If you spent your childhood taking ballet lessons or were ever teased for walking like a duck, there's a good chance you have an imbalance between two important muscle groups: those that internally rotate the hips and those that externally rotate them.
The splayed-feet look is the result of external hip rotators that are stronger and tighter than internal rotators. If you have such an imbalance, you may have to work harder to create some basic alignments in your yoga poses. You may not find it easy or comfortable, for example, to stand with your feet parallel in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or to keep them parallel when you're upside down in Headstand or Shoulderstand.
In many backbends, habitual turnout can lead to compression in your lower back. And if your external rotators are really short and tight, they can literally be a pain in the butt; by putting pressure on your sciatic nerve, they can create numbness or pain, which can then radiate down your leg.
Fortunately, understanding the interplay between your internal and external hip rotators can help you avoid or overcome such problems. Even if you don't have an imbalance between these two muscle groups, learning about their actions can help you achieve more stability and better form in your asanas. Strengthening your internal rotators appropriately will also give you more stability in all kinds of sporting activities and in your daily life.
Tweak in the Knees
Even if you do walk like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, don't rush to judgment about your hip rotation. To be sure your hips are externally rotating, take a look at your bare legs while facing a full-length mirror.
Stand as you normally would and look carefully at your knees. If your kneecaps point straight ahead, most likely your hips are fairly evenly balanced between internal and external rotation. If your kneecaps turn in, your hips are internally rotated. If your kneecaps point away from each other, your hips are externally rotated.
The muscles responsible for external rotation are a large and potentially strong group. They include the biceps femoris (the hamstring on the outer back thigh) and the more posterior muscles of the buttocks (the powerful gluteus maximus near the surface and six much smaller deep external rotators underneath). At the front of the body, the iliopsoas and the sartorius externally rotate the hip as well as flex it (pull it toward the chest).
To improve the flexibility of these muscles, you need to regularly practice a wide range of poses, especially ones that involve stretching your hamstrings. When doing hamstring poses, make sure you don't let your leg turn out, since that movement will let the biceps femoris escape the full stretch. To lengthen the gluteus maximus and the deep external rotators, use Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) and the seated twist Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose). And don't forget to practice Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) and plenty of lunges to stretch the iliopsoas.
Tune In to Turn In
If you do externally rotate, it's probably not just because your external rotators are tight but also because your internal rotators are weak. Like the external rotators, the internal rotators are a large group of muscles distributed all around the hip area. They include the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius, both smaller than the gluteus maximus and located on the outer hips. These muscles, which connect the outer pelvis to the outer upper femur (thighbone), not only internally rotate your hips but also help stabilize the weight of your upper body as it's transmitted to your legs. When weak, this group of internal rotator muscles can contribute to instability in the pelvis, including at the sacroiliac joints, and in the connection between the torso and the legs.
Another internal rotator of the hip is the tensor fasciae latae. Located on the outer front hip, this muscle also works with the iliopsoas and the sartorius to flex the hip. So if the tensor fasciae latae is weak in relation to the iliopsoas (an external rotator), your hip will externally rotate whenever flexed—in other words, every time you take a step.
Finally, the hip is rotated internally by the two innermost hamstrings: the semitendinosis and semimembranosis. These muscles also extend the hip—the action you create when you lift your hips off the floor to come into Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose). The massive gluteus maximus and the biceps femoris also extend the hip, so if these two muscles overpower your two inner hamstrings, you'll externally rotate your hips whenever you extend them.
As a yogi, you want to avoid this undesirable combination of actions. When you extend your hip, as in backbends or when you lift your leg in Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III), external rotation can create compression in your lower back and sacroiliac joints.
To eliminate or at least reduce this compression, you need to strengthen your internal rotators sufficiently to counter the powerful and, typically dominant, gluteus maximus.
Let It Roll
To strengthen your internal rotation, begin by practicing it in positions where it comes fairly easily. That way you can get a clear experience and body memory of the action, which you can then apply in more challenging poses.
Start on your back, legs straight out on the floor and heels together. Let your legs relax completely; if you're like most people, your legs will roll out in this position. Now try to roll them back in so the inner edges of your feet come together. If you are a strong external rotator, it may feel a bit tiring to hold your feet parallel, or you may not even be able to do it.
To make this action easier and to build endurance in the internal rotators, slide to a wall and press into it with the soles of your feet. Again relax your legs and give in again to your stronger, tighter external rotators. Your feet will turn out and you'll feel the outer edges of your feet press into the wall while the base of your big toes and your inner heels will feel lighter.
Now, to counter the strength of the external rotators, bring the inner edges of your feet together and press the base of your big toes and your inner heels into the wall. At the same time, press your inner thighs quite firmly toward the floor and, with less force, toward each other. All these actions engage the various internal rotators. Hold this position until your muscles start to fatigue—at first, this may take only a few seconds; eventually, you may build up to several minutes.
After you've gotten the feel of internal rotation, begin to integrate it into poses that especially challenge it, like Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). Lying on your back with the soles of your feet on the wall, lift your right leg and catch the foot with a yoga belt. Keeping your left knee completely straight, press your inner heel and the base of your big toe into the wall, and draw your inner thigh toward the floor. As you create these actions, you engage the internal rotators of your left hip.
Now bring your awareness to your right leg. Press your right inner thigh toward the wall as you straighten your knee, resisting the tendency of the outer right hamstring to pull your leg into external rotation. Focus more on the rotation of your leg than on pulling your right foot toward you; when you're stretching your hamstrings to the max, it becomes nearly impossible to adjust your leg's rotation.
Stand and Deliver
Next, let's apply internal rotation in several standing poses. Standing upright with your feet together in Tadasana, engage internal rotation: Without collapsing your inner arch toward the ground, press the base of each big toe and the inner heel of each foot into the floor and press each inner upper thigh toward the back of your body. As the goal is a neutral leg with the kneecap pointing straight ahead, don't overcorrect by internally rotating so much that your knees look toward each other.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose) is a one-legged balance that also challenges your internal rotators. After you lift your right foot to bring the sole to your inner left thigh, check the alignment of your torso. Are your navel and breastbone facing in the same direction as your left toes and knee? Or has your trunk rotated to the right? If so, the internal rotators of your left hip are falling down on the job. To help train them, practice with your left heel near or against a wall and your shoulders and buttocks lightly touching the wall. As you turn your right knee out, keep both buttocks evenly against the wall. You can apply the same techniques in the even more challenging Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana II (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose II).
It's also important to internally rotate when you do inversions and seated forward bends. Again, the goal is to have your knees point straight ahead (up toward the ceiling, in seated forward bends), so your legs are neither externally nor internally rotated.
The internal rotators should also be integrated into backbending. To do this in poses like Setu Bandha Sarvangasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), make sure your feet are parallel rather than turned out. Then, as you lift into the pose, press weight into the big toe mound and inner heel of each foot. It's fine to use the outer hamstrings and the buttocks muscles to help you extend your hips, but don't let them overwhelm the internally rotating hip extensors. Engage your inner hamstrings by pulling from the back of your knee toward the back of your hip and by lifting the outer thighs faster than the inner thighs. In these backbends, always be aware of your feet: If more weight shifts onto the outer edges of your feet, you're externally rotating—and increasing the likelihood of compressing your lower back.
One last caution: Some people externally rotate their legs because of an anomaly in the shape of their femurs or in the orientation of the hip joint itself. If you feel discomfort in your knees, ankles, or feet as you work to reduce your external rotation, you may have one of these structural anomalies and should be checked by a knowledgeable health care provider or an experienced yoga teacher well trained in anatomy and kinesiology. But if your only difficulty is the hard work of internal rotation, I urge you to persevere. Your internal rotators may grumble and complain, but with time and practice, they'll grow stronger, and your whole physical structure will benefit from a better-aligned foundation in your legs.
A licensed physical therapist and certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad runs a private physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon. She regrets that she cannot respond to correspondence or calls requesting personal health advice.