Ideally, asana practice brings us closer and closer to a balance point, to a state of stability, ease, and inner stillness from which health and happiness blossom. But as practice progresses, you may feel “stuck” in a particular part of the body. One area of common complaint, especially for those developing a sitting posture for meditation or pranayama, centers around the hips and the pelvis. And considering that the hip joints must bear weight and provide structural stability to the whole body while at the same time allowing us to walk, run, jump, bend over, and sit, it’s no wonder problems develop there. The pelvis is the foundation for the entire torso, and its alignment is crucial to the healthy functioning of the whole organism. A brief anatomy overview may help evaluate your problems and modify your practice for bringing balance and flexibility to the hips and pelvic region.
The pelvis, lower spine, and hip joints bear the weight of the upper half of the body, stabilize the relationship between the torso and the legs, and form the framework needed for walking, running, twisting, and bending in all directions. The primary connection between the pelvis and the lower spine takes place at the sacroiliac joints, which lie on either side of the sacrum and are relatively immobile. Their semi-rigid construction firmly anchors the base of the spine, and for the most part the lower spine and pelvis function as a unit.
The thighs, on the other hand, are joined to the pelvis in ball-and-socket joints that are among the most mobile joints of the body. This allows for a wide range of movements at the hip—the thigh can move forward and backward and side to side, and it can be rotated so that it turns in and out. And as might be expected in an area that includes such different functions, many muscle groups contribute to flexibility and strength. The hamstrings in the back of the thighs, the quadriceps in front, the adductors of the inner thighs, the abductors behind and to the sides, the rotators, and the hip flexors (iliopsoas muscles), which are located deep in the pelvis, all move the thighs in relation to the pelvis. Finally, the abdominal muscles support the front of the body and help with proper alignment of the pelvis and lower spine.
Unless the hip joints are exercised regularly in all directions, problems such as stiffness, pain, or chronic foreshortening of their muscles will invariably appear.The following exercises are designed to strengthen and open up this area. When limited mobility in the hips is accompanied by tight hamstrings and a stiff lower back, you will also need to work on those areas. Keep in mind that tight muscles are often compensating for weak ones; a well-rounded program that includes strengthening exercises will restore balance to the musculature and bring a normal range of motion more quickly than specific stretches done in isolation.
The following postures target the common restrictions in hip joint flexibility, except for the hamstrings, which we’ll address in a separate article. Include any or all of these poses in your regular asana routine, wherever they fit in the flow of a sequence. For example, do the side angle pose with your standing poses, or substitute it for trikonasana, the triangle pose. Do the groin openers with your prone postures, and so on. As always, regular practice is a must.
The standing poses are excellent for the hips and pelvis because they develop strength and flexibility, and because they integrate your awareness with postural movements. The side angle pose increases mobility deep in the hip joints; strengthens the quadriceps and other muscles of the legs and pelvis; stretches muscles along the entire side of the body; and expands the chest.
Stand with the feet about a leg’s-length apart. Turn the right foot out 90° and the left slightly in, hips and chest facing forward. Inhaling, stretch the arms straight out from the shoulders, palms down, keeping the shoulders broad and down away from the ears. Exhaling, bend the right knee until it is directly over the ankle. Steady the pose and relax the breath.
With the torso still facing forward, exhale, lengthen the spine, and bend to the right, resting the right forearm on the thigh while turning the left palm up and raising the left arm parallel to the side of the head. Then further open the chest and abdomen by slightly tucking the tailbone and drawing the shoulder blades in. Press the feet firmly into the floor, and lengthen from the left heel through the left fingertips. For stability, keep the right knee directly over the ankle, and the outer left foot pressing into the floor.
To deepen the pose, stretch the inner thighs away from each other. Then release the right arm from the thigh and place the hand on the floor at the outside of the right foot. Lower the left hip until it is in line with the extended leg and arm, lengthening the stretch through the entire left side. Keep the right arm and leg together, rotating the rib cage and abdomen open, and lifting the chest away from the pelvis. Stretch the left arm; open the left shoulder; and keeping the neck long, look straight ahead, or turn the head to look up. Now breathe steadily as you center yourself in the pose, holding for 3 to 5 breaths or until you feel ready to come out. Then press through the ball of the right foot, lift the torso, and straighten the leg. Exchange the position of the feet, and repeat on the other side.
The lunge and its variations are excellent postures for correcting pelvic alignment and lower back problems. The iliopsoas muscles, instrumental in flexing the hip, connect the lower spine and pelvis to the thigh bones. These muscles are often tight, and either weaker or more flexible on one side than the other, throwing off the alignment of the pelvis, legs, and spine. The lunge variations stretch the psoas muscles as well as the quadriceps.
Standing about three feet from a chair, place the left foot on the chair seat. Bend the left knee and distribute your weight between the two legs, maintaining an upright spine. Rest the hands on the left thigh. Keep the right leg straight, the heel resting on the floor, and the foot facing forward. Gradually deepen the bend in the hip joint, lowering the pelvis toward the floor. Relax and breathe in the pose; then repeat on the opposite side.
Next, begin on your hands and knees, then bring the left foot forward between the hands so that the toes are in line with the fingers. Extend the right leg straight behind you, resting the knee and the top of the foot on the floor. Keep the left knee directly over the ankle with the shin perpendicular to the floor. Lower the pelvis, lengthening the two thighs in opposite directions, and press the chest forward and up. Now bring the toes of the right foot under. Lift the right knee, straighten the leg, and press the heel away from the body. With the knee raised, continue lowering the pelvis toward the floor while pressing the left thigh forward and the right thigh back. Hold and breathe, then repeat on the opposite side.
These are intense stretches for everyone. They take advantage of gravity and the weight of the legs to stretch the inner thighs and groin, so relax and release the weight of the pelvis to the floor in all the variations.
Lie on your stomach with your chin on the floor (or rest the forehead on the crossed forearms). Bend the knees and spread them as far apart as possible; then bring the soles of the feet together. Without lifting the pelvis or changing the placement of the knees, relax the inner thighs and the muscles around the hip joints. Let the feet lower toward the floor, but keep the soles of the feet together. Relax deeply into the pose and breathe, allowing the weight of the legs to gently open the inner thighs and groin.
Next, increase the bend at the knees slightly and cross one ankle above the other. Again, relax the tension in the hip joint, groin, and pelvis. Notice how the stretch intensifies. Then cross the ankles in the other direction. Hold each side until you feel ready to release.
The butterfly pose is difficult for many students because of tightness in the inner thighs. A good way to stretch these muscles is to sit on the floor with your back against a wall. Keep the back of the pelvis and the base of the spine as close to the wall as you can, and lengthen through the crown of the head. Bend the knees, clasp the hands around the feet, and release the knees toward the floor. Then use the palms of the hands to firmly massage the inner thighs from the groin toward the knee. Finally, within your capacity, carefully press the thighs and knees further toward the floor with your hands. Hold the pose and breathe smoothly and evenly, as if the breath is flowing into the whole body. If you like, you may also bend forward from the hips, further deepening the stretch.
This stretch is similar to the seated angle pose, but it works particularly well for those who are stiff in the lower back and inner thighs and have trouble sitting up straight with their legs open to the sides. With the spine and lower back supported on the floor, gravity works to open the legs and gently stretch the adductor muscles.
Begin by sitting on the floor with the outside of one hip and shoulder against the wall, and your hands behind you on the floor.
To come into the pose, lean back, bringing the knees to the chest and lifting the feet. Then rotate the body so that you are lying down on your back with the tailbone near the wall and the top of the head pointed away from it. Extend the legs vertically against the wall and rest the back on the floor. Support the head and neck by interlacing the fingers behind the head and opening the elbows. Then spread the legs out to the sides, keeping them supported by the wall. Relax and allow gravity to draw the legs down and stretch the inside of the thighs. Avoid strain in the back of the knees; bend the knees slightly if you feel discomfort there. To make the stretch more active, lengthen the spine and press the tailbone to the wall; lengthen through the back of the legs and press the heels away from the pelvis; keep the knees and heels firmly against the wall without rotating the legs in either direction. Breathe as you center yourself in the pose, gradually increasing the holding time over a number of practice sessions and relaxing more deeply.
Release the pose by bringing the legs back together on the wall, bending the knees toward the chest, and sliding the soles of the feet down the wall. Relax, resting the legs and lower back and relieving tension on the inside of the knees. Finally, roll to one side and come out of the pose.
Adapted from Yoga: Mastering the Basics by Sandra Anderson and Rolf Sovik. The Himalayan Institute Press, © 2000, 800-822-4547.