive to working on this part of my body and keep the ‘attic’ clean.


September 26, 2010 at 9:51 am

Some of those exercises require good knees! The important thing is, find a way to DO the hip loosening exercises. Period! I wish I had been exposed to yoga years ago. I’ve exercised all my life but thought of yoga as something “way out there”. (My vision of yoga was someone sitting w/ palms up, eyes closed, in the “lotus”? position) I never thought of it as exercise. I always ended my workouts w/ a good deal of stretching, but, evidently, not sufficient for the hip area. I I knew I was less flexible in the hips but thought little else of it. Now I find myself a candidate for a hip replacement and the exercises I’ve been taught, to stave off this surgery for as long as possible!, are all yoga related. They are allowing me to delay the inevitable but, more importantly, have increased my flexibility and decreased my discomfort in the meantime so that I can enjoy my golf and most of my exercises & activities.


September 26, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Like Gail, I was not exposed early in life to yoga, I am doing my best to learn and your articles help.

Thank You


September 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Thanks so much. I’ve had trouble getting my hip flexors stretched. These are wonderful way to finish and enough the pysch of a good run.


September 26, 2010 at 5:36 pm

OMG! these are super fantastic! I too am a runner. And have been to the ortho numersous times and 2 cortisone shots to help with hip pain. The roller seems to be my saving grace- I do it faithfully after each run and usually daily if I have time especially when I increase milage before a race. But these are a great addition! Will be sharing with my trainer. 🙂


September 26, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I am trying this!…TY Athleta…my hips hurt…and I appreciate the help…


September 27, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Thank you! My hips ARE an attic. These are great. thanks for sharing.


September 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Problems with my low back started when I began doing distance running and this is the only thing that helps! I had hip issues for quite a while, it got so bad I could barely straighten up in the morning! Finally I started religiously doing 30 to 45 min of yoga in the AM before I go runniing, focusing on the hip area and it was an incredible difference! I wish I would have started it when I was training for my marathon and I might not have the problems I do now!


September 27, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I’m thrilled to see this sequence. I’ve been afraid to get back into most yoga poses after so much low back trouble in the past couple of years but these look mostly do-able for me. I’m going to try them. Thanks!


September 28, 2010 at 4:43 am

Just my good fortune to find this Alteta chi blog as my R hip has been aching me for day; also a long distance runner and one who spends time “sitting” while driving for hours at a time. Great sequence-hopefully I can avoid ortho consultations, cortisone shots and a hip replacement by following this routine!


September 30, 2010 at 3:54 am

Nice Margaret. I even manage to do a lot of these with my cowboy boots on!

Samantha Lee

September 09, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Thank you for such an insightful page late in the night when my hips hurt. I have a cut tendon in my right thumb from march, a ran over knee from May and a broken hip from July this year, and it was only this week it dawned on me I am TIGHT. Damn thought I had worked a bit on keeping myself alive ok and getting through my physical accidents. But I had forgotten one thing, these postures that I missed are the ones that you have to do for yourself. had forgotten me really. Too damn proud showing people I could get up and walk again etc etc and not worrying about the suppleness of the body and mind. I have prodded and stuffed myself into this whilst trying o get sleepy again and feel better. I hope I can continue to feel so optimistic when I get to the rest of the week. Thanks x

Kim DeBacco

December 16, 2012 at 12:37 pm

This is great for those who can do it. Is it possible that some of us on this earth cannot open our hips due to a hip joint (ball & socket) design that wont let the bones rotate and open? My biggest challenge in life and my biggest disappointment is that I cannot sit cross-legged – barely can I sit taylor-style. I tried to sit Burmese style for meditation for 7 years and I took up regular yoga and it didn’t help my hips and lower back soften or relax. Nothing changed in that area. When I go to yoga I feel truly disabled because i cannot get in to some postures. My mother and sisters are the same. Please remember this when you show off your wonderful flexibility.


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