“When you let go, you create space for better things to come into your life.” ~~ Unknown
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had chronically tight hips. When I work on hip openers, it’s like some form of mild torture. Poses like Pigeon Pose, Cow Face Pose, Eagle Pose and Frog Pose simply frustrate me to no end. Even as a child, I just couldn’t seem to move my hips in the same way that my friends could, and I always felt like I was missing out on something. And in yoga, whenever I see someone in Lotus Pose (which, in my opinion, is the crème de la crème of hip opening poses), I stare longingly, knowing my body will never be able to achieve that pose.
It wasn’t until I was in the advanced portion of my yoga teacher training that I realized that there were a variety of things responsible for my hip issues. In Yoga Therapy training, I discovered that my bony hip structure is simply flawed. A physical therapist ran that training, and when she conducted a physical assessment of me, she discovered that my bony structure impediments were keeping me from achieving a full range of motion in my hips. For my body, if I move too deeply in certain directions with my hips, it becomes bone on bone action…and THAT is not good at all! Perhaps it was because I was a breech baby…it stands to reason that, while your body is forming in the womb, if it’s not optimally positioned, the way your body grows could be compromised.
Of course, I also have tight hip muscles. I think the majority of us probably do. In our western society, we spend a lot of time sitting at our desks, on the couch watching TV, and in our cars. This takes its toll on our poor hips, causing physical pain the tighter they get.
Tight muscles I can work on. But changing my bony structure…umm, I don’t think so!
It’s important to note, though, that hip issues are not always because of physical reasons. Our emotional health can affect our hips in a big way, believe it or not.
If you’re a yogi, then I’m willing to bet you’ve been to a yoga class where the teacher has mentioned that the hips is where our emotions are stored. One of my teachers referred to the hips as the body’s junk drawer, because it’s where we store the emotions we don’t know what to do with. That description has always resonated with me, because I can totally visualize the whole process…something happens that angers me (say, a co-worker has gotten on my last nerve) and I avoid dealing with the anger by “tucking it away” until a later time. Except that I usually don’t end up dealing with it. So my hips get tighter and more painful. Then one day, I’m in a yoga class that’s heavy on the hip openers, and I suddenly find myself sobbing without knowing why.
Anyone else ever experience that? I bet if you have cried in a yoga class before and you think back on it, you were probably in a lot of hip opening poses prior to the emotional release. It’s analogous to “emptying out” the junk drawer…sometimes, you have to purge that junk out so you can have some space!
For the month of December, we’ll be focusing on hip openers in my yoga classes. Let’s look at some things that may help you understand the connection your hips have with so many different things.
The Physical Side
Often, people initially come to yoga because of physical pain. When that physical pain is manifesting itself in your hips, it’s important to understand why. The hip is a ball and socket joint, making its range of motion more varied than some other joints (like the knee). The hip can be abducted, adducted, and rotated externally and internally.
Because of its varied range of motion, hip tightness can stem from a host of issues including tightness in the quadriceps, inner thighs, hamstrings, lateral rotators, and psoas. In fact, lower back pain often stems from tight hips and buttocks muscles.
It could also be due to an abnormality with your bony structure, like what I have. If you think this may be an issue for you, then working with a physical therapist or yoga therapist could be beneficial.
The Emotional Side
As I mentioned above, the hips are considered to be the emotional storehouse of our bodies, the place where we store our deepest vulnerabilities. I’ve been told that WHERE you feel tightness or pain in the hips determines WHAT emotional issue(s) you have.
For example, if you feel pain or tightness in the front of your hips (i.e., your psoas and hip flexors), it could mean you have some fear of what’s in store for your future. Though I can’t prove that connection (I just haven’t gotten that far along in my studies yet), I can tell you that I have chronically tight hip flexors. Back when I was running regularly, I could chalk it up to that and deny I had any emotional issues. However, though I do still bike regularly (which also would contribute to tight front hips), it’s not the only reason I’ve got tight front hips. I must admit that I definitely fear for my future. When you have a chronic illness like I do, it’s hard not to worry about that stuff. I constantly worry about getting too sick to work, getting fired from my job because my brain fog has finally irritated enough of my co-workers that they clamor for me to be shown the door, and not being around long enough to see my daughters grow up into the strong women I know they will be. There are other things I worry about in terms of my future, but these are the ones that keep me up at night…and apparently the ones that keep my hips tight!
Similarly, if you experience tightness or pain in the back of the hips, which may include lower back and glutes, then maybe you’re having trouble letting go of the past. My back side is not as tight as my front side, though I do have tightness there, too. And I must confess that I sometimes find myself thinking of those “what if” scenarios. What if I’d focused more when I was a Russian major at UCONN and actually graduated when the rest of my friends did? What if I wasn’t so naive? I could go on, but you get the idea and hey…a girl’s gotta keep SOME secrets, right?
The point is this. If you are chronically tight somewhere in your hips, then it’s worth exploring why. If you can’t trace it back to a physical reason, then what might you be holding on to emotionally that is not serving you?
How to Open Your Hips
The hips are a tricky area of the body to open up. From a physical perspective, the hip muscles are surrounded by thick connective tissue. This means you have to spend some time in these poses to actually loosen up in this area. If you’re only spending 30-45 seconds in these poses, you probably won’t notice much benefit. Ideally, you should be spending 2-5 minutes in each pose if you want the full benefit. This may mean you need to learn to sit with discomfort, both physical and emotional. It can be uncomfortable to face your past and your future, but face them you must in order to truly let go and open up (How’d you like my Yoda reference? I’m super excited about the new Star Wars moving coming out this month!).
Once you’re in a hip opening pose, use your breath to help you. Focus on bringing your inhales directly into the spot you’re focusing on, and use your exhales to “let it go”. This can do wonders in helping to create the space you need in your hips.
There are three hip opening poses that I think should be done daily by everyone if at all possible, as they are wonderful in targeting the most troublesome areas of the hips. They are:
- Modified Runner’s Lunge. I strongly suggest doing this one with the back knee on the ground, and work on squaring your hips to the front as you sink into it (check out what that looks like here). This will really help to open up the psoas and hip flexors.
- Pigeon Pose. There are so many variations of this pose, so there truly is a version for you, even if you have bad knees. This one is great for tackling the outer hips…especially those glutes! Below is a pic of my friend in one of the variations.
- Reclining Twist. This is another pose that has so many variations. I love the version where you come into the twist with Eagle legs or Figure 4 legs, as it gets into the outer hips more, and especially targets the IT band.
There are so many other great poses that help with the hips. Some of my other favorite hip openers are:
- Cow Face Pose (Gomukhasana)
- Deer Pose (this is a great alternative to Pigeon if you’ve got knee issues)
- Reclining Bound Angle (Supta Badha Konasana)
- Garland (Malasana). See below for a pic of my friend in this pose.
- Tipsy Frog (http://www.yogajournal.com/intermediate-section/kathryn-budig-challenge-pose-tipsy-frog)
I asked a couple of my yogi friends what their favorite hip openers were, and they graciously agreed to send me a picture of them in their fave pose, along with why they like it so much. Here’s what my friend, Pam Johnson, had to say:
“I’ve always carried a lot of stress and trauma in my hips, going all the way back to my teenage years. When I was first introduced to Pigeon, I would almost invariably cry each time after practicing it. Now I seek it out as a pose of comfort and healing; a place to allow the stress to seep out before my body holds onto it.”
(This is Pam in a modified Pigeon Pose…doesn’t she look serene?)
My friend, Rita Hines, said this:
“I love Malasana because it is a great hip opener and a release for the low back as well.”
(This is Rita in Malasana…I think she looks rather meditative here, don’t you?)
When you begin to release stored tension, you can open up wounds — the wounds from the trauma or stress that is being stored in your hips and caused the tension. So if you feel a rush of emotions in these poses, it’s a good thing.
Emotions are healthy. Historically, people have been taught to remain poised and collected at all times. Doing that makes it’s easy to suffocate those emotions so they don’t come out. However, I think that today, it’s becoming more and more acceptable to show your emotions.
Give yourself permission to explore these wonderful poses. Permission to be OK with letting your emotions out on your mat. If you come to one of my classes, you’ll see me smile when I notice a student finally let go of something huge.
It can be hard. It can make you cry, and it can even make you angry. But working through whatever emotions arise allows you to move forward. Which allows you to open up space in your life for love, compassion and positivity. It allows you to just be … happy.