Summer vacations always seem like the perfect time to read a book that has nothing to do with your work life. Such was the case last week as I was leading a retreat in Montana. A friend had given me “Fooling Houdini” by Alex Stone, an interesting story that is part memoir part history of magic.
I was a nut for magic as a kid. So it was with no small excitement that I plunged into my new book. Stone writes about the history of cups-and-balls illusion that is part of almost every beginner’s magic set. You've seen it: There are three cups and one ball and you have to identify the cup that the ball is hidden under. “The shell game is essentially the con man’s version of the cups and balls—the oldest recorded magic trick, dating back to Roman conjurors known as acetabularii (literally, 'cuppers') …” he wrote. My heart skipped a beat! I love it when human anatomy shows up in unexpected places.
You see, the human pelvis is made up of a right pelvic bone and a left pelvic bone which meet in the front at the pubic symphysis, and in the back, have the sacrum bone wedged between them. On the right and left sides of the pelvis, there is a cup-shaped depression called the acetabulum (hat’s off to Roman conjurers!). It is lined with a cushion of connective tissue called the labrum. Nestled into that cup on each side is the top part of your upper leg bone, the femur, which is shaped like a half ball, and known as the head of the femur. It is covered with a layer of connective tissue known as cartilege. So when the pelvic bone and the leg bone come together, they have these cushioned surfaces that can keep them close and allow them to smoothly move over one another.
When yoga practitioners begin to notice pain around the hip joint area, there could be any number of underlying causes. It's always a good idea to get the joint evaluated, even if you are relatively young student, as certain joint issues are best addressed with the help of a doctor and orthopedic specialist.
However, something that I have found helpful for many students can be tried in almost all circumstances. Standing in Tadasana, bring a sense of strength to the leg muscles, feeling the muscles contract and engage and “hug” into the bones. Feel this all around the femur. Place your hands low on your hips, just below the top rim of the pelvis where there is a fleshier, muscular area. Firmly press into the hips and attempt to lift the pelvic bones off of the femur bones while simultaneously rooting down toward your feet with the legs. Imagine that as you do this that space begins to appear within the hip joints, the pelvis levitating a little bit away from the head of the femur. Whether or not this actually is happening is hard to say, for I’ve never been able to do an X-ray of my hips while I am creating this feeling, but it sure feels like it!
From here, you can take the pelvis and the rest of the body into any number of poses that involve movement in the hip joints. For example, into Uttanasana, or even more challenging Triangle Pose. I try to initiate the hip lift just before going into the tipping movement, and also try to maintain it through my final destination. It is even worth re-establishing the feeling of space and lift as you exit the pose.
Not only do most students report back that these standing poses feel better done this way, but many notice that a clicking sound that they often feel or hear in the front hip joint going into such poses also disappears with the hip lift. Because the standing yoga poses often bring a lot of force into these joints, this technique is particularly helpful. But don’t stop there! When you're upside down, reverse the effect and imagine that your femurs are lifting away from the pelvis to bring that sense of openness and lightness into the hips in poses like Headstand.
And as any good magician knows, the more you practice, the easier your technique becomes. So work with the hip lift to see if it makes your hips happier, and hopefully keep them healthier, too!