Since most of us spend a lot of our days sitting, ‘hip openers’ have become a popular focus of yoga classes, videos, and workshops. However, our sedentary hips become weak as well as tight and a thoughtful, balanced approach is necessary to keep this large and stable joint healthy and functional. Read on for my advice on how to get the most out of your hip openers.
#1 Listen to your low back
Your hips are the joint that connects your legs to your pelvis. Many of the muscles that move your hips affect the tilt of your pelvis. If those muscles become imbalanced, they often pull your low back into an overly rounded position, an overly arched position, or sometimes both at once! Therefore, the health & wellbeing of your low back is directly connected to the health and wellbeing of your hips.
When you practice hip opening poses, pay special attention to the sensations and mobility of your low back. If you find yourself in a position where you cannot move your low back forward into its natural lordotic curve, you are likely placing your back under unnecessary stress. This is different from consciously choosing to round your low back during a hip opener, which may be a very helpful and enjoyable position.
#2 Make time for downtime
Even though most of us live safer lives than our ancestors, we spend more time with our SNS (sympathetic nervous system) activated. The SNS is the part of our nervous system that ensures our survival (the fight or flight response). It causes us to be alert, watchful, and ready to act. However, when the SNS is activated, other systems of the body go on hold in order to conserve resources for survival. The stress that many people experience on a daily basis causes the SNS to remain activated for long periods of time and hinders our bodies’ natural process of healing and rejuvenation.
Your main hip flexor muscle (psoas) has a strong relationship to your nervous system. This may be because in order for your body to be prepared for “flight” (ie running), your psoas must be engaged. Add to that the fact that most people sit far more than our ancestors did (further aggravating the psoas), it’s leading to an epidemic of people experiencing problems with their psoas. Making matters worse, most of us have no physical awareness of this essential muscle because it is buried deep within our hips and abdomen and difficult to access with massage.
Your PNS (para sympathetic nervous system) is the opposite of your SNS. It governs your bodies’ ability to rest & digest. Your PNS creates the conditions for healing to take place by channeling the energy that you might use for survival if you were unsafe into digesting food, repairing tissues, and bolstering your immune system. Your SNS has a relationship of reciprocity with the relaxation response; each reinforces the other, creating a cascade of positive effects for your body & mind. If you approach your hip openers aggressively, you are not only more likely to hurt yourself, but you also miss out on the wonderful healing effects of activating your PNS.
#3 Protect Your Knees with a Neat Ankle
Your hips are very stable joints with a circular range of motion. Knees are less stable and the range of motion at the knee is more limited (though the structure is quite complex); for the most part it either bends or straightens. When we attempt to mobilize more stable joints, they can get a little resistant and try to foist the work back onto the less stable joints nearby.
When the hips reach the end of their range of motion in internal or external rotation, whether due to muscle tightness or bone structure (read more about the difference in this previous post), the torque gets transferred to the knee.
To keep the knee safe, there is a simple alignment trick you can use to protect your knee and force your hip to do its own work: stabilize your ankle – the next joint in the chain. This basically just means, keep your ankle neutral, & your knee will stay neutral too.
An easy way to check if your ankle is neutral is to look at the inner ankle & see that the skin is smooth & free from creases. The most common way for the ankle to break the chain of stability is to invert – this means that inner foot moves toward the ankle, creasing the inner ankle & over stretching the outer ankle. This is often referred to as sickling your ankle – probably because the toes tend to curl in as the ankle inverts, creating the shape of a sickle. The solution to sickling is called keeping a ‘neat’ foot. This refers to the simplicity of a neutral ankle. To keep a neat foot in hip opening poses, reverse the sickle by pulling the outer edge of the foot toward the shin – this will engage your peroneus muscles, providing extra support to your knees.
#4 Learn to differentiate between stretch and compression
Joints are made up of connective tissue and bones (with muscles acting upon them). In the continum from elastic (changable) to plastic (solid) muscles are the most elastic, bones the most plastic, and connective tissue is somewhere inbetween. Of these tissues, muscles respond best to stress (the forces we place on them, whether strength or stretch). Bones and connective tissue are much trickier to work with. Therefore, in a given yoga pose it is important to recognize the difference between the stretch of a muscle and the compression of a joint. The sensation of stretch indicates that you are not yet at the end of your structural range of motion for that particular joint. The sensation of compression on the other hand means that the bony structures of your body are meeting in a way that will not allow for much more range of motion.
When you find yourself at the end of your range of motion in a particular pose, that doesn’t mean you should no longer practice it. Instead, practice with a new awareness that the gentle compression that happens in the joint when you approach your poses without ambition is healthy for the connective tissue the holds the joint stable. The increased blood flow and stimulation to the connective tissue will help you maintain your range of motion so that you can keep doing all the things you love to do even as you age.
Hope these tips were helpful to you. Please comment below if you desire clarification or add your own tips!