For active and sedentary people alike, yoga is a practice many people come to in order to stretch “tight hips” in an effort to become more flexible. Many teachers and students, myself included, have at one time or another made mention of “hip openers” as a way to gain such flexibility. In this month’s blog post I’d like to delve further into exactly what hip openers refer to and explain why it’s important to balance flexibility with stability when it comes to any joint in our bodies as a way of maintaining or reaching a more homeostatic state. Balance is the name of the game, after all!
The hip joints are come together where the acetabulum of the pelvis on either side meets the bones of the upper thigh, the femur bone. It’s a ball and socket joint that allows for many degrees of motion and a great range of mobility. I’ve noticed that the hips are often referred to in yoga classes, so for starters it’s helpful to find them and feel where they are on your body.
In standing, keep your toes forward and place your hands on the top of your pelvis on one side. With your palm gently pressing into your pelvis, begin to slide your hand down the outside of your leg about 2-3 inches. Keeping your heel down, turn your toes out to and 45-degree angle, then turn the toes back in. Repeat this movement pattern a few times and as you do, you’ll notice something that moves in and out of the palm of your hand. This is the greater trochanter of your femur (thigh) bone, and denotes the actual hip joint as the leg turns in and out with your foot.
Now that you know where your hip joint is, understanding the motions that occur at the hips is useful to enhance knowledge of how to use them. The hip joint is capable of flexion (bringing the front thigh toward the trunk), extension (moving the back thigh toward the trunk), abduction (moving the thigh bone away from your midline), adduction (moving the thigh bone toward your midline), and rotation (internal, turning the outer thigh toward midline and external, turning the inner thigh away from midline). These do not always happen in isolation of one another and can be combined. Since there’s so much motion available at the hip joints, a good deal of stability is required to support this wide range of movement. Enter the all-important ligaments. Dense layers of ligament surround the pelvis and hips alike to offer their support in addition to joint capsules and muscles. In women especially, this infrastructure of ligaments can become quite challenged during certain times in life including pregnancy and even during a monthly period when hormone levels shift, allowing for more laxity in the ligamentous system overall.
This fact highlights an important concept in yoga and in any exercise routine of learning how to balance mobility and flexibility with strength and stability in order to have a safe and lasting yoga practice. Hip openers have become a breeding ground for overstretching because they feel so good at the time. However, going too deep can result in discomfort and even injury down the line. Knowing when and how to stretch or strengthen can make all the difference in maintaining healthy hips.
Ligaments are not nearly as elastic as muscle tissue and will not recoil as muscles do. Many people stretch their ligaments too much, unaware that it can take years for pathology in the hip joints to show up. When it comes to ligaments, longer is not better!! This means that while stretching muscles should be an integral part of anyone’s exercise routine, it should be done with awareness and a certain degree of caution. For if muscles become overstretched then their support system, ligaments, can begin to lengthen beyond their natural structure. Overworked muscles, joints and ligaments feel the same as we do when we’re busy for many hours at a time without a break…they become tired, even fatigued, inefficient and weak. And while the support may not be there, the demand is. They keep working, becoming even more inefficient and transferring responsibility onto neighboring structures that aren’t equipped to handle all that’s being asked of them. Over time and with enough repetition, ligaments will not return to their original length. This can create instability at the involved joint(s), the hips in this case, and cause more work for surrounding joints (the sacro-iliac and lumbar spine) and tissues as they work to try to maintain a balanced environment despite their losses.
This is where the combined practices of muscle strengthening and self-awareness come in. Take for example a person who has chronic lower back pain and sacroiliac instability on one side. A deep forward lunge, anjaneyasana, may be a part of their usual morning stretching or yoga routine and something they enjoy because it feels good and helps them to feel like they can loosen up back and hip stiffness. However, by the end of the day they may feel worse or back to square one and before they go to bed at night do the same stretch in the hopes of feeling better in the morning. What’s missing from this equation is the stability component that comes from muscle strengthening and perhaps paying closer attention to alignment and posture in the pose. Until that’s addressed and the required pelvic or spine or hip stability that’s needed is developed to support one such deep position, either backing out of a deep lunge or perhaps choosing a different variation or pose altogether may be the best bet.
And if you’re not sure whether or not you’ve gone too deep into a stretch or a pose, check in with your breathing. Breathing dynamics provide the best tool for checking if a pose contributes towards natural alignment and pressures within the container of the body.
Join physical therapist and yoga instructor Meagen Satinsky for a therapeutic Yoga Wall class to learn more about how to combine strengthening and opening the hips in a supportive, playful and safe environment. You will learn basic anatomy of the hips, and how to modify poses and stretches to meet your individual needs.
Friday, August 12 – 6-7:30 pm
Sign Up Online

en English