Mado’s top 4 tips for getting the most out of your hip openers.

Posted by on Dec 9, 2013 in About Yoga, Events, featured, Therapeutic Yoga | 7 comments

Mado’s top 4 tips for getting the most out of your hip openers.

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.

f_pelvic_tilt

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

Eversion_and_inversionYour 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!

7 Comments

  1. Hi Mado,
    I appreciate this information and the opportunity to respond:
    1. ” 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.” I’ll try to be sensitive to this.
    2. The SNS/PNS advice makes sense and suggests to me the importance of relaxing while doing a yoga sequence.
    3. I’m not sure of how to turn my outer foot toward the shin. (?)
    4. The inside/outside joint indication of stretch or compression is a new concept to me. I’ll try to be aware of it.

    Thanks for the very readable advice! It might also be helpful if you referenced an asana for each point.

    Regards,

    Jim

  2. Hi Jim-
    Thanks for your response! I’ll address your confusion on #3 briefly, though this is one of those things that will be much simpler & clearer to explain in person. While standing on the ground, press the mound behind your big toe down and lift the outer edge of your foot up. This will lift the arch of your foot and is the basic action I am describing for hip openers. Now in an easy hip opener such as reclined pigeon (lay on the ground with knees bent & feet flat, then cross your right ankle just above your left knee). Pressing your right ankle into the flesh of your left leg, press your right pinky toe down toward the floor and back to the right. As long as you don’t overdo this action, it should straighten out your ankle & create a ‘neat’ foot. Hope that’s helpful – feel free to come to the workshop on Saturday for an in-person demo if you need one. :-)

  3. Thanks, Mado. I’ve got family in on the weekend and so hope you offer the workshop again sometime.

  4. I’m looking forward to this weekend’s workshop, Mado, and this blog, and the previous one, are a helpful prep. As Jim stated, the lower back awareness is particularly useful to keep in mind. And thank you especially for teaching me more about the difference between stretch and compression. Helpful insights that I didn’t know before.

    The reason I’m interested in taking the workshop is not just because I want to open my hips and learn how to take care of them better. I’ve always been aware that an unusually bothersome, precisely localized tightness in my left hip “pulls” on me, causing my body to torque/twist in a very particular pattern. I recently became aware that it’s likely to be the effect of surgery for an inguinal hernia that I underwent when I was six years old. Over time – decades – I’m guessing the scarring has affected me at all levels, including and most obviously my gait and posture, and my balance. Will some of what we learn/do in Saturday’s workshop help me get into the area and heal the scarred tissue?

  5. Yes! I am bringing with me some of the best tools I know for breaking up scar tissue AND the trigger points that result from it. I also recommend looking into active release therapy for some deeper work than you can do on your own.

  6. I am definitely planning to offer it again Jim, I have already had quite a few requests for a repeat and the workshop hasn’t even happened yet!

  7. Can coxa vara be corrected?????? At the age of 27?

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