Yoga for Healthy Hips
We ask a lot of our hips. They carry the weight of our bodies, providing both stability and mobility so that we can move through life. The hip is a synovial or ball-and-socket joint, which offers the most movement and function. It’s protected by layers and layers of tissue (cartilage, ligaments, tendons, muscle, and fascia) that serve a dual purpose – to provide a protective barrier that stabilizes the joint, and to create movement. If you were to peel the layers back and look at each part, you’d discover an intricate, intelligent system. Ligaments function like elastic bands—they keep the bones in place while the muscles around the joint lengthen and shorten, allowing for movement. Beneath the ligaments lie the bones – the head of the femur sits inside the hip socket. Both surfaces of the ball-and-socket joint are slippery with articular cartilage. The cartilage cushions the bones and allows for easy gliding. The hip joint is also surrounded by a capsule, and the space within the joint contains synovial fluid. This fluid lubricates and reduces friction in the hip joint. Ideally, when all the parts work in harmony, we move easily and without pain. As we age, cartilage wears down, parts weaken, and range of motion is reduced. While we can’t regenerate cartilage, we can slow the degenerative process with mindful movement. Presto, Yoga.
Yoga offers the perfect combination of flexibility and strength. Stretching can restore range of motion in the joints and allow the muscles to work more efficiently. When we stretch we increase blood flow to the muscles and create lubrication in the joints. Think Tin Man with his oil can. Each time we take our bodies through their optimal range of motion we become less rigid and more fluid. When I teach I often have students begin with legs in the air. I have them roll their ankles and wiggle their toes – snap, crackle, pop. At the end of a practice we feel less like the creaky Tin Man and more like Gumby. Flexibility creates a supple, more fluid body but we also need to create sturdy support around the joints. The belief that yoga is all about flexibility is a myth. When we move through a vinyasa-style practice or hold poses such as Plank or Warrior 2, we call on our muscles to hold us up, and some yoga postures truly defy gravity. For years I leaned into in my flexibility when I practiced yoga. Genetically, I’m flexible, especially around the hips. Without knowing the damage I could potentially cause on my then 20-year-old body, I would lay in my joints in lunging postures and dive deep into hip openers because it felt good. After lots of studying, training, reading, aging, and gaining a new understanding of the human body, I’ve altered my practice in a big way. I’ve learned to back off and support my joints by engaging deeper, stabilizing muscles. I’ve learned to hold back from deep stretches when my body is not prepared, and sometimes even when it is. I’ve learned to listen honestly to my body and respond in a way that supports it. Some days I need a continuous flow to create fluidity, other days I need to hold poses and feel the muscles working together like a community.
Every body is different. What works for me may not work or feel good to you. Developing proprioceptive skills (body awareness) is key to knowing how to move. With that in mind, practice observing your body with eyes closed, on and off your mat. Try the hip strengthening/opening sequence below and modify or omit pieces that don’t fit. An audio version of this sequence is included! Scroll to the bottom of the page. If you take the class, let me know what you think!
A Home Practice for Your Hips
Props needed: 1-2 blocks and a blanket
- Supported Bridge. Lie on your back. Place a block under the sacrum, or where your back pants pockets would be. Lengthen one leg, letting the heel rest on the floor.
- Leg Lifts. From supported bridge, lift extended leg so that it's the same height as the block. Keep the leg straight and lift and lower it 3-4 inches. Move slowly. These are sneaky! You might not feel much at first but after several reps the hip flexors (front of the hips) will start to fatigue. Complete 10-20 reps then repeat step 1 and 2 on the second side.
- Bridge Pose with Block Between Knees. Place a block, narrow side, between the inner thighs and lift hips into bridge pose. place your hands under the fold of your butt cheeks (no one is watching) and notice the muscles are engaged. There's a tendency to over contract the glutes in back bends. We should contract the lower fibers (around the fold of your cheeks) and soften the upper fibers. Got that part? Now firm the inner thighs around the block. Check back in with your glutes. Stay here or lift and lower a few rounds.
- Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclined Butterfly). Place soles of feet together, allowing the knees to open like a book and the muscles to completely turn off. Stay here for several breaths.
- Table Top with Knee Circles. From table top position, lift and extend your right leg so that it's parallel to the floor. Bend the knee so the sole of the foot faces the ceiling. Keep your arms firm and strong as you send the knee to the right (think dog at a hydrant), in toward the chest, then directly behind you. Start by separating each movement, then allow it to become more circular and fluid. Complete 5-6 in one direction, then move in reverse. Head to wide-knee child's pose then repeat on the left side.
- Shalabasana Leg Lifts. Lie face down and press the front of your hips and pubic bone down toward the floor. Keep that connection and lift and lower the right leg. The front of the hip should stay connected to the floor; the leg should remain straight. Inhale to to lift the leg, exhale to lower it. Move slowly and complete 10-15 reps, then repeat on the left.
- Block Swings. Turn your block lengthwise and take near a wall for more support. Step one foot on the block and let opposite leg hang. Push into your grounded foot and hug the outer hip toward the center of the body. Place your hands on outer glutes (standing leg) to feel the muscles contract. Lift through your chest and gently swing lifted leg forward and back. Continue until fatigued then repeat second side. Note, it's normal to feel stronger on one side. If this is the case, do 2 reps on your weaker side.
- Runner’s Lunge to Half Splits. From forward fold, step one foot back to runner's lunge. Make sure your front knees is stacked over the ankle. Hug outer hips toward the center line of your body and float chest forward. Stay here a few breaths, then lower back knee for half splits. Flow between the two, inhaling into one pose, exhaling into the other.
- Anjaneyasana (High Lunge). From downward facing dog, step one foot forward for anjaneyasana. Hug outer hips toward the center line of your body. Knit the ribs in and reach through the fingertips. Lift gently as you breathe in, ground as you breathe out.
- Virabhadrasana C (Warrior 3). Combine steps 8-10 or from anjaneyasana lean forward to step into warrior 3. Push through grounded foot and extend through lifted heel. Make sure the toes of your lifted foot are pointed toward the floor. Think of lifting out of the hip crease to avoid laying in the joint. Stay 3-5 breaths then repeat second side.
- Supine Gomukhasana. Lie on your back with knees bent. Drape one thigh high over the other. Lift bottom foot and wrap hands around shins or feet. Stay here or fan the shins toward the ceiling. Stay for several breaths.
- Happy Baby Pose. Lie on your back and float both feet to the ceiling. Bend the knees and let them widen around the ribs. Keep the soles of the feet pointing up to the ceiling. Rather than pulling the legs down, allow them first to get heavy and notice the head of each femur in the hip sockets. Gently rock side to side. Stay for several breaths.
- Savasana. Lie on your back with your feet hip-width or wider. Place a bolster or rolled blanket beneath the knees for support. Notice your hips. Allow your pelvis and legs to be heavy. Stay here as long as you'd like. Namaste.