Flex Your Power
When you have only a short time for your daily practice, which poses do you choose? Whether you opt for a simple Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), the paired inversions Sirsasana (Headstand) and Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), or a restorative pose to counter your hectic day, consider including another pose consistently: Virabhadrasana I, (Warrior I).
I often sing the praises of this challenging pose to skeptical students who feel that it’s a lot of work without a lot of noticeable benefit, so let me explain my enthusiasm for it. In my work as a physical therapist and yoga teacher, I’ve noticed that many people in our sedentary society have tight hip flexors, which they don’t stretch much, if at all. I’m convinced that short, tight hip flexors are a major factor in many cases of chronic or recurring back pain that so many people experience in the West. The hip flexors become tight when the hips are constantly placed in a flexed position—think sitting, driving, or sleeping in the fetal position. Like any other muscles, hip flexors will shorten structurally if they are not stretched. However, if you incorporate Virabhadrasana I into your regular practice, you’ll stretch the hip flexors, helping them gradually return to their normal length and easing a source of backaches.
The hip flexor muscles include the iliacus, psoas, rectus femoris, tensor fasciae latae, sartorius, and, in some situations, the short adductors pectineus and adductor brevis. All of these muscles (except the adductors mentioned) cross the front of the hip and are active in hip flexion, which pulls the femur (thighbone) and torso closer together. The hip flexes when you perform a sit-up or lift your leg toward your chest while standing. (Each of these muscles has other actions, too, but we’re focusing here on their hip-flexing ability.)
Of the whole group of muscles, the iliacus and psoas are the strongest hip flexors. They are often referred to as the iliopsoas because they both follow the same path and have exactly the same action. Although they have different origins—the psoas originates on the lumbar spine, while the iliacus originates on the inner surface of the ilium, one of the large bones of the pelvis—they come together in the very back of the lower abdomen and run across the floor of the pelvis, over the outer part of the pubic bones on each side, and dive deep through the inner upper thighs to attach to the inner upper femurs.
The iliopsoas is powerful partly due to its size—each psoas is nearly as big around as your wrist—and partly because its position so close to the hip joint gives it excellent leverage. It is such a strong muscle, in fact, that it can influence the tilt of your pelvis and therefore the position of your spine during your daily activities. In other words, when the iliopsoas gets very short and tight, it can pull your pelvis into an anterior (forward ) tilt. This type of tilt—when the top rim of the pelvis tips forward and down and the coccyx (tailbone) lifts up—usually puts the lumbar spine into hyperextension, also known as a swayback. (A posterior or backward pelvic tilt happens when the top of the pelvis moves backward, the coccyx moves down and tucks under, and the lower back flattens.) Strong abdominals help pull the pelvis into a posterior tilt, but you might be surprised to hear that even if you have strong abdominals, a tight and strong iliopsoas muscle can win the battle and tilt your pelvis forward.
A chronically hyperextended lumbar spine puts the lower back muscles in a shortened position, causing them to ache. If the only thing that relieves your lower back discomfort is to lie on your back and pull your knees to your chest (therefore flattening the curve), you might have a hyperextended lumbar. Hyperextension also puts a greater percentage of your upper body weight onto the small facet joints on the posterior aspect of the vertebrae instead of on the solid vertebral bodies and disks, where it’s meant to be. Too much weight and compression on the facets cause wear and tear of the cartilage covering the bone in the facet joints, which can result in painful osteoarthritis.
Tip Your Hips
Enter our hero Virabhadrasana I, which can stretch the hip flexors, correct an anteriorly tilted pelvis, and help decompress your lower back. But remember to focus on practicing it with a strong posterior pelvic tilt. If you don’t, and your psoas and iliacus are tight, they will pull the lumbar spine into hyperextension and you’ll eventually feel lower back compression and pain in the pose.
There are several ways to learn how to hold a posterior tilt, but it’s best to learn the action first before integrating it into the pose. Try this: Stand with your back to a wall, with your heels about a foot away from it and your knees slightly bent. Feel an anterior tilt by moving your frontal hip points (the two bony knobs on the front of your pelvis, each known as the ASIS, or the anterior superior iliac spine) down toward your thighs, your coccyx up the wall, and your lower back away from the wall. To move from an anterior to a posterior tilt, lift your ASIS (hip points) up away from your thighs, take your tailbone down the wall, and feel your lower back move onto or toward the wall.
Now that you’re familiar with the action of a posterior tilt, here’s how to incorporate it into your Virabhadrasana I. Set up the pose with your back to a wall, right foot forward, left heel pressing into the wall. Place a strap over the upper thigh in the crease of your right hip and hold it down with one hand on each side of the thigh. Be sure to keep your chest lifted and your shoulders down. If you are in an anterior tilt, your hip points will drop down toward or even onto the belt. To counter that, bend both knees a little and strongly lift your hip points up off the strap and into a posterior tilt. With the hip points lifted, gradually straighten the left knee, pressing the heel into the floor but keeping the lift up on the hip points, in order to stretch the iliopsoas across the front of the left hip. Keep in mind that for most students, when the front knee bends more deeply, up to the ultimate goal of 90 degrees, it’s hard to hold the posterior tilt. If that’s the case for you, try coming only partway into the pose.
You can deepen the iliopsoas stretch a bit more by minimizing the external rotation of the left hip. When you do this, your left knee will turn out less. The iliopsoas is an external rotator, so it will try to reduce the stretch by externally rotating as you do a posterior tilt. To lessen this, be sure to turn your left foot 60 degrees away from the wall. (In standing poses like Warrior II, you turn your foot out more, so that it’s parallel to the bottom edge of your mat.) Once you’ve done that, square your pelvis toward the wall across from you as much as you can by pressing the left inner heel down firmly, lifting the left inner knee, and using the strength of the left leg to help bring the left half of the pelvis forward. You’ll not only deepen the iliopsoas stretch, but you’ll also protect your left knee from a twisting injury.
As your iliopsoas stretches and lengthens, it will pull less on your lumbar spine and pelvis, and you’ll be able to lift your lower back up out of the pelvis, thereby decompressing it and relieving discomfort. You may also notice that your posture, both standing and walking, improves, and you might enjoy a new sense of space in your hips and lower back. And you can rest assured that you’re helping prevent arthritis in your lower back.
I hope I’ve made a convincing case for consistently including hip flexor stretches in your home practice. It’s especially important to work them on sedentary days and before practicing backbends—if you’re stuck in an anterior pelvic tilt, you can imagine the compression in the lower back while you do Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), or Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). When you consider adding Warrior I as your iliopsoas stretch, know that you’re setting the stage for a strong and healthy back in the years to come.
A physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad runs a physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon.