If you take a class with yoga teacher Baron Baptiste, you'll invariably practice something he calls Double Pigeon, a pose that's alternatively known as Ankle-to-Knee Pose, Square Pose, or Firelog. Whatever its moniker, it always stretches the outer hips intensely, particularly the piriformis, often the main culprit in sciatic pain. What's behind Baptiste's consistent focus on outer hip openers? Since the legs and the spine connect to the pelvis, he likens the hips to the central station of the body. "I think of the hips as the mother of all movement," he says. "When they're open, you'll be much more mobile both above and below them."
This vinyasa sequence focuses on the outer hips but also stretches the hip flexors, quadriceps, and inner groins for a well-rounded practice. Baptiste recommends holding the poses longer than usual and using your breath to soften and release the pelvic area. He also suggests letting go of your idea of what a pose should look or feel like. Back off if you sense yourself pushing too hard or going too far. "It's more important to show up and do these poses consistently," he says. "Be the tortoise, not the hare. Slow and steady always wins the race."
Invocation and Breathing: Chant Om 3 to 6 times. Then establish a deep, audible pattern of Ujjayi breathing. Inhale for five counts and exhale for five counts. Remember to maintain this steady, even breath as you begin to move through the sequence.
Sun Salutations: Do 3 to 6 Sun Salutations of your choice to warm up your hips and build heat in your body. Then begin the featured sequence.
1. Anjaneyasana (High Lunge)
From Downward Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands. Keep your back heel lifted and come onto your fingertips. See that your bent knee is directly over your heel, not in front of it. On an inhalation, sweep your arms toward the ceiling with your palms facing each other. The strength and stability of your lower body should make your upper body feel light and mobile. Stay for 5 breaths.
2. Low Lunge
Exhale and bring your fingertips back to the mat. Lower your back knee and come onto the top of your back foot. Let your front knee come slightly forward of your heel. Bring your hands to your front knee and breathe deeply as you stretch your inner left groin. When you're ready, inhale and sweep your arms toward the ceiling. Stay for 5 breaths.
3. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose II), variation
Bring both hands to your front knee. Reach back with your left hand, grab your back foot, and pull it toward your left buttock. This will create an intense stretch in your left quadriceps. Stay for 5 breaths.
4. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), preparation
Release your back foot, come onto your fingertips, and lower your right leg to the floor with your right knee behind your right wrist. Extend your left leg straight behind you. Keep your right thigh parallel to the side of your mat, and your shin parallel to the front of your mat. (Place a blanket under your right hip for support if necessary.) Fold forward for 10 breaths, allowing your hips to soften and release. Then come onto your fingertips, tuck your back toes, and step back into Downward Dog. Pause and notice the difference between your right and left sides. Then go back to the High Lunge and repeat the sequence on the left side.
5. Navasana (Boat Pose)
Navasana works your abdominals, but it also builds heat in your body, which helps with hip openers. From Downward Dog, hop your feet toward your hands,while you cross your ankles and lower your knees to the floor. Sit behind your heels and extend your legs into Navasana. Stay directly on top of your sitting bones, bending your knees if necessary. Do five rounds, staying for 5 breaths each time.
6. Agni Stambhasana (Firelog, or Double Pigeon)
Stack the right shinbone on top of the left. The right ankle will be on top of the left knee, and the right knee atop the left ankle. Stay for 5 breaths, then fold forward for 5 breaths.
7. Ardha Purvottanasana (Half Upward Plank Pose)
Lean back and place your palms on the floor with the fingertips facing forward, about a forearm's distance behind your hips. Keeping your right ankle on top of your left knee, place the sole of your left foot on the floor. As you inhale, press your palms into the floor and lift your hips up into a tabletop position. Take 5 deep breaths, then lower your hips.
8. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
Bring your left leg back to Double Pigeon, then draw your left heel closer to your right buttock. Place your right foot to the outside of your left knee. Inhale deeply and lengthen your spine. Exhale as you place your left elbow to the outside of your right knee and twist to the right. To feel a stretch in your right hip, press both sitting bones into the ground evenly. Stay for 10 breaths, then go back to Navasana and repeat poses 6, 7, and 8 on the left side.
9. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Stretch your legs straight in front of you. If your lower back rounds, sit on the edge of a folded blanket. Inhale as you lengthen the front of your torso, exhale as you release and fold forward. Stay for 10 full breaths, without tugging or forcing. Feel the entire back of your body stretch.
10. Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose)
Place your hands on the floor with fingertips facing forward, about a forearm's distance behind your hips. Point your toes, press into your hands, and lift your hips as high as you can. This final pose stretches the front body, including the hip flexors, and provides a nice counterpose to Paschimottanasana. Stay for 5 breaths.
After You Finish
After Purvottanasana, practice Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose) for 3 to 5 minutes to reverse the circulation and rejuvenate the legs. Alternatively, you can take Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose).
Give yourself time to integrate the sequence by lying flat on your back and resting in Savasana (Corpse Pose).