One of the most common requests I get from yoga students is “hip openers”. A lot of people report that the hips feel tight, stiff, or limiting – and it can feel really good to get a stretch sensation in this area.
But what does it mean to “open” the hips? The hip is a ball and socket joint that has a lot of different directions of natural movement available, as I’ve already written about in this Movement Mondays series. That means there aren’t really “closed” and “open” positions of the hip – unless you are dislocating it, which I assume nobody wants to do!
My understanding of the term “hip openers” in the yoga world is that it is usually used to describe poses that create a stretch sensation in the back of the hip, such as Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (One Legged King Pigeon Pose). But I’ve also heard this term used to describe sensation in the front of the hip in a pose like Anjaneyasana (low lunge).
Are you stretching what you think you’re stretching?
Usually when we do one of these poses, we get sensation in the back of the hip (or front of the hip) respectively, and we assume that means we’re lengthening the muscles in that area and getting more flexible. That may not be what’s happening, however.
I wrote last week about the ideas that more flexibility isn’t necessarily better, and that stretching doesn’t change the length of our muscles and might not be the best path to improved mobility. If you missed it, you can read that post here.
Stretching can feel really good, though, so let’s say you actually want to stretch the muscles around your hip. Unfortunately, both of the poses pictured above are often done in a way that prevents an effective stretch in the targeted muscle.
Today, we’ll take a fresh look at what’s happening in Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), and we’ll revisit Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana at a later date.
In a lunge, we often think we’re opening or lengthening the hip flexors or psoas muscles in the front of the back hip. The psoas muscles attach to the top of the thigh bone, run through the hip, and then attach into the front of the lower back (see more here).
Now, to stretch a muscle, we need to move the two attachment points away from each other. Does that make sense?
The picture above shows what happens when we sink as deeply as we can into this pose. By letting the pelvis and lower back angle forward, we are actually taking the whole psoas muscle and changing the angle, rather than taking the attachments away from each other. In other words, we aren’t stretching the psoas much if at all! Yes, we sometimes feel sensation when we do this. The sensation could be a stretch in the ligaments that help hold the joint together (or something else, depending on how you’re moving).
(Although you may have heard that it’s bad to stretch your ligaments, this is actually a misunderstanding about the nature of connective tissue. Don’t panic. This is a useful article about it in a yoga context. For some people who are hypermobile/ have more lax joints, it may be useful to learn to bring sensation into the belly of the muscle and away from the connective tissue. It’s also useful to learn to find more work and stability around the joints.)
Compare that to the second version of Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) shown below. Here I’ve kept the thigh bone in position, and lengthened the spinal attachment up and away from the thigh to lengthen the psoas. Quite a different look, and a different sensation too.
To try this out, do the following:
- Start in a lunge with the right foot in front. Feel free to pad the back knee. (In most cases, we don’t need to worry too much about the alignment of the front knee. Read more here.)
- Back the hips up until the back left thigh bone is vertical (the hip is above the knee) and the pelvis is neutral (the bony points in the front of the hips are lined up with the pubic bone, or you can just think about the pelvis as a bowl full of water and try to keep the water surface level.)
- Keep the thigh bone anchored in place, and tuck the tailbone to take the top attachments of the psoas up and back away from the thigh. Notice any sensation you feel. Say hello to your hip flexor muscle.
Do you notice a difference in sensation between the two versions of the pose? Comment below and let me know.