Many of us could use more hip opening. From sitting to standing to walking, our legs are constantly working to support our upper bodies. All this effort can make hip muscles chronically tight, especially when we’re sitting for long periods at desks or in cars.
The phrase “hip-opening” often creates confusion, as many people assume that it’s similar to opening a door or book, and therefore limited to taking your legs apart. But opening your hips means creating mobility in all directions.
Hips are ball and socket joints, which are the most mobile joints in your body. The head of each thigh bone (femur bone) forms the “ball’, which sits in the socket (acetabulum) of your pelvis.
Ball and socket joints also do circumduction, which means moving in all three planes, like when you swing your leg in a circle.
In order to stretch a particular muscle group, you must take your body in the opposite direction of that group’s movement. For example, if you’ve been sitting for long periods, which is hip flexion (taking thighs toward your chest), you’ll want to extend your hip (taking your thighs back) to release your hip flexors.
Your Hips in All Planes of Movement
We are three-dimensional beings. We move in space in many different directions. We can go forward and backward, side to side, and inward and outward. And most of the time, we move in some combination of those directions all at once. For example, to set up our front legs in Pigeon, we must both open our legs to the side and rotate our thigh bones outward.
The anatomical planes of movement help us organize and understand range of motion. They provide a universal language for the body. Imagine going to a different country where their up is down and their left is right! It would make for a fun, albeit confusing trip. Instead, anatomists and body lovers alike use the planes as common vocabulary.
In the sagittal plane we move forward and back. The movements include flexion (forward motion) and extension (backward motion). Flexion at the hip joint means pulling your thigh up to your chest, like when we fold over our thighs in Child’s Pose. Extension is taking the leg back, like when we lift the leg in a downward dog.
In the coronal plane we move sideways. The movements of the coronal plane at the hip include adduction (bringing the legs together) and abduction (taking them apart). An example of adduction in the coronal plane is Eagle Pose. Abduction would be stepping the legs wide apart, like Prasarita Padottanasnana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend).
In the transverse plane we rotate. The movements at the hips are internal rotation (turning the thigh bone in) and external rotation (turning the thigh bone out). For example, when we turn the legs out in Malasana (Garland Pose), the hips are in external rotation. In Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), our thigh bones roll inward and are in internal rotation.
Knowing the planes helps us improve range of motion in our hips, and ultimately, balanced hips are open hips!
Try these 6 poses to find balance and range in your hips in all directions.
Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
stretches the inner-thigh adductors
Begin sitting on your mat. Bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together, pulling your heels up to your groin to make a butterfly-like shape with your legs. For true abduction (taking your legs apart), use your hands to squeeze your big toe mounds together. Keep your elbows bent and hanging heavily to release your neck. You may remain upright if this is plenty. Otherwise, on an inhalation, lengthen your spine and then on an exhalation fold forward at your hip crease. Try not to worry about getting your head to the floor. Most of us can’t! Instead, lengthen your chest toward the front of your space, while releasing the muscles of your neck away from your ears. Remain for 25-30 long breaths. Inhale to come out with a long spine. Close your legs together and stretch them to straight.
See also A Home Practice for Happy, Open Hips
Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) legs
stretches the outer-hip abductors
Sit on your mat with both legs straight out in front of you. Cross your right thigh tightly over your left, stacking your knees. Pull your right heel back by your hip. This may be plenty. If you have space, bend your left leg and pull your left heel back by your hip. Try squeezing your inner thighs together, which will help to further release your outer hips. Inhale and reach your arms overhead. Then, exhale and fold over your knees. If that is challenging, remain upright on your fingertips, leaving space for your belly to breathe. Stay here for 20 breaths. Inhale to come up to sit. Straighten your bottom leg first and then your top. Switch sides.
See also Master Cow Face Pose in 6 Steps
Low Lunge variation
stretches hip flexors
Start in hands-and-knees, or tabletop, position with your hands on blocks. Inhale your right leg back and exhale to step your foot in between your hands. Curl your back toes under and hover your back knee one-inch from the floor. Keeping your knee bent, begin to reach your back heel to the wall behind you strongly. This will almost feel like you are trying to straighten your leg. The key to this release is the opposing forces of the bent knee releasing down and your heel reaching back. Imagine your tailbone is heavy and weighted toward the floor. At the same time, draw your chest bone to the front of your space, and glide your shoulder blades down toward your waist. Remain for 15 full breaths. Return to tabletop before repeating on the left side.
Ardha Hanumanasana (Half Splits)
stretches hip extensors
Put two blocks at the side of your mat within reach. From a tabletop shape with your knees, inhale your right leg up and back and exhale to step your right foot in between your hands. Place your hands on the blocks. Inhale to draw your front hip back, straightening the leg. Slide your front foot and leg forward until your pelvis is in front of your back knee. Flex your right ankle strongly. Inhale to lift your chest and exhale to fold over the straight leg. You may keep your hands on the blocks if that is more spacious, or take your left hand to your right foot, pulling your toes back for more length. Remain here for 15 breaths. Come out mindfully, by first re-bending your knee, returning to a Low Lunge shape. Step your right leg back, bringing your knees together in table. Switch sides.
See also Hit a High Point in Standing Splits
Wide Supine Twist
stretches hip internal rotators
Lie onto your back with your knees bent and feet and legs as wide as the mat. Take your arms into a cactus shape. Drop your legs to the left, keeping your thighs apart. Rotate your upper body away from your legs, turning your head and neck to the right shoulder if that is okay on your neck. Otherwise, look straight up to the ceiling. The weight of your top leg provides a release for the internal rotators of that leg. If your knees are healthy, take your right ankle (the bottom leg) and place it atop your left outer thigh, giving yourself an adjustment. Breathe here for 20 breaths. To come out, first uncross your legs. Bring your knees up through the center and take a breath before heading to the second side.
6. Double Pigeon Pose
stretches hip external rotators
Sitting on your mat, cross your legs, placing your right shin over your left shin. Your knees and ankles will be stacked. Keep your ankles firmly flexed. If you find that your top knee is poking up to the ceiling or your knee is being torqued, please honor your body and cross your shins in the center instead, resting your knees over the ankles for Sukhasana (Easy Pose). You may remain upright or fold forward at your hip crease. Walk your arms out in front of you, staying high on your fingertips. Keep your buttocks grounded as you inhale and lengthen your spine toward your head. You may rest your forehead on the floor or a block. Remain for 30 breaths. At the end of you last breath, walk your hands back up to lift your torso upright. Lean back and switch the stacking of your legs to repeat on the left side.
See also A Sequence to Cut Through Stagnation