Every time you practice yoga, you are likely engaging and stretching your rectus femoris muscle. This hip flexor, running from your hipbone to your kneecap contracts to flex your hip or extend your leg like in Boat Pose and stretches when you extend your hip or flex your leg like in Camel Pose. That's why shortness and tightness in this muscle has the power to limit your range of motion and prevent you from mastering even the most common yoga poses, says Roman Torgovitsky, Ph.D., founder of Soma System Deep Tissue Self-Bodywork.
The Causes of Tight Hip Flexors
Any habitual posture that puts your pelvis in a position with a flexed hip and anterior (forward) tilt, like Cow Pose, puts your rectus femoris in a shortened position and eventually leads to shortening of the muscle. Sitting at a desk all day and wearing high heels are perfect examples, while long-distance and frequent running or overtraining on the leg extension machine at the gym can also expose your rectus femoris to overuse.
That kind of overuse or injury can lead to the development of trigger points that contribute to tightness, as well as knee and back pain. Tight hip flexors may limit your hip extension, which places strain on your joints and could make asanas like Bridge and Wheel Pose more challenging, as well as simple exercises like running. Limited range of extension in your hip joint can also lead to compensating by moving the pelvis into an anterior tilt and hyperextending the lumbar spine to achieve even slight hip extension. This compensation may become more pronounced in lunges, walking, and running. Lastly, a tight rectus femoris often inhibits its sister muscle, the gluteus maximus, making it weak and long and creating a muscular imbalance.
Unfortunately, we’re trained to suppress our bodily sensations, experiences, and emotions in modern life. The last time you had a shoulder ache after sitting slouched behind a computer screen, did you try to improve your posture? Did you perform self-massage to alleviate the pain? Most people simply ignore the ache. Long-term, that kind of suppression of your bodily experience may lead to increased chance of injury, poor self-regulation, and an overly stressed nervous system. Plus, “suppressing bodily signals of discomfort requires a lot of energy,” Torgovitsky says.
Soma System Deep Tissue Self-Bodywork gently works with deep myofascial tissues, breath, movement, and awareness to affect your nervous system and body. It makes a unique complement to the practice of yoga, which introduces movement into tense areas of the body and increases movement-based body awareness. This awareness obviously helps us navigate the world around us, but Torgovitsky suggests this skill has a deeper purpose. “Awareness of bodily sensations, experiences, and emotions is the foundation of self-regulation,” he says. “Self-regulation is the ability to notice when the mind, body, or soul starts asking for nourishment and then to change your behavior to provide that nourishment.”
While many yogis have exceptional movement-based body awareness, feeling every change in sensation when they move from pose to pose, most have relatively underdeveloped compression-based body awareness, according to Torgovitsky. That’s where self-bodywork comes in.
Compression-based body awareness is the discovery of the body’s deeper tissues through gentle compression. While movement allows you to access and stretch long chains of myofascial tissue, compression gives you to access to areas of your body as small as your pinky finger, according to Torgovitsky.
“It’s impossible for a regular yoga practitioner to evoke sensation in such a small body area using only movement,” Torgovitsky says. Such small trigger points can hold a lot of tension and pain that might be related to emotional suffering or even psychological trauma, he says. These blockages can also limit range of motion.
Many yogis intuitively stretch tight areas, but Torgovitsky argues that this isn’t necessarily the most effective approach, especially with larger muscles. You may actually be stretching areas relatively free from tightness. Soma System Deep Tissue Self-Bodywork instead focuses on accessing, loosening, and relieving specific small tight trigger points directly.
6 Steps to Relieve Hip Flexors + Other Tight Spots
1. Start with a body assessment.
Before you begin self-bodywork, move into a lunge or backbend that stretches your rectus femoris like Warrior I, Bow, or Camel Poses. Move slowly into the pose and notice when you first experience tightness or restricted range of motion. Then after you complete the self-bodywork exercises, slowly move into the same asana and evaluate your increased range of motion.
2. Always start with self-palpation.
To understand which specific body part you’re working on, you will use your fingertips to identify, or self-palpate, bony landmarks, following instructions in the upcoming slides. With muscles, you will repeatedly contract and relax the muscle, while applying gentle pressure to it with your fingertips to feel the change in muscle texture when it contracts versus when it relaxes.
3. Be gentle.
You will use your hands and tools to gently explore the body one spot at a time by applying moderate levels of pressure and observing the sensations and experiences this generates.
4. You should always be comfortable.
If you feel discomfort, this means you’re applying too much pressure. Painful or unpleasantly intense self-bodywork only reinforces the suppression of bodily sensations. The difference between pleasant and intense is often a subtle twist of the pelvis.
5. Stay focused.
Focus your awareness on observing bodily sensations produced as a result of the self-bodywork.
6. Don’t try to forcefully “release” tension.
The intention of the exercises is to build a detailed sensory map of your body in your brain, by exploring and connecting to your body on a grounded level. As a side effect, you will experience release.
8 Self-Bodywork Exercises for Hip Flexors
“Many yogis head to class with tight muscles after hours of sitting,” Torgovitsky says. “They end up forcing movement through restrictions and limitations in motion, which can increase their likelihood of injury long term.”
Spending 5–10 minutes releasing tight muscles before yoga class will improve your range of motion, decrease your chance of injury, and make your practice more joyful. Try this combination of self-palpation, self-bodywork, and strength training to balance your pelvic tilt and hip flexors.