Stan Urban, 48, a competitive cyclist, turned to yoga three years ago when he began to experience lower back pain, a very common ailment among cyclists, who spend the majority of their time hunched forward over the bike. Though Urban thought his problem centered in his lower back, his coach and yoga instructor, Dario Fredrick, had a different theory. Shortened hamstring muscles along the backs of Urban's legs coupled with tight hip flexors along the front of his thighs, as well as tight groin muscles and hip rotators, were preventing him from riding his bike in the proper form.
Essentially his pelvis was locked into position by his tight muscles, forcing him to bend forward from his spine, rounding his back on the bike. Fredrick, an Iyengar Yoga teacher and former elite cyclist in San Anselmo, California, suggested a series of asanas that emphasized stretching and opening the front, back, and sides of the hips. It was similar to the series of asanas that Fredrick used to recover from a cycling-related knee injury years before. Today Urban is cycling pain free, and his performance on the bike has improved as well. "The stress on my body from competitive cycling really demanded some extra attention to flexibility, and the yoga has helped me a lot," states Urban.
Cyclists are not the only athletes who can benefit from asanas that stretch and strengthen muscles that attach to the hips and pelvis. Runners, swimmers, tennis players, and others often experience the same tightened muscle groups from repeatedly using one set of muscles. These muscles include the following:
Hamstrings: A group of muscles along the backs of the thighs, hamstrings restrict the extension of the hips when tight, which forces you to round your back as you bend forward.
Hip Flexors: The psoas and iliacus (collectively called the ilio psoas) attach your thighbone to your lower spine and ilium bones (top of the pelvis). When they tighten, they can pull the top of your pelvis forward, compress the back of your lumbar (overly arching your lower spine), or draw the tops of your thighbones forward of and tightly into the hip sockets.
Hip Rotators: Along the sides and backs of your hip, the piriformis (a small muscle that attaches the back of the sacrum to the thighbone) and gluteus maximus (a much larger muscle that connects the back of the sacrum and pelvis to the upper thighs) roll your femurs outward. When they are tight, they will force you to stand with your toes pointed outward, putting pressure on your inner knees and also restricting your lower back.
To tell if your hips are tight, stand and look at your feet. If your toes naturally turn out, you may need to work on opening and balancing the muscles of the hips. As your tightened hip and leg muscles pull your pelvis forward and roll your thighs outward, they then put more pressure on your knees and lower back. However, problems can result in other areas of the body as well. Robert Sherman, a post-rehabilitation specialist and Ashtanga and Bikram instructor in Bethesda, Maryland, once coached an avid kayaker with a shoulder injury. The problem actually stemmed from tight hip muscles, which were changing his body position in the kayak and inhibiting his paddling stroke.
Sports that emphasize one side of the body, like golf or baseball, compound hip problems by creating imbalances between one side of the pelvis and the other. For example, baseball requires you to lunge frequently on one leg but not the other. "One side of the body becomes tight but strong, while the other side becomes flexible but weak," says Sherman. "Without exercises to stabilize the flexible side and stretch the strong side, you develop muscle imbalances along the pelvic girdle and spine."
All of this can add up to injuries. Muscle imbalances and tight muscles along the hips often set up a cascade of problems, resulting in lower back pain for cyclists and swimmers, shoulder problems for tennis and baseball players, and knee pain for runners. Also, tight muscles along the hips can affect a runner's stride. Tight hip muscles slow down a cyclist's cadence and hinder a swimmer's ability to move through the water with efficient form.
Conversely, doing asanas that relax and open those areas produces the opposite effect. "You'll get a greater range of motion, more fluidity to your movements, and lower your risk of injuries," says Fredrick. To free the hips, focus on asanas that include full range of motion in the hips. That's why Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged Pigeon Pose) is one of the most often prescribed hip openers. It stretches the outer hip and groin of the forward leg and the hip flexors of the rear leg, addressing nearly all of your problems in just one stretch.
You also need to incorporate postures that will zero in on particular hip areas and promote better body awareness. For example, Eka Pada Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (One-Legged Bridge Pose) helps to stretch the hip flexors and teaches you to feel the proper position of your hips as you focus on bringing your knee toward the centerline of your body.
Both Fredrick and Sherman suggest that you turn your focus inward as you practice to listen to subtle cues from your body and breath. This way you can recognize if one side of your body is tighter than the other. Then you can use the natural wisdom of your body to cue you to release and relax into various postures. And as a result, "You will achieve more body mobility, which allows you to move with less effort," says Sherman. "What was once difficult or challenging becomes easier."
Alisa Bauman is a freelance writer based in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.