Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land shares five bridge pose practices you can use to gauge your overall hip stability and build strength both for this pose and for everyday movement.
We are creatures of habit, spending hours a day sitting, standing, or moving in the same repetitive ways. Our muscles adapt accordingly—some areas become stronger, while others become shorter, tighter, or weaker, potentially creating imbalance around our joints. The key to healthy joints, however, is to reduce wear and tear on them by maintaining the intended positions of our bones. This requires balance in the tissues surrounding the joints.
The hip joints can be particularly sensitive because whenever we sit or stand they carry the full load of our body weight. It pays, therefore, to investigate the muscles surrounding those joints in order to identify any imbalances that could benefit from our attention.
Let’s take a 360-degree look at the muscles around our hip joints and the roles they play:
• On the posterior pelvis is the gluteus maximus, assisted by the upper hamstrings (biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus). These large and potentially powerful hip extensors help us stand up from sitting and assist us in driving forward when walking or running.
• On the lateral pelvis is the gluteus medius, with the smaller gluteus minimus beneath it. These muscles are primarily hip abductors. They also play a key role in positioning the pelvis in relation to the thighbone, or femur, which is crucial for the stability of the hips when we’re standing on one leg.
• The adductor group (pectineus, gracilis and adductor brevis, longus, and magnus) run from the pelvis to the inner knees, medial to the femurs. As their name suggests, these muscles draw the thighs toward the midline. They coordinate with the hip abductors to position and stabilize the pelvis.
• On the anterior pelvis are our hip flexors. Our primary hip flexor is the iliopsoas (formed by the junction of the psoas and iliacus), assisted by the rectus femoris (the only one of the quadriceps to cross the hip joint).
Our postural and movement habits, especially the simple act of sitting, can inhibit any of these muscles from working efficiently, which can lead to their feeling weak, tight, or both. But how do we know which muscles are working efficiently and which are not? How do we know where to best focus our attention?
In this brief practice, you’ll use five variations of bridge pose (setu bandhasana) to assess the individual muscles that surround your hips, and to examine how they function together. Bridge pose is particularly helpful for assessing the impact of sitting because it reverses that postural pattern by creating hip extensor strength, hip flexor length, and active hip stability.
You’ll need a yoga block and a strap.
1. Posterior Pelvis: Hip taps to focus on the gluteus maximus and hamstrings
Lie on your back with your feet and knees about hip width apart, knees bent and feet on the floor. Walk your feet a couple of inches farther away from your sitting bones than you normally would for bridge pose. Notice the space between your low back and the floor, and hug in around your waist so that your abdominals help maintain this neutral position.
Then drive down through your heels and, without changing your lumbar curve, lift your hips until you’re in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Bring your hands underneath you to palpate your lower gluteus maximus and upper hamstrings, feeling these muscles contract to keep your hips lifted. You can even lift the balls of your feet off the floor if that action helps you to better connect with the engagement in those muscles.
Maintain your focus on these muscles as you slowly lower your hips to tap or brush your mat, and then raise them again for a total of five times. Aim to engage your posterior pelvis without clenching, moving smoothly and without allowing your hips to shift from side to side. If these muscles aren't functioning efficiently, you may feel them clench or cramp, your movement may be jerky, or you could feel your hips sway from side to side. So aim for slow, smooth, steady movement straight up and down.
When you are done, lower your hips to the mat. Draw your knees into your chest, gently stretching the skin over your sitting bones for a breath or two before releasing your feet back onto your mat.
2. Lateral Pelvis: Strap stretches to target the gluteus medius
Create a hip-width loop in your yoga strap. Slide the loop around your thighs just above your knees and set up once again for bridge pose—this time with your feet placed as usual, closer to your buttocks. Without moving your feet, press your thighs out against the strap to pull it taut. Bring your hands to the sides of your pelvis to feel your gluteus medius contracting to abduct your legs.
Keep the strap taut as you lift your hips into bridge pose, and hold there for five breaths. Observe exactly how the muscle activation feels: Are you able to maintain strong and continuous engagement? Can you hold your hips steady without strain?
When you are ready, lower to your mat. Walk your feet wide apart and windshield-wiper your bent knees side to side for a breath or two.
3. Inner Thighs: Block squeezes to highlight the adductors
Set up for bridge pose, once again placing your heels under your knees. This time, place your yoga block between your thighs just above your knees, using its narrowest width. If you need to widen or narrow your knees to accommodate the block, do the same with your feet so that your heels still stack under your knees.
Squeeze the block as if trying to drag your feet toward each other and feel the activation of the adductors on the inner seams of your thighs. Maintain this engagement as you lift your hips. Remain in bridge pose for five or six slow and steady breaths. Notice whether you are able to maintain inward pressure on the block without your inner thighs shaking or cramping.
When you are done, lower your hips to the mat. Bring the soles of your feet together and open your bent knees wide, allowing the adductors to lengthen for a couple of long breaths.
4. Overall Pelvic Stability: Bridge walks
Reposition yourself for bridge pose, then lift your hips until they create a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Draw in around your waist to create a sense of cohesion between your rib cage and pelvis.
Then drive down into your right foot and hover your left foot a couple of inches off the floor. Slowly replace your left foot, and hover your right. If your hip stability is challenged beyond the capacity of your muscles, you may feel your hips wobble, or see one side of your pelvis drop closer to the floor. Other muscles, like those in your back or neck, might kick in to try to compensate. So keep “walking,” shifting your weight from one foot to the other as smoothly as you can and keeping your pelvis both still and level. Relax your neck and face as much as you can.
After five long breaths, return both feet to the mat and slowly lower your hips. Take your feet wide apart and lean your bent knees against each other as you breathe down into your belly.
5. The Anterior Pelvis: Leg lifts for the psoas and rectus femoris
Set up for the final round of bridge pose with your yoga block in one hand. Press down into your feet and lift your hips. Position your block on its lowest setting and rest your sacrum on top of it. Scoop your lower belly until your pelvis tilts slightly backward, then lift your legs to the ceiling so that they’re perpendicular to your body.
Keep your right leg where it is, and then slowly lower your left leg until it hovers a few inches above the floor. You may feel a subtle stretch over the front of your left hip as the hip flexors lengthen. Contract the front of your left hip to lift your leg an inch or two, and then lower it back to your starting position. Repeat the small leg lift four more times, aiming to move slowly and smoothly. After the final leg lift, release your left leg to the floor, allowing your hip flexors to fully relax. Bend your right knee and draw it loosely toward your right shoulder with your hands. Send a few more deep breaths into your abdomen to help you relax into the stretch before switching sides.
After you’ve done both sides, lower your feet, lift your hips off the block, and release onto the floor. Lengthen your legs and bring your arms out wide. Rest for a couple of minutes, reflecting on your practice to assess which movements or positions were the most challenging. If you identify areas of inefficiency or imbalance, it could be worth incorporating that bridge pose variation into your practice until it feels easier.
We all have our own particular postural and movement habits. However, without the self-reflection provided by our yoga practice, we may lack awareness of those habits and thus the opportunity to address them. Knowing that our joints function best with 360-degree support, we can use our asana practice to create that support.
Yoga gives us the capacity for self-transformation on many levels. Our bodies are ever responsive, and just as our muscles adapt to our ingrained habits off the mat, they can adapt to the new ones we cultivate on it.