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Hip to It

Feel ease and increase flexibility in your hips with three propped poses.

By Jason Crandell

HiptoItSized

When you get up after a long stint in your desk chair, or when you sit down to meditate, do your hips talk to you, telling you their tales of tight, achy woe? For most people, they do. Even if you did Pigeon Pose yesterday, that bittersweet stretch of the outer hip and buttocks never seems to last long enough. Put in just a little time every day, though, and your hips will thank you. You'll feel more at ease in your body, and your meditation practice will feel less like a chore.

The hips are constantly on the job. They're densely packed with strong muscles and tendons that keep the joints stable, but they are also mobile enough to move you around from place to place. It takes awareness and attention to strike this sweet balance between ease of movement and stability. In addition, sitting in a chair and bearing weight on your pelvis all day limits circulation, and when you don't regularly put your hips through their full range of motion, they get tight. It's essential to do more than just the occasional Pigeon to keep your hips open and agile. Herewith, we present three creative—dare we say fun?—ways to incorporate more hip-opening poses in your daily routine.

Action Plan

The soft tissue around the pelvis is complex and multilayered. In order to access and stretch this intricate web of hip muscles and deep rotators, it's helpful to incorporate several poses into your regular routine. In this practice, you will focus on creating flexibility in two gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius) and a group of six external rotators (piriformis, quadratus femoris, obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior).

The End Game

Your hips are the central hub of movement in your body. When they're tight, it's like wearing a pair of pants that are a size too small—the reduced range of motion in your hips, hamstrings, and spine creates discomfort. Opening this region increases the efficiency of the circulation to your lower extremities, provides better range of motion, and will help you feel more at ease during meditation and in seated postures.

Before You Begin

Since repetition is the most essential aspect of keeping the hip area flexible, these three postures are designed to fit easily into a daily routine. You can add them to any phase of your practice. Placing them early in a sequence will prepare you for standing poses, twists, and forward bends. But if you prefer to warm up first, you can finish your practice with the poses and settle into them deeply. These three poses can also make up your entire practice. Don't underestimate the value of simply taking 10 minutes a day, either in the morning or in the evening, to drop into these poses.

1. Pigeon Pose, variation

How to: Place a bolster along the right side of your mat and have two blocks nearby. Come into the pose by situating your right sitting bone, outer thigh, and knee on the bolster. Align your front shin so that it is parallel to the front of your mat. To focus the action more intensely in your hip rotators (and to minimize the possibility of overstretching your front ankle), be sure to flex your front foot. Slide your left leg toward the back edge of your mat, leveling your hips and placing your hands on blocks set shoulder-width apart in front of you.

Before deepening the pose, you may need to troubleshoot two areas. First, if your front ankle is uncomfortable or if you feel too much weight on your shin, place a rolled mat under your outer shin just above your ankle. This should relieve pressure on your foot and ankle. Second, if your knee is uncomfortable or if you're unable to place your front shin parallel to the front of your mat, pull your front heel toward your hips.

Once you settle into the pose, observe the location and intensity of the sensations in your right hip and buttock. If possible, bring your forearms to the blocks and settle the weight of your pelvis more deeply into the bolster. Root down through your arms and lengthen your spine forward while you gently draw back through your right groin and sitting bone. Complement these actions by slightly twisting your trunk to the right. This movement will create a more intense stretch in the deep layers of your outer hip. Stay for 1 to 2 minutes, breathing smoothly, before changing sides.

Why This Works: This propping typically makes it easier to bring the front shin parallel to the front edge of your mat, which will encourage your thighbone to externally rotate more. Setting up this way will also give you more access to some of the deeper external rotators of your hip. Since every body is unique, it's normal for you to feel the stretch in a slightly different place than your neighbor.

2. Ankle-to-Knee On Chair

How to: You will take three versions of this pose in order to emphasize slightly different muscles in the outer hips and buttocks. Notice which version brings up the greatest resistance, and be willing to repeat that version more consistently in your daily practice.

To prepare, sit on the front edge of the chair with your knees hip-width apart and your feet directly under your knees. Place your right ankle on top of your left knee and flex your foot to maintain the alignment of your ankle and knee.

To enter the first phase of the posture, place your hands behind you on the chair seat or press them against the rungs of the chair back. Root down through your sitting bones, lengthen your spine, and tilt your pelvis forward. As you hinge forward, imagine that you are going to extend your heart beyond your front shin. Glance at your front ankle and make sure that you are maintaining your flexed foot, which should prevent your ankle from rolling out. Relax your jaw, eyes, and abdomen as you settle into the opening. Take 5 to 6 smooth breaths before entering the second phase of the pose.

Continuing to drop more deeply into the feeling of your body and breath, take your left hand and press it against the bottom of your right foot for the second phase of the posture. As your left hand presses your right foot, return the favor: Use your right foot to press into your hand. There will be no actual movement of the hand or foot, but the reciprocal actions will intensify the stretch and slightly shift its location. Reground your sitting bones, lift your chest an inch or two, and elongate your torso. Notice the sensations—they're probably pretty hard to miss at this point—and deepen your breath for 5 to 6 more rounds.

For the last phase of the pose, wrap your left arm underneath your right shin and hold on to your right kneecap with your left hand. Place your right hand on your right thigh near your hip crease. Lift your torso slightly, gently twist toward your right leg, and press your hand against your thigh to add leverage to your rotation. Adding this twist will create an even deeper external rotation in your right hip. Intensify the opening by gently pulling your right hip crease with your right hand, turning your torso deeper into the twist, and leaning your upper body slightly back. Notice how this final version complements the previous versions by slightly altering the focus of the stretch. Drop into your breaths for 5 to 6 rounds before releasing the posture and switching sides.

Why This Works: A chair provides you with excellent stability and leverage for working deeply into your glutes and hip rotators, especially if you find it difficult to sit on the floor. This is also a great alternative if hip-opening poses typically cause discomfort in your knees.

3. Ankle-to-Knee At Wall

How to: Finding the appropriate distance from the wall will likely require a little trial and error. If you are too close to it, your hips will begin to lift off the floor; if you're too far from it, you won't receive a sufficient enough stretch. Keep this in mind and adjust your body accordingly as you nestle into the pose.

To prepare, cozy up to a wall. Lie on your back, bend your knees, and place your feet on the wall. You'll find the greatest amount of comfort if you place your feet so that your shins are perpendicular to the wall. Meanwhile, your sitting bones should be as close the wall as you can get them.

Press your feet into the wall, lift your hips, and place your right ankle on your left knee. You're about to initiate the process of sliding away from the wall until you hit your sweet spot. Once you have your right ankle on top of your knee, gradually inch away from the wall until your lower back and sacrum touch the floor. If you go too far too quickly, you will lose the stretch in your hip, so be sure to move slowly and deliberately. Once the backs of your hips touch the floor, root down firmly with your sacrum and tilt the front rim of your pelvis forward. You might not feel any discernible movement in your hips, but the action will intensify the stretch. Check your left leg to make sure that your shin is perpendicular to the wall. Flex your right foot and see that your ankle is not rolling out.

Cross your arms overhead and rest your forearms on the floor (or place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your heart) as you relax the rest of your body into the floor. Direct your awareness and breath into your right hip, encouraging the tissues to soften and release. Stay for up to 3 minutes before changing sides.

Why This Works: Reclining in this pose allows you to exert a minimal amount of effort while you get a nice stretch in your hips and buttocks. Since the pose does not require a significant output of energy, you can hold it for a while, accessing deeper layers of resistance while settling into your breath.

Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.

August 2012

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