Standing in chair pose for what seems like hours—legs quivering, arms aching—I'm sweating bullets...er, I mean, "building heat." I'm thinking, "Will this ever end?" and then, "How does this pose help open my hips?" Just then New York City-based yoga teacher Charles Matkin chimes in with his signature brand of humor to take the edge off. "This pose is like eating your spinach," he says. "No one wants to do it, but it's good for you. I call it Yuck-a-tasana."
When I talk to Matkin later about his playful teaching style and his approach to sequencing, it's clear there's a method to his madness. That's why this month's hip-opening series doesn't include any of the usual suspects (think Pigeon Pose, Bound Angle Pose, Lotus). In Matkin's view, those poses mostly focus on stretching the external rotators (a group of muscles that run along your outer hips and buttocks), overlooking the front of the pelvis and the inner thighs. He favors a more balanced approach to create stability in the entire pelvis, which he defines as the thighbones, hipbones, and sacrum. His sequence works the inner legs and the deep muscles of the lower back and hip flexors (the psoas, for instance).
One way he creates awareness of the pelvis is to forgo the sticky mat (it's like doing yoga while wearing sneakers, he says) and place a blanket underfoot in standing poses. "Doing Warrior II this way strengthens all the muscles around the hip socket," Matkin explains. "You have to pull your legs in by using your inner adductors and internal rotators, which can be sleepy in standing poses."
Matkin also teaches the difference between tilting your pelvis forward and tilting it back. It may seem basic, but gaining this awareness can set the foundation for safe and efficient work in all your poses.
This sequence won't get you into Lotus today, but the last few poses are just as challenging. They demand that you're simultaneously strong and open in your hip flexors, outer hips, hamstrings, and psoas. If they're too difficult for you right now, be patient and credit yourself for a job well done as you move into the finishing sequence. But with a sequence as balanced and complete as this, you may be surprised to find yourself looking regal in Krounchasana (Heron Pose), or floating effortlessly into the Eight-Angle Pose arm balance.
Before You Begin
Pelvic Tilts: Stand with your feet as far apart as your sitting bones and put your hands on your hips. Wedge a block between your thighs, as high up as you can. Squeeze the block, bend your knees slightly, and stick your sitting bones out in an exaggerated movement. As the block rolls toward the wall behind you, feel how your thighs rotate in toward each other and how the natural curve in your lower back increases. Since your pelvis is tilting forward, this is aptly called the forward tilt. Come back to a neutral position. Now do the reverse: Keeping your hands on your hips and the block between your thighs, tuck the tailbone forward and round your lower back. The block moves forward, your thighs spin away from each other in external rotation, and your lower back flattens. This is known as—surprise!—the reverse tilt.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose): Keep hugging the block between your legs. To find the correct alignment of the pelvis in Tadasana you'll combine the two tilts you learned above. This action embodies the definition of "yoga," which can be translated as "yoke" or "union." When you tie the two actions together, you create the stability and strength your body needs to open.
Sun Salutations: Practice 3 to 5 lunging Sun Salutations. Start in Tadasana. Inhale and bring your arms overhead. Exhale and bow forward to Standing Forward Bend. Inhale to Half Standing Forward Bend. Exhale and step your right foot back to a High Lunge, placing your fingertips on the floor. Stay for one inhalation and then step your left foot back to Downward-Facing Dog. Inhale and step your right foot forward to a High Lunge. Exhale as you step your left foot forward to meet the right. Inhale, reach your arms wide, and rise up to Tadasana.
Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose): From Downward Dog, inhale into Plank Pose. Shift onto the outer edge of your right foot and stack your left foot on top. Spiral your chest toward the ceiling. Reach your left arm toward the sky and gaze at the left fingertips in Vastisthasana. Return to Downward Dog and do the other side.
1. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose, variation 1
In Downward Dog, you combine forward tilt and reverse tilt, just as you did in Tadasana. Come onto your hands and knees. Place your knees directly below your hips, and your hands slightly forward of your shoulders. Spread your palms and tuck your toes under. Exhale and lift your knees away from the floor. Keep your knees slightly bent and your heels lifted off the floor.
Lift your sitting bones into a forward tilt. Then slowly, creating some resistance, straighten your legs and lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling. Exhale as you push the tops of your thighs back and stretch your heels toward the back of the room. Press the base of your index fingers actively into the floor and roll your upper arms away from your ears.
Inhale as you lift your right leg up, but keep both hips even-don't let the right hip pop up or collapse. Instead of trying to get your back leg high, make your body long. Create one long line of energy from your fingertips through your spine and out through your lifted heel. Where's your pelvis now? (Hint: It should be in a forward tilt with your lifted leg internally rotated.)
2. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose, variation 2)
Now you can let that right hip open. But first, to protect your lower back from overarching, tuck your tailbone between your legs toward a reverse tilt. Inhale and roll your right hip toward the ceiling and continue to lengthen from your hands to your heel. Bend your right knee and reach your heel toward the left. Keep your shoulders even by pressing both arms into the floor equally.
3. Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
Stand sideways on your mat with your feet 3 to 4 feet apart. Turn your right foot out about 90 degrees and your left foot in slightly. Bend your right knee into Warrior II, raising your arms parallel to the floor. Exhale and lengthen the torso to the right and put your elbow on your thigh just above the knee.
Now stick your sitting bones back in an exaggerated forward tilt. Actively engage the inner groins by pulling your legs together. Feel your thighs moving toward the back wall? That's a forward tilt, which is a good thing. Keep that action as you press the tailbone forward and—voilá!—your pelvis is in a neutral position. If you can, place your right hand on the floor behind your right foot.
Spiral your chest up toward the ceiling. Feel your entire spine lift away from the back heel. Reach through the left side of your body and extend your left arm over your ear, with your palm facing the ground. Stay for 5 breaths. To come out, bring both hands to your hips and lift your back heel off the floor. Square your hips to the right so you're in a high lunge. Place your fingertips on either side of the front foot.
4. Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard Pose)
If you place a blanket beneath you for this pose, you'll not only get a deep stretch but also strengthen your leg muscles.
From a high lunge, place both hands on the floor to the inside of your right foot. Lower your left knee to the floor. Bring your forearms down onto a block or, if it feels appropriate, to the floor. Bring your pelvis into a reverse tilt (tailbone forward). You'll feel the left side of your belly and the front of your left leg (the psoas and quadriceps muscles) stretching. Stay for 5 to 8 breaths, then place your hands back on the floor, straighten your back leg, and step forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). After a few breaths there, bend your knees and roll all the way up to Tadasana. Repeat on the other side.
5. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
The placement of the pelvis is tricky in Utkatasana—it looks as though the pelvis is only in a forward tilt, but it should actually be balanced with the reverse tilt.
From Tadasana, place your hands on your hips, bend your knees deeply, and stick your bottom out, like a skier. Now do the opposite: Stand back up and press your tailbone forward to a reverse tilt.
Once again, bend your knees and tilt your pelvis forward. Then, keeping the knees bent, imagine standing up to experience the opposite tilt. Don't round your lower back; use your belly strength as you lengthen your spine and draw your shoulders back. (Try not to grip the floor with your toes.) Finish by sweeping your arms up by your ears and reach out through your fingertips. Stay for 5 breaths.
6. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), variation
Go to a wall and, if you need to, place a blanket on the floor for padding. Come onto your hands and knees facing away from the wall. Bend your right knee and place your right shin up the wall. Step your left foot forward into a low lunge. Keep the hips low at first and place your fingertips on either side of your left foot. If you feel as though you might scream (this variation is sometimes called "screaming pigeon"), stop here, come out, and repeat on the other side.
Otherwise, begin to back yourself into the wall, leading with your sitting bones. Snuggle your buttocks to the inside of your right foot as you would in Virasana. Look at your left knee and make sure it's directly over your left ankle.
Place your hands on your left thigh and, as you exhale, slowly round up through your spine and bring your back to the wall. Be sure not to jut your ribs forward. Instead, squeeze the inner legs together and tuck your tailbone. Try to release tension and surrender to the pose. But respect your limits. You only have two knees in this lifetime, so take care of them.
Stay for 5 breaths. To come out, bring your fingertips to the floor, lean forward, and move the right leg away from the wall. Do both sides, then come back to the middle of the room.
7. Krounchasana (Heron Pose), variation
With your right leg in Virasana, bend your left knee and reach your right hand to the outside of your left foot. (Use a strap if you need to.) Roll your hip points toward the ground in a forward tilt. Keep a natural curve in your lower back as you straighten the lifted leg and begin to twist your torso to the left. Place the left fingertips behind your left hip and lean back. As your spine lifts and rotates, your leg reaches in the opposite direction, which brings the stretch into your left hip and prepares you for Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose). Stay for 5 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
8. Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana (Compass Pose)
Begin with your legs straight in front of you. Bend your left knee and place the sole of your left foot on your right inner thigh. Grab your right foot with both hands, bend your right knee, and move it as far toward the back wall as you can. With your left hand, reach behind your head and grab your outer right foot. Thread your right hand under your right knee, placing it firmly on the floor. Extend your spine and lean back as you straighten your right leg. Bring the weight into your right hand and your right sitting bone. You need a lot of length in your hamstrings and along the left side of your body, so only go as far as you can. If you feel more like a faulty compass moving in the wrong direction, remember to laugh.
9. Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose)
Unravel your torso so you're facing forward again. Keeping your right leg bent over your right shoulder, squeeze the top of your right arm. Now lean forward and place both hands on the ground in front of you, shoulder-width apart. Hook your left foot over your right and—just as you've been practicing in the last two poses—reach your legs out (to the right) as your spine lengthens and rotates in the opposite direction. The stability you've created in your entire pelvis will guarantee that your hips fly up off the floor (or your money back).
10. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose
Sit with your legs spread wide. Bend your left knee and place the sole of your left foot on your right inner thigh. Keeping both sitting bones heavy, open your right arm out to the right with your palm facing the ceiling. Reach your arm and torso out to the right. Then lower your right elbow to the ground, just inside your right knee. Hug your elbow and knee together as you roll your torso toward the ceiling. As you inhale, open your chest and twist toward the ceiling. As you exhale, think of lengthening the bottom side of your torso to the right. Keep inching your spine down the straight leg, just as you did in Compass Pose. After a few breaths reach your left arm up and overhead. If you can, catch your right foot with both hands and peek under your left armpit. After five breaths, go back and repeat Compass, Astavakrasana, and this pose on the left side.
11. Eka Pada Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (One-Legged Bridge Pose)
Lie back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Bring your heels close to your sitting bones. Keep your feet parallel and imagine squeezing a block between your thighs. Inhale and lift your hips, lengthening your tail toward your knees so you don't compress your lower back. (Clasp your hands below your pelvis and curl your shoulders underneath.) This helps extend your upper back and open your chest. Now bend your elbows and bring your hands to your hips. Lift your right leg and reach it toward the ceiling. Lift both hips evenly. Press through the ball of your right foot and peel the toes back. Stay for a few breaths, then release your leg and come to the other side. When you've done both sides, bring your hands to the floor and slowly roll down through your spine.
Knees to Chest: Draw your knees into your chest and press your lower back into the floor. If this feels good, roll around on your sacrum a few times. Circle the knees clockwise for three or four breaths, then counterclockwise.
Reclining Twist: Keep your knees bent and bring your arms out to a T shape, palms facing up. With your thighs at a 90-degree angle to your spine, shift your hips to the left and drop your knees to the right. Then bring your knees back through the center, drop them to the left, and look to the right.
Savasana: Is your pelvis in forward tilt or reverse tilt? Ponder that question for a moment, then let it all go as you release into Savasana.