One of the seldom-explored rules in the yoga world is the decree that we should never transition between a “closed hip” and an “open hip” position, and recently proponents and opponents of the transition have become louder.
As students and teachers, we each have a personal, often unspoken perception of what behavior or alignment in yoga is considered right or wrong, good or bad, safe or unsafe. When we examine the debate critically, we see that there are layers of nuance to the question.
What does “closed hip” and “open hip” even mean?
Closed-hip positions are those in which your hips are facing forward, meaning the fronts of your thighs orient in the same direction as the front of your pelvis. Imagine postures such as Utkatasana (Chair Pose), Ashta Chandrasana (High Lunge), and Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3). In this position, the hips are internally rotated toward neutral–what we consider closed.
Open-hip positions are those in which one or both of your hip joints are externally rotated and not in alignment with one another. These include postures like Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2), Utkata Konasana (Goddess Pose), and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), in which the fronts of the thighs rotate outward and away from the front of the pelvis so that it faces a different direction than the other hip. This is considered an open hip.
The concern behind the “forbidden” type of transition is that rotating from one hip position to the other while the hip joint is bearing body weight—for example, from High Lunge or Warrior 1 to Warrior 2 or from Warrior 3 to Half Moon—holds an unacceptably high level of risk.
Potential risks of closed-hip to open-hip transitions
Yoga transitions in general can be challenging. It’s one thing to create a stable joint position when you are static. It’s another to maintain deep muscular support around a joint while moving.
When we explore this particular type of transition from closed to open hips in greater detail, the potential risks that are often cited include:
Grinding in the hip socket
The movement is said to gradually wear away the cartilage that cushions the head of the femur (thigh bone) in its socket, the acetabulum.
The moving bones are said to potentially pinch nearby structures between them, whether the joint capsule, the cartilage lip (or labrum) that surrounds the hip socket, or deep ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
When one or both of the sacroiliac (SI) joints create a slight twist in the sacrum in relation to the shifting pelvis, the unnatural position can cause irritation in the joint or surrounding structures.
Over time, rotational stress on the femur is theorized to lead to the potential for stress fractures, especially in the comparatively narrow-angled neck between the main shaft of the femur and the ball at its head.
Is there truth to the hype?
Risk is rarely absolute. It usually exists on a continuum. Any movement practice holds some potential for injury. Yet if we look at the continuum for physical activity, anything we do in yoga—in which we move fairly slowly, mindfully even, with body weight as our only load—will incur far less risk than activities that involve speed, higher loads, jumping, rapid changes of speed or direction, and potential for falls.
In fact, we transition between hip positions in everyday life without any fear of damage to the hip or SI joints. Imagine standing in your kitchen, turning between the stove and the sink, inadvertently changing the orientation of your pelvis in relation to one or both of your hips along the way. You probably do that all the time without carefully repositioning your feet.
Given that our hips are adapted to fairly high mobility while weight-bearing, it’s probably safe to assume that most of us can move between positions like these without incident, both in yoga and in life. Although it is possible that on a random day this transition could irritate your hip, sacrum, or knee, the absolute risk is fairly low.
However some of the specific yoga transitions in question shift slightly further along the risk continuum. Moving from Warrior 3 to Half Moon, for example, requires us to employ close to our full range of motion in the standing hip. We are less practiced in this When we attempt to transition from this rather precarious balancing position, we need some measure of neurological control to maintain a stable joint position yet we are less practiced in this specific movement. And then we up the ante by loading all of our body weight onto that hip.
The reverse transition, from the “open hip” of Half Moon to the “closed hip” of Warrior 3, has the potential to increase the load further by adding the momentum of gravity. In either version of the transition, our focus is probably less on hip stability than on trying desperately to maintain our balance.
Here’s the thing about physical stress…
The likelihood of injury is nowhere near as high on the yoga mat as in other physical activities; even driving holds the potential for a crash. However, it’s certainly possible to imagine these movements placing some level of stress on the hip joint, especially if the transition is new to us or we are far enough into a physically challenging practice that the muscles supporting the joint have begun to fatigue.
Here’s the thing, though: stress does not automatically equal damage. In fact, our bodies adapt to stress by becoming stronger, provided the stress is in the appropriate dose. Insufficient stress can lead to atrophy. Excess stress can lead to overwhelm. But the level of stress that approaches our capacity without exceeding it actually triggers positive adaptations: our bones and soft tissues lay down additional supportive collagen fibers and our nervous system becomes primed to take in and respond to new information, becoming more efficient the next time we encounter a similar challenge.
How much stress is too much? Well, that depends. Your capacity is individual to you—a factor of your unique anatomy, physiology, history, even psychology. How close does this pose come to your unique end range? How elastic are your soft tissues? What influence do your hydration or hormone levels have on your soft tissues today? Are you coming into practice fatigued from other pursuits? How practiced are you in this movement? What is your perceived level of comfort or stress?
So, can I transition from Warrior 3 to Half Moon?
In a group yoga class, where individuals vary widely, you can understand why it’s easy to fall back on simple rules like “always” and “never.” But easy doesn’t equal accurate. At the level of our individual practice, safety is not guaranteed by blindly following rules, especially ones that we do not understand.
While it is possible for a yoga transition—whether it’s a one-off movement or repeated over time—to lead to injury, the likelihood of that outcome depends on an equation that is unique to each of us.
The remedy, as is so often the case with the practice of yoga, is curiosity and self-reflection. If the transition from Warrior 3 to Half Moon feels like too much on your hip joint, there are plenty of other ways to explore the movement between “closed hip” and “open hip” positions to assess whether they feel safe for you.
How to (safely) practice the transition
The following are less-intense alternatives in which you can explore how the movement from Warrior 3 to Half Moon feels for you.
Reduce your range of motion
How does it feel when you stand upright, facing the front of the mat, with gently bent knees—a hint of Chair Pose—and then take a small step back to land with your foot slightly turned out in something that hints at Goddess Pose? If that feels comfortable and natural, test out whether the experience changes as you inch toward a wide stance, with deeper flexion in your knees and your hip. Even the dreaded Warrior 3 to Half Moon transition can feel markedly different with your torso and back leg only inclined rather than leaning all the way horizontal to the mat.
Reduce the load
How does it feel to reduce the load, or body weight, on your standing hip? You probably already do a similar movement as Warrior 3 to Half Moon without any body weight in Supta Padagusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). In this supine hamstring stretch, you move from the “closed hip” position of lifted leg stacked above your pelvis to an “open hip” position where the lifted leg moves out to the side. If the movement itself feels fine, maybe your solution to the standing version of the pose is to share the load between your feet rather than burdening a single leg. You might try a version of Warrior 3 in which you keep your back toes on the mat or touch them down before you transition. Keep them there as you rotate your hips into a version of Half Moon with your back toes still grounded. You can then lift your back foot in Half Moon if you like.
How does it feel when you slow down during this transition? Sometimes all we need to create and maintain muscular support around a joint is time and attention. Rather than going through the motions while you’re rushing to keep up with an externally imposed pace, try this during your personal practice. Offer yourself as much time as you need to move mindfully.
Maybe that means creating a subtle lift out of your full range of motion in one pose before moving to the next one (see “Reduce Your Range of Motion” above). Maybe it means inserting additional poses along the way: From Warrior 3, try lightly stepping back to High Lunge, then slowly opening to Warrior 2, and then shifting smoothly forward into Half Moon. This is ultimately the same transition but taken more slowly, without the need for impeccable balance, and with less weight on the joining of your standing leg.
To sum, closed-hip to open-hip transitions are generally lower risk than many of the other things we do in life, especially when we move mindfully in a range of motion over which we have quite a lot of control. But that’s not the whole story. It’s tempting to rely on quick answers, black-and-white rules that replace the need for personal inquiry. But that’s not what yoga is about, whether we are talking about asana or other aspects of the tradition of yoga. Almost every question we bring to our practice is likely to be answered by a long exploration that begins with “it depends,” whether that question relates to yoga transitions or something far more philosophical.
About our contributor
Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.