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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.
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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.
Self-Palpate Your Hip Crest and ASIS
Place your hands as shown in the photo. You should feel hardness of the hipbone under your hands. The frontal-most portion of the hip crest is called the ASIS and is located right below the right thumb in the photo. Your rectus femoris attaches to the hipbone right under the ASIS.
Self-Palpate Your Rectus Femoris Attachment
Use these self-palpation exercises to differentiate between your rectus femoris and the other surrounding hip flexors.
Sit on a chair and place your thumb on the ASIS. Gently move your thumb down and under the ASIS. Keeping your thumb under the ASIS, gently slide your right foot away from the chair, extending your leg. You should feel the tendon of the rectus femoris pumping up into your thumb. Repeat this contraction-relaxation series three times.
Now, gently lift your knee up, flexing your thigh, and feel all of the flexor muscles under the ASIS contract. Relax the foot on the floor, allowing the muscles to relax. Repeat this contraction-relaxation series three times.
Self-Palpate Your Leg Extensors
Now it’s time to palpate the rest of the rectus femoris muscle, which runs from a spot right under the ASIS all the way to the kneecap. Continue with the previous self-palpation exercise, but gradually move your fingertips away from the ASIS toward your kneecap, self-palpating at five different points between the ASIS and kneecap.
Slowly lift your right foot off the floor. This should engage your rectus femoris. Now, lift your right foot off the floor a second time, but provide powerful resistance with your left leg. This should engage all of your leg extensors, including your rectus femoris and the surrounding group of vastus muscles.
Relax. Feel your muscles relax. Repeat this contraction-relaxation series three times and try to differentiate between your rectus femoris and vastus muscles.
Soma System Self-Bodywork for Your Rectus Femoris: Floor
Lie down on your yoga mat and place two muscle rollers or tennis balls above your right knee. For more intensity, remove one muscle roller. For less intensity, add one or two more muscle rollers. Remember your experience should always be comfortable and pleasant.
Relax your upper body on the floor and observe bodily sensations coming from your thigh. Stay on each spot for 20–30 seconds and then reposition the rollers one inch up toward your hip, gradually covering your entire frontal thigh.
Once you become comfortable with this exercise, take it further by flexing your leg to bring your foot up, and then internally and externally rotate your thigh.
Soma System Self-Bodywork for Your Rectus Femoris: Chair
Sit on a chair. Place your roller squad (massage glove) with metal balls facing down or a tennis ball on your thigh just above your knee and apply your bodyweight through your arms by leaning in. Intermittently apply more and less pressure, then slowly roll the tool over your frontal thigh to gently massage the area.
Soma System Self-Bodywork for Your Rectus Femoris Attachment
Sit on a chair. Find your ASIS and move your thumb under it to gently explore your rectus femoris attachment. Once your master working on your attachment with your thumb, you can use a focus roller tool if you have one to replace your thumb and save it from repetitive strain. If you don’t have a focus roller, continue using your thumb.
Soma System Self-Bodywork for Gluteus Maximus Activation
Begin by self-palpating your sacrum. (Never apply pressure on your sacrum while performing the exercise.) Lie down on your yoga mat and bend your knees. Place one muscle roller or tennis ball to the left and one to the right of your sacrum.
Gently move your hips from left to right. As a result, the muscle rollers will gently massage your gluteus maximus. Continue for 1–2 minutes. Then, find one spot to the left of your sacrum and focus on working this spot. Repeat on the right side.
Gluteus Maximus Strengthening
Now that you’ve activated your hip flexors and glutes with self-bodywork, it’s time to strengthen them. The next time you practice yoga, pay close attention to asanas that work these muscles, like Virabhadrasana III.
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