You have probably heard your yoga teacher talking once or twice about ‘opening your hips’. Maybe you have even attended a ‘hip opening workshop’. But what on earth does this actually mean? Aren’t our hips those bits that stick out and create muffin top? Everyone says put your hands on your hips and we place our hands there. Why would we want to open them, they are wide enough as it is!!
Well, actually, our hip is the space between our ilium (fancy word for pelvis) and our femur (fancy word for thighbone). That is it. The space between the thighbone and the pelvis. But this particular joint is very very important because it allows us to run, jump, dance, lunge, yoga, sit and everything else we do with our legs… So it is important that we keep this joint healthy so that we have as much freedom of movement in the hips as possible.
The hip joint is known as a ball and socket joint. Imagine that the top of your femur is shaped like a ball and it fits into a nice round socket of the pelvis. There is also some juicy fluid in there to make the joint nice and slippery and able to move freely. But with so much freedom and movement, we also need to make sure the joint is stable otherwise it will pop right out. Which is where the muscles, ligaments and tendons come in. These allow for stability in the hip, but they also initiate movement.
Take for example your adductor group of muscles; these muscles run along the inside of your thighs and when they are contracted, they shorten and bring the legs towards each other. The abductor group of muscles do the opposite and take the legs out to the side away from each other. Then we have muscles that help to either rotate the femur inwards or outwards, like when we cross our legs. Some of the most important group of muscles are the hip flexors and extensors. These muscles mean we can bring our legs up towards the torso and then back down, which is how we are able to walk! Tight hip flexors (the quadriceps, illiopsoas and others) and hip extensors (the dreaded hamstrings) can cause a plethora of problems in the body and can really limit basic movements such a bending forward or sitting cross legged.
Every one of the muscles that support the hip is really important and we want them to be nice and strong but we also want them to be nice and long. What happens when the muscles are chronically tightened and shortened is that they make it difficult for the ball to move around the socket, which results in limited movement – ‘closed hips’... We all remember the first time we went to yoga class and were asked to sit cross legged and it felt like our knees could touch our arm pits. Or that dreaded pose where a teacher not only makes you sit with your legs as far open as they can go but then she asks you to lean forward?? Is it just me who feels like their inner thighs might actually snap?
The good news is that happy open hips mean more mobility, less pain (especially in the lower back and knees), a release of emotional tension (the hips are a huge storage space for stress) and more comfort when sitting in meditation (which let’s not forget is the whole point of yoga).
The best way to open your hips is to focus on stretching your hips in all directions during your practice. Notice that moving the hip in a particular way will stretch the muscles that perform the opposite action ie extending the hip will stretch the hip flexors and vice versa. You will see that in most asanas (yoga poses), there is more than one action involved. For example, in Utthita Hasta Padangustasana on the lifted leg the hip is flexed, the leg abducted and femur externally rotated. So this is stretching the hip extensors, adductors and internal rotators - plus adding a little bit of balance in there for good fun.
Here are some of my favourite asanas to lengthen different groups of muscles:
Hip extensors: Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Hip flexors: Anjaneyasana (Crescent Lunge)
Adductors: Upavista Konasana (Seated Angle Pose)
Abductors: Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)
Internal Rotators: Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose),
External Rotators: Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose)