In a society where we naturally tend to do a lot of sitting—whether it be time spent in an office or driving in the car—it is very common to have tightness that manifests in the hips. Why does this happen? Sitting all day causes the hip flexors to contract and become tight, making full hip extension difficult or painful. The result? One can develop chronic lower back pain, experience limited range of motion for key movements in the gym like squats and have difficulty fully activating the glutes.
What can you do about it? Unroll your yoga mat, where hip opening is an essential part of the practice. For some students, working with hip openers brings about that “ahhh” sensation (if you have fairly open hips to begin with). For others, the mention of hip openers causes moans and groans! Whether you are very free in this area of the body or work with congestion, I will go through several key yoga hip openers that will have you feeling great and create more mobility…with repetition and patience.
Hip Anatomy & Compensations
The hip flexors group is actually made of three muscles: the iliacus, responsible for hip flexion up to a level parallel with the ground (90 degrees); the rectus femoris, partially a knee extensor, it also assists the iliacus in hip flexion to 90 degrees; and the psoas, responsible for hip flexion above the 90 degree level.
You’ll notice weak and tight hip flexors through low knee lift when sprinting, unstable bottom depth when squatting and chronic pain in the hip region. This feeling of tightness causes a lot of forward “pull” to the pelvis, causing issues like anterior pelvic tilting (think overarching forward) of the low back when standing and sitting. As a result, the hamstrings can get pulled long and tight due to this compensation, which will cause trouble for your lower body’s functionality. If this resonates with you, I recommend working in some key yoga poses prior to starting your gym workout.
Liberate Your Hips With These Magic Moves
Pigeon pose increases external range of motion of the femur in the hip socket, lengthens hip flexors and prepares the body for backbends:
1. From downward facing dog, lift the right leg high to the sky, and then open your hip and bend the knee. Swinging the leg gently forward, land so that your shin creates an angle and the right knee is behind the right wrist; the right ankle behind the left wrist.
2. Slide your back leg way back behind you so it is extended, with the top of your foot on the mat, or if you desire, you can tuck the toes. If you feel tenderness in the knee, place a yoga blanket underneath it. In general, avoid being directly on your kneecap, and focus on being more on the quadriceps.
3. Keep your right foot nicely flexed to protect the right knee. Draw the right hip back in space and move the left hip forward toward square, and begin to descend forward. You may keep your arms straight, or fold down to forearms or extended arms, depending on the flexibility level. If it is impossible to have your shin parallel to the front of the yoga mat, ease off a little bit and draw the shin slightly in. If you feel very tight in the hips and have trouble breathing through the stretch, use a yoga bolster underneath the hips.
4. Breathe through the sensations. This will help you to “let go” and eventually create some juicy space. Hold for ten breaths, and repeat on the other side.
You may discover that the other side is tighter or more open than the first side. This is because we all tend to be stronger on one side, or we “use” one side more in our lives. Often, it is more fun to work with the open side and ignore that pesky tight side, but don’t do it! Be patient!
Cobbler’s pose (sometimes also referred to as butterfly pose) is a great way to also open the hips and groins and can be done seated (shown) or reclined.
1. From a seated position, draw the soles of your feet together, letting your knees fall out to the sides. Once again, if it is tough to sit up, sit on the very edge of a yoga blanket.
2. Wrap your hands around the tops of your feet, and imagine you are opening up a book. Keep your navel drawing in and up as you feel the stretch throughout the hips.
3. Fold forward, keeping your shoulders back and away from the ears. Breathe here for ten breaths.
Lizard really kicks up the heat and is another different way to create not only an opening through the outer hips, but also the inner thighs as you “hug in” the working leg. As well, you need to keep a long spine, as the tendency will be to round forward.
1. From downward dog, step your right foot between your hands to a lunge position. Bring both forearms to the floor inside the right leg. Keep your inner left thigh lifting and resisting.
2. As your left heel reaches back, your heart opens forward to create length in your upper back. You can modify the pose by bringing your back knee down or placing your forearms on a block.
3. Hold here for 10 breaths, and try the other side.
Goddess can be done by “gods” and “goddesses” alike! This one stretches the ankles, groins and back, tones the belly and can provide relief from lower back strain. As always, if this is a bit too intense, get out your yoga block and sit on it for support.
1. From a standing position, separate your feet hip-width apart. With hands on hips, squat down and imagine you are sliding down a wall so your spine stays long. If your heels pop up, fold up a yoga blanket to place beneath the heels for support.
2. Bring hands to the heart center in prayer position, and use your elbows to pry the inner thighs open.
3. Lift from the center of your body so that you are not totally sinking to the floor. There is a big sense of lift here through the crown of the head. Keep your navel engaged. You can also play with turning the feet out, but be sure to keep your knees over the ankles.
4. Hold this position for several breaths.
This is a “big one” and is usually referred to as double pigeon! It looks like stacked firewood, hence the name, but also creates a lot of “agni” or fire in the body. It provides a deep stretch to the hips, opening the outer hips and buttocks. It also stretches and strengthens the groins, thighs, calves and abdominal muscles. This pose gently stimulates the abdominal organs, which helps to regulate digestion and metabolism.
1. From a seated position and sitting up tall, begin to stack the right leg over the left, so that the right knee stacks over the left foot, and the right foot stacks over the left knee. Flex both feet to protect your knees.
2. If the hamstrings are tight and sitting up tall is difficult, sit on the edge of a yoga blanket.
3. If you are in the original version, try walking your hands forward of your legs and folding forward or add a twist, as shown in the photo. Do you feel it? Breathe, and repeat with the other shin stacked on top.
So, there you have it. The keys to opening up this very tight space in the body. When you do eventually find freedom here, you will not only notice strength in other moves, but peace and less congestion in your low back. Namaste!
Model Pictured In Pigeon, Cobbler’s Pose, Goddess Squat & Lizard: Sara Intonato, E-RYT 500
Sara took her first yoga class as an 18 year old college student in Boston, Massachusetts. She fell in love with yoga and began practicing daily. By the time she graduated from Boston University in 2003, Sara had already completed her 200-hour Hatha Yoga certification and begun focusing her practice and teaching in the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition under the tutelage of David Swenson. In 2005, Sara made her first trip to Mysore, India to study under Guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and deepen her connection to the Ashtanga Yoga lineage. She continues to make annual trips there, furthering her practice with R. Sharath Jois, Guruji’s grandson whom has guided the tradition since his grandfather’s death in 2009. While in India, Sara studies chanting with Dr. M.A. Jayashree, PhD and Sri Lakshmish. In New York, Sara remains connected to the tradition as a student of senior teacher Eddie Stern. She humbly dedicates her practice and teaching to her late Guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his family.
Author & Model Pictured In Firelog: Lana Russo, RYT 500