Why I’m not so sure about ‘hip openers’

Hip opening

I walk into the yoga studio and look at the trainees before me. One of them is tall and willowy, she’s got long legs, long arms, a long slender frame. She’s very beautiful and very flexible and she has a grace in her movement that make the poses look easy and beautiful. I don’t ask her for photos for my yoga posters but I do think about it for just a second before I start to wonder, what the *** can I teach her? 

So what are the hips?

For most people if you say put your hands on your hips they will put their hands on their sides just at the top of the bony wing of the pelvis (iliac crest). So the pelvis, this bony structure also includes the sit bones, (ischial tuberosities), that we yoga teachers use as a landmark for sitting tall as well as our pubis bone in the front of the groin.  I’m also including the hard triangle of bone between the tail bone and low back, the sacrum. 

The joints within the pelvis – stay closed

You read that right. This bone structure of pelvis and sacral, along with the muscles of the pelvic floor provide support for our whole torso. The joints between the sacrum and the iliac (side of the pelvis) have evolved to have very little movement, just a tiny bit of give to make space at childbirth. For the most part we want those joints to stay closed. It’s the same with that little bit of cartilage in the front of the pelvis at the pubis. In cases when in pregnancy for example there is movement in these joints, it can be very painful, cause instability and make things like getting up out of bed, or walking upstairs very uncomfortable. Not good.   

So what are we trying to open?  

The other bones that connect with our pelvis are our femurs, the biggest bones in the body, and if you remember your anatomy they connect with a ball and socket joint, head of the femur into the socket in the pelvis. Not only are the femurs the biggest bones but gluteus maximus, your lovely buttocks, are the biggest muscles in the body. Added to that the quads running down the front of your thighs and the hamstrings at the back and you have a nice strong solid structure to support us standing upright. If these muscles get tight either from wearing high heels,  (shortening our hamstrings)  and / or from exercise like running, cycling, or doing weights,  then certainly yoga asana can help us to lengthen, stretch and relax them.  

If we struggle in certain poses like wide legged poses, forward folds and back bends, this can be in part due to tight, short muscles. So yes, if that’s what you mean by hip openers, those poses can be great and there are lots of benefits to extending our range of motion, stretching and strengthening muscles so we have better posture, feel better and are less prone to certain types of injury.   

However, before I go. Two more points to consider before you sigh feeling defeated  by your ‘tight hips’, and put more cobble poses on the list of things you ‘should’  be doing. 

Firstly there is another amazing core muscle you may have heard about. The psoas muscle, which runs from your spine through your pelvis and attaches at your femur. It is a muscle we use for walking, drawing our knees into our chest and anything where we are flexing from the top of the legs, for example paschimottanasana or any forward folds. 

Now think of your average day, do you spend a lot of time sitting in a chair or a car?  That muscle becomes used to being slightly shorter and maybe weaker. Or maybe you do a lot of running and sports and as a result of that, your legs are strong and your psoas is used to drawing them in, think running or cycling. You might have students in your yoga classes who seem fit and strong but struggle to straighten their legs or even to lie comfortably in savasana without a pillow. If by ‘hip opening’  if we mean working on lengthening and strengthening the psoas. It will give you better posture and potentially prevent lower back pain.  

Finally, have you heard the term anatomical variation? If not look at your hands, what about the hands of all the students in your class. They are all hands but each person’s is completely unique and individual. The same is true of our noses and our skeletons. What this means is that each of us has a slightly different shape pelvis, some have sockets for the femur more to the side than others. Some have a bigger head of the femur , the ball part of the joint. Some people can do the splits, some never will.

What this means is maybe Jenny in your class will naturally find it easy to drop her knees to the floor in cobbler, (external rotation) while Suzanne struggles. That may be largely due to the shape of their bones, not your excellent teaching skills or their efforts.  No amount of practice will change the shape of our ball and socket joint and if someone is hyper mobile they may have lots of problems, including pain, so further and deeper is not always better. Yoga is the middle path. 

That beautiful yoga teacher I spoke about at the beginning of this post, told me about the pain she felt in certain poses. She’d been in classes where she was encouraged to overstretch. She learnt how to pull back, engage more,  build core awareness and strength so she could stay active in poses rather than passively stretch. Ultimately she felt more confident, centred and stable and best of all pain free in her asana practice. Her understanding also deepened and I have no doubt her journey brought us both a deeper understanding of what healthy hip mobility looks like. 

So let’s question our assumptions and our language as yoga teachers. Why not talk about stability and support from the pelvis and strength and mobility for the hip joint. Know that there is a natural range of motion for different individuals and that is beautiful.

Don’t be shy about grabbing the props for sitting easy pose for yourself and them, encourage your students to work from the inside out for a healthy happy body and mind.  

Enjoy your practice and love to your hips. 

I used to try and do further into the poses and afterwards I would feel pain and I thought, is it me? Am I doing something wrong. Now  I know I was just pushing in too far and when I connect to my core and stay active the whole practice feels better. 

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