Much is made of hip opening in yoga. Maybe this comes from the iconic photos of East Indian yogis we all admired when yoga became popular in America in the ’60s. These photos featured wiry men in loincloths performing impossible feats of hip flexibility—Padmasana (Lotus Pose), Yoga Nidrasana (Sleeping Yogi Pose), etc. This was the goal to which we all thought we should aspire. Mobilizing the hips is definitely a part of the tradition. But it’s just as important to stabilize your hips too.
Flexibility is important, especially as we age. When our hips are stiff, simple everyday movements become awkward. But while mobility is important, strength is just as crucial. In yoga, we tend to focus far more on flexibility than we do on stability. And that focus on flexibility tends to take on a competitive edge. More is better, right? The pursuit of endless flexibility may not be in our best long-term interests.
Dr. Ginger Garner, PT goes so far as to suggest we that retire the term “hip opener.” In her article “Hip Openers in Yoga? Let’s Stop the Madness,” she writes, “ … using the tired phrase ‘hip opener’ suggests pursuit of an end range of motion—moving further, stretching deeper, and/or using yoga postures for the sake of increasing hip range of motion and flexibility. This is a dangerous concept to present to the general public and it misrepresents the essence of yoga.”
Too much emphasis on flexibility can cause short- and long-term injuries. Unhealthy hypermobility can manifest in sacroiliac (SI) joint instability, overstretched ligaments, labral tears and even hip joint degeneration. Once you overstretch your ligaments, they are unlikely to return to their original length. This means that muscles have to tighten in order to protect your joints.
Our bodies have evolved to sit, walk, stand, run, kneel, climb, squat, lie down and to rise from the ground. These actions require a healthy, balanced flexibility. But regularly practicing poses extreme hip openers such as Raja Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose) and Yoga Nidrasana and Hanumanasana (Monkey Pose) at best doesn’t contribute to performing these everyday functions. At worst, excessive practice of extreme poses can diminish our ability to do so.
So what’s the solution? Practice yoga to stabilize your hips.
Stabilize Your Hips
There are several ways to balance flexibility. One way is by practice poses that strengthen the muscles around the hip joints. Another way is to modify our intentions for practice.
Poses that can help strengthen muscles around the hips include:
- Standing Balance Poses: These include poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Garudasana (Eagle Pose) and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). When you stand on one leg, the muscles coalesce around the hip joint. This strengthens the muscles and protects the joint.
- Utkatasana (Fierce Pose or Chair Pose): This pose strengthens the core, the hip flexors, the feet, calves, thighs, and abductors. It’s one of the most helpful poses to stabilize your hips. Just do it!
- Wide-Legged Standing Poses: Virabhadrasana I and II (Warrior I and II Poses) are especially helpful for promoting strength and flexibility simultaneously. Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose) are also good. I’ll explain ways to optimize these poses’ stabilizing qualities below.
- Salabhasana (Locust Pose): Locust Pose, a “baby” backbend, with all its variations, strengthens the back muscles and the glutes. In particular, the variations where you’re lifting the legs are especially helpful.
If you’re planning a hip-stretching practice, I strongly suggest that you start with some of these stabilizing poses. Balance is key to healthy hips. Stabilize your hips before you stretch.
Shift Your Intention
Now comes the mindfulness aspect. Balance, not extreme flexibility, is the intention of asana practice. In the context of the yoga system, asana is intended to prepare the body for meditation. That means balancing the nervous system. So the way we approach practice makes a difference.
Bendy people tend to go way beyond their healthy range of motion because they don’t feel a stretch unless they push it. As a person who was born bendy, I’m quite familiar with this phenomenon. I pushed way too far for many years, and have suffered hip and SI joint problems as a consequence. Now I’m purposely staying well inside my full range of motion. The result has been a much healthier balance of stability and mobility.
So my suggestion is this: don’t go to your end range of flexibility, especially if you are bendy. If you are already hypermobile, you don’t need to increase your flexibility; you need to stabilize your hips.
For example, when you practice Triangle Pose, even if you can easily place your bottom hand on the floor, don’t go there. Instead, lift up considerably and place your hand on a yoga block, or even higher on your leg. The reason for this is that when most people go to their end range in Trikonasana, the legs actually disengage. They become less supportive. When you practice with your hand on a block, or higher up, your core and the muscles around your hip joints can more easily support you.
Try it. Feel what happens in your legs when you go to your maximum-flexibility Triangle and what happens when you lift up a bit. Palpate the muscles around the hip joints when you place your hand on the floor and then lift up until you feel them engage. This is the pose where you can balance strength and mobility.
Explore this intention in other poses as well. If you want your hips to carry you through a long life, you need to both mobilize and stabilize your hips. Fashion a practice that balances the two.