If you aren’t familiar with the iliotibial (or IT) band and the problems it can cause, you’re very lucky. The IT band is a thick band of connective tissue runs from the pelvis (the iliac crest, or hip crest) along the hip, down the outside of the thigh, around the outside of the knee, and to the tibia, the top of your shin. The friction of repetitive motion can irritate this tract of tissue, resulting in pain on the outside of the hip or the knee (or both). IT band stretches can release some of the tension and tightness in the tissue, alleviating or preventing IT band syndrome and its related pain.
Sit with your legs crossed, right leg on top. Tighten the knees toward the midline. They may stack right over left, or there may be a lot of space between them. If your right leg is very high, make sure you’re sitting on a prop. Then fill the space between your knees with a towel or a blanket to encourage the top leg to release. When your right leg is on top, you might find your pelvis tilting to the left. Raising both hips can help, as can filling the space between the right sitting bone and the floor or even elevating just the left hip to coax the right hip lower. Experiment to find the most comfortable situation.
Once you can comfortably align the knees in front of your navel, fold forward. First, inhale, lengthen the spine, and angle the hips forward. After a few breaths there, allow the spine to drape. Your hands can prop you up, or they can relax and hold your ankles.
The arm position, which works the shoulder, chest, and top-arm triceps, is more attainable when you use a strap. When your right leg is on top, your left arm will be the top arm. Take the strap in your left hand, then raise the left arm as though to backstroke, but keep your palm facing forward. As the arm is extended overhead, bend the elbow and drop the hand behind your head, hanging the strap along your spine with the palm facing your back. The right arm begins with a breaststroke motion, sweeping around to the right before bending at the elbow, back of the hand to your back, reaching for the strap.
Once both hands connect to the strap, you can work them closer together. Your upper elbow points upward and your lower elbow points downward. If you don’t have a strap, let your left hand hold your collar, while the right hand hooks your shirt or sports bra. Eventually, you may be able to clasp your fingers behind your back. Wherever your hands are, keep your shoulders parallel to the floor, and keep your chest open.
If the hand position feels too intense, you can incorporate any other shoulder stretch here: Eagle Pose arms, fingers interlaced behind the back or overhead, or hands to opposite elbows behind the back. Combining the Cow Face arms and legs keeps the forward fold honest, since you can’t round the spine as you fold and still maintain the original position of your hands. Maintain this arm position during the active portion of your fold, and release it as you relax into the fold. When your left leg is the top leg, let your right arm be the top arm. Be sure to hold both sides of the pose until each side feels even.
Pigeon Forward Fold IT Band Stretch
From a low lunge, take the right arm to the outside of the right knee. Slide the right foot to the left, and lower the right shin to the ground. Your right heel will move into the space in front of your left hip point, while the right knee should be ahead of your right hip point. Your left leg rests on the mat, with thigh, knee, and top of the foot aligned on the floor. The outer edges of both legs run parallel to the long sides of your mat. The pelvis should stay square. Keep your hips level in space. They may be far from the floor, and that’s fine. If you’re really high up, fill the space beneath you with a blanket.
Now fold forward with your spine long. As you shift weight onto the fold, the sensation in the right hip will intensify. Find a place of pleasant intensity in this IT band stretch and stay there. Your hands could be on the floor, or you could be propped on your elbows. As this first edge dissolves, slowly move deeper. Eventually, you might be folded fully over the right leg, in which case you can relax your arms, either overhead or out to either side. Stay here for a while if you have the time, as long as a few minutes.
IT Band Frog-Legged Stretch
Come into Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), then extend your legs as far from you as you can. Keep the thighs externally rotated and the heels touching (the toes will part). You’ll be looking down on frog legs. Fold forward from here for an IT band stretch. Spend a few breaths angling forward from the hips with an engaged back, then a few breaths with your back released.
The external rotation of the legs in this pose stretches both the IT band and the piriformis muscle, a deep hip rotator that, when overly tight, causes many woes: a literal pain in the butt; problems with pelvic alignment, which can radiate down the leg and up the spine; and sciatica, an irritation leading to pain and numbness when an overly tight muscle clamps down on the sciatic nerve.
Cross your legs in front of you, left leg on top of the right. Loosen the cross to bring your right knee beneath your left ankle and your left knee over the right ankle. Keep your lower legs active, echoing Mountain-Pose alignment in the action of the feet, which flex at the ankles. Make sure your left ankle is truly over the right knee. This takes some negotiation between the sensitive flesh of the inner knee and the boniness of the outer ankle, but it’s important to pull the ankle over the knee so that you aren’t overstretching the outer ankle. This overstretching can happen when you let the foot take a sickle shape, with the toes rather than the ankle resting over the knee and the foot in the crease between the upper and lower leg. If your left knee isn’t settled against the right ankle but instead is suspended in space, no worries; this is really common, as the pose is very intense. It might feel good to fill the empty space with a towel or blanket.
As you settle into the hip stretch, find length in the spine—you may need to prop up on your fingertips—then fold forward by angling the pelvis. It won’t take very long before you hit an obvious stopping point. Perhaps you fold an inch forward, or maybe two; sometimes just stacking the legs brings you to the limits of your hips. Be patient and be gentle.
After a few breaths with an active back, let the spine relax. Sit up on an inhalation and slowly move to the second side, bringing the right leg on top of the left, knee to ankle, ankle to knee. Hold until you feel even. Square Pose does a lot of good for your hips. But it’s not a very fun place to be. This doesn’t need to be your favorite pose, but it should be a regular part of your practice. It teaches you to stay near your edge and it yields great results when you practice diligently.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes) Twist
The Half Lord of the Fishes twist segues easily either to or from Cow Face Pose, since it starts with a similar leg configuration. In addition to its twist, it deepens the stretch in the hip of the top leg. To begin, you’ll be sitting with legs crossed, the left leg on the bottom, left heel just off the right hip. The right leg crosses on top of the left, and the knee is high in front of the midline of the body, with the sole of the foot resting on the floor.
Wrap your left arm around your right leg, left elbow near right knee. Sit tall. Inhale and rotate clockwise, bringing your right arm behind you to help prop you up. As you exhale, twist to the right. Continue breathing, finding length in the spine with each inhalation and rotating slightly deeper with each exhalation. Depending on the flexibility of your spine and shoulders, you may be able to bring the left elbow across the knee, which provides leverage to twist deeper.
Cross-Legged Reclining Twist
Begin from your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Cross your right knee over your left, keeping thighs and shins together. Bring your hands out to a T position, and keep your back in place as you exhale and drop your legs to the left. This stretches the outer hip, IT band, and hip flexors. The inside of the right foot will come to the floor, and the right knee may or may not rest on the ground. Keep the right shoulder down, and turn your head to look over your extended right arm. If the stretch is very intense along the outside of the right leg, lower your legs to a bolster or blanket instead of to the floor, and practice breathing in the face of intensity.
See also: The Best Yoga Bolsters
When you’re ready to move to the second portion of the twist, keep your legs in place—right crossed over left—as you inhale to lift the legs to center and exhale to lower them to the right. Now the left inner foot will turn to the floor, and the weight of the right leg will enhance the stretch for the left hip. Keep your shoulders steady and breathe, turning your head away from your legs to look over your left shoulder. Inhale to bring your legs up to center, then cross the left leg over the right, dropping the knees first to the right and then to the left.
Excerpted from The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga by Sage Rountree PhD, E-RYT 500.