Judging from the overwhelming number of requests I get for certain poses in class, my students feel the same as I do after 22 years of consistent yoga practice: we love our hip openers.
Thanks in large part to chair culture—in which we sit most of the day as we work, text, type, drive, and binge-watch Netflix—this area of the body can feel achingly tight. Conversely, athletes who run, cycle, hike, or walk, also experience tightness around the hips. Exploring various hip movements in yoga can elicit enhanced flexibility and sometimes there’s even an accompanying emotional release. It’s easy to understand why these are some of the most anticipated poses in a yoga class.
While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hip openers, in my teaching experience, personal practice, and education, I have learned that when it comes to hip opening, more is not always better.
The physical form and function of your hips
Our hips were elegantly designed to move in just about every direction. Although many poses in yoga stretch the hips, for our purposes, “hip opening” refers to lateral rotation (or “external rotation”) in the hip joint, which means your hips are opened away from the center of the body, such as when your lifted knee is pointed away from you in Vrksasana (Tree Pose), your front leg is turned away from your back leg in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), or your legs are opened out to the sides in Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Legged Seated Forward Bend).
The reason the hip joints can achieve such an impressive range of motion is the anatomy of this ball-and-socket joint. The head of the thigh bone (femur) fits into the hip complex in a divot called the acetabulum, which is derived from Latin and means “vinegar cup.” This gives you a good indication of its shape.
To make the hip joint more stable, the rim of the acetabulum is extended by a layer of connective tissue called a labrum. (Your shoulder joints, also ball-and-socket joints, have a labrum as well.) The hip joint is further cushioned by cartilage and synovial fluid.
Thanks to biodiversity, there is tremendous variance in the size of the acetabulum and the depth and angle at which the head of the femur fits into it, which leads to an array of differences in mobility from one individual to another. The same pose literally looks different in each student who practices it.
There are six deep muscles that insert on the greater trochanter of the femur (the “ball” of the ball and socket joint). These muscles laterally rotate each hip joint. It is thought that one of the main tasks of the “Deep Six” is to keep the hip joint stable. Additionally, the psoas as well as the iliacus (the hip flexor muscle that helps lift the thigh each time we take a step forward in yoga or in life), weave through the area and pass across the front (or anterior) of the joint, making the area a superhighway of mobility and strength—or, as the case might be, tightness.
The entire area of the hips is stabilized by ligaments, which are connective tissue that holds bone to bone. Ligaments are designed to be strong and only somewhat flexible to allow for the give and take of movement.
Exploring hip-opening movements in yoga stretch the muscles and stress the ligaments and other connective tissue in positive ways. This releases synovial fluid from the joint capsule, which in turn facilitates and preserves mobility over time.
The energetic form and function of the hips
Students sometimes talk about the experience of emotional release during a hip-opening pose. In terms of the energetics of these postures, yoga philosophy theorizes that the hip complex includes the two lowest chakras—or intersections of energy—called the muladhara (root) chakra and svadhisthana (sacral or “her favorite dwelling place”). The whereabouts of chakras loosely correspond with nerve plexuses, and these two energy centers in particular cover the essential physiological needs of that part of the body: elimination and procreation.
Emotionally, these chakras are believed to address the need to be grounded, to be wanted, to desire, to create, to love, and to be loved. Perhaps because of the proximity to these centers, hip-opening poses can feel like a deep release of tension or emotion. Is it any wonder why we love hip openers so much?
See also: A Guide to the Chakras
When more is not more
Paradoxically, the students who should be most mindful of habitually overdoing it in hip-opening poses are often the students who are most adept at them. Libby Hinsley, a physical therapist and yoga therapist, specializes in working with yoga practitioners with hypermobility issues and is writing the upcoming book, Yoga for Bendy People.
Hypermobility is the ability for a joint to have a higher range of motion (ROM) than average, explains Hinsley. It sometimes stems from a genetic difference in connective tissue, which can contribute to a lack of proprioception (your ability to sense where you are in space), altered interoception (your ability to sense what is happening within your body), or excessive tension in the muscle system, among other things. Pregnant women can also experience hypermobility due to the release of a hormone called relaxin, which prepares the parent-to-be for childbearing by creating greater laxity in ligaments.
Overstretching doesn’t lead to laxity, explains Hinsley. Similarly, hypermobility itself isn’t a problem and might not cause any pain or symptoms. What often happens is people who are hypermobile seek out yoga, whether because of their innate flexibility or the desire to feel more sensation. It’s the pursuit of the physical feeling of a stretch that can cause hypermobile students to move toward or past their end range of mobility, where they are at more risk of injury due to the inherent laxity of their tissues.
“This exploits existing laxity and sets a hypermobile person up for potential injury,” says Hinsley, since hypermobile students can overstretch the ligaments, which contributes to instability in this critical joint. “What they really need from their practice is stability to support the joint.”
Yoga can provide this very stability by increasing strength as well as awareness. Hinsley has strong guidelines for practice that are inspired by the Desikachar style of yoga. First, she suggests her “bendy” practitioners practice slowly. This affords them an opportunity to feel what is happening on a subtle level in their body without pushing to their end range of movement. Also, she suggests they practice balance postures, which create a situation in which one must move mindfully in and out of balance poses, which can improve proprioception and cultivate stability.
Ali Cramer, a teacher of vinyasa since 2003 and author of Modern Ayurveda, is a former professional contemporary dancer. Cramer required a bilateral hip replacement in 2008 thanks to years of stress on her body from dance and a congenital short neck of the femur. Speaking from her own experience, Cramer says, “If I do too much external rotation, my IT bands [iliotibial bands] get crazy tight. I go out of my way to point out where—in a general class—all practitioners can become stronger to balance hypermobility in their hips.”
Cramer empowers students to understand the balance between stretching and strengthening and flexibility and trains teachers at Prema Yoga Institute and SoulFull Solutions to sequence more safely and mindfully for all bodies. For example, a posture that uses strength to balance flexibility is Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), particularly the variation in which you squeeze a block between your thighs to practice hip adduction (moving the thighs toward the midline of the body).
What if I’m not super bendy?
If all this talk about hypermobility seems foreign to you and your hips feel like a vice, then you’re in luck: hip-opening poses are probably exactly what you need! Stretching those “Deep Six” muscles by laterally rotating and flexing your hips in shapes like Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and Agnistambhasana (Fire Log Pose) will help you in other poses as well as everyday life.
How to safely practice hip openers
You might be wondering, “So wait, should I practice hip-opening poses?” Absolutely! In a culture in which sitting has become the norm, the hip joint dearly needs range of motion (ROM) movements to remain mobile, hydrated, and healthy. There’s no reason to avoid hip openers. Simply practice them mindfully. Whether you’re a student or teacher, the following advice will help keep you safe as you stretch.
Include a warm-up
Ease your way into movement before attempting intense hip openers. Remember that movement releases synovial fluid from the joint capsule. With a ball-and-socket joint like the hip, circular movements work well to encourage this natural lubrication. A warm-up also prepares your muscles for lengthening, potentially preventing excessive stretch in the connective tissue.
Practice weight-free hip opening
The safest place to work on joint mobility is when you’re not bearing weight in the joint. Moving from one end direction of motion to another while bearing weight on the hip joint could cause undo wear over time, but zero-gravity movement empowers the joint to move freely.
In standing poses, this can look like moving your lifted leg in a Down Dog split (also known as Three-Legged Dog) and bending the lifted knee to circle it. Or transitioning from Half Moon Pose into Ardha Chandra Chapasana (Crescent Half Moon Pose) by bringing your lifted heel behind you and reaching for it with your lifted hand to create a bow shape. The transition from Utthita Hasta Padaṅgusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose A) to version B practiced in the Primary Series of Ashtanga can also safely externally rotate your hip by first lifting your leg in front of you before taking it to the side. When the rotating leg is not bearing weight, there is no undue pressure on the rotating hip.
Reserve deep external rotation for seated or reclined stretches, when the joint is not obliged to bear the body weight. This allows you to safely find the necessary release when you’re seated, such as in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Fire Log Pose, Pigeon, Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), and Wide-Angle Seated Forward Fold.
For even more freedom and safety, try these shapes while lying on your back. The lack of any weight-bearing allows you to move the joint to its full range of motion (but not past it) without the added stress or risk of compression in the joint.
Don’t force the shape or the stretch
Hip-opening poses can bring a needed release, but know your limits. When you overtax your muscles and ligaments, you stress your body in unnecessary ways. Modify poses to suit your needs. For example, in Bound Angle Pose, you can slide your heels further away from you to lessen the intensity yet still retain the hip-opening benefits. In Yin Yoga poses, a noticeable sensation or even ache is typically OK, but pain is not.
Teachers, try to keep your language inclusive by relying on cues that take into consideration students that land everywhere on the hip mobility spectrum in your class.
Take your time coming out
Don’t rush coming out of intense seated or reclined stretches that take you into deep rotation of the hips. When staying in a hip opener of one minute or more, such as Yin Yoga poses or supported restorative poses, bring your hands to your outer thighs and use the strength of your arms to draw your legs together so that you do not need to immediately fire the muscles that were stretching.
The secret is in the sequencing
As a rule of caution, avoid moving from a deep twist in standing poses to an external rotation in the standing hip joint. That means if you’re practicing a Low Lunge twist, consider resting that standing leg in a Down Dog split before transitioning into Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), which calls for external rotation. That way, you’re not asking the hip joint to rotate while it’s compressed from bearing weight.
Don’t neglect counterposes
A counterpose can be any position that moves your body in a way that’s counter to how it was in the previous pose. They should be easier and shorter in time and duration to release tension. You may also counter a deep stretch with movement that feels easeful, and that helps release the intensity of the stretch.
- During standing sequences: Hinsley suggests that bendy practitioners incorporate non-rotating symmetrical poses more frequently to balance the external rotation. This means postures where both legs are doing the same thing and your legs are parallel to one another, such as in Downward-Facing Dog, Plank, Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), and Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
- In between seated stretches: Moving your thighs like windshield wipers can feel lovely.
- At the end of class: Toward the end of a hip-opening class or personal practice, it’s valuable to once again find a more parallel alignment in the thighs to balance that deep external hip rotation. In a restorative yoga sequence, this could look like supported counter poses such as Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall Pose) or Savasana with a bolster or a pillow under the knees and the legs hips-width and parallel to one another rather than splayed.
Remember, subtle is advanced
Since I am now advancing into my third decade of practicing asana (yoga poses), I can report that I no longer overvalue the sensation of stretch above the other benefits of yoga. I’ve listened to my teachers who caution against “chasing the sensation” and I’ve learned to respect the feelings that arise and to balance my flexibility with strength and stability. Like the shift from dharana, or concentration, into meditation, I find subtle interoception to be an advanced practice that will take some time and study. There is so much more to explore in doing less.