One 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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YOGIC SQUAT WITH A TWIST
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.
- Stand with your feet wide apart, toes turned out slightly, hands in prayer position at your heart center.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stay here and breathe. Work up to 3-5 minutes. Every day.
- 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.
BADDHA KONASANA INTO TARASANA (Bound Angle Pose Into Star Pose)
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).
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Hold for 15-20 slow, deep breaths.
- 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.
- From sitting on your heels, bring your right knee forward, and line it up directly over your ankle.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- From downward dog position, bring your right knee up behind your right hand. Drop your left knee to the floor.
- 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.
- Keep the left leg active and aligned by pointing your toes.
- 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…)
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths.
- Carefully come down onto your elbows. Align your forearms and hold here for a few breaths.
- 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.
- 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.
- Stay here for 25 breaths, longer if you can. Use a timer to work towards 5 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
DWI PADA RAJAKAPOTASANA (Double Pigeon)
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, Montana-People.com