Happy Hips: Functional Movements to Sneak into Your Yoga Classes
At the beginning of class, I often ask my students if there is anything in particular they’d like to focus on, although I now add, “aside from hips and shoulders, which we will definitely work through.”
Hips and shoulders are popular requests because they are our gateway to experience: They mediate every gesture, movement, and position. They can do many different movements, but in daily life, many of us do not take our joints through the entire range of movement they can achieve, which can contribute to muscle imbalances and discomfort.
Identifying the source of perpetual discomfort can be challenging even for trained professionals in fields like physiotherapy and athletic therapy. As yoga teachers, a wise course of action is to encourage a diversity of movements and practices to prevent specific pain. We have a lot of resources available in our yoga toolkit—active and passive stretching, strengthening postures, and pranayama (breathing practices), for example. But there’s another resource we can add to that toolkit: functional-movement exercises. Adding functional-movement exercises into a yoga sequence not only gives students the opportunity to diversify their movements, it can also make asana more efficient.
What do I mean by “efficient”? An efficient practice maximizes time with activities that strengthen specifically rather than generally. For example, it’s easy to embody warrior II without working warrior II: to make the shape without consciously and actively engaging the muscles needed to sustain it. Functional-movement exercises make the engagement of muscles easier to find because of their specificity.
Prerequisite Mobility: Why It Matters in Yoga
In a previous article, I explained in detail what functional-movement exercises are—targeted repetitive movements to train your tissues to best fulfill their designed purposes—and why yogis may want to add them to their repertoire. Here I want to introduce an additional concept, which I call “prerequisite mobility”—the ranges of movement, ability to bear a load, and joint stability required to execute a specific pose or transition.
Many yoga postures are so complex in what they ask of our musculature that joints often have to be able to perform exceptionally well in order to achieve the pose. For example, to execute a headstand, you need to set a strong base with flexed elbows and shoulders and an elongated neck as well as maintain a strong upper back while sequentially stacking your spine and hips. If one group of muscles entailed in those actions fails to complete its task, the pose literally falls apart.
Historically, it has been thought that the best way to learn a pose is to keep doing it, that repetition will yield the desired results. But that may not address the necessary development of mobility a yogi requires. I liken this to Olympic diving: The act of diving may make divers better at diving, but it’s not going to strengthen them and develop the physique they need; they have to incorporate many other activities into their training to optimally prepare them to compete.
Fortunately, functional-movement exercises are responsive tools that are fantastic to work into our yoga flows. They anticipate where yogis may try to fake a range of movement, and they limit the potential for poor alignment. That means that when preparing for a particular pose (such as headstand), we are better able to strengthen the joints we intend to, rather than acquiescing to the limitations of the posture’s prerequisite mobility.
Hip-Focused Functional-Movement Exercises
The hips provide an excellent starting point to explore functional movements and mobility exercises. They are deep-set joints with large musculature that can work for a good period of time before fatiguing.
Since range of movement can almost always be refined, and activities like those below demonstrate their value over time, these exercises can be repeated frequently.
The following exercises can work equally well for those with strong, flexible hips and for those with limited hip mobility, whether their goals are achieving prerequisite mobility for postures, or simply increased range of movement. Since range of movement can almost always be refined, and activities like those below demonstrate their value over time, these exercises can be repeated frequently. The first activity develops some of the prerequisite mobility for headstand, but all of the activities can be excellent tools for creating strong, efficient, and accessible classes. Because these activities take your hips through ranges of movement that a traditional asana class may not, you can pepper them into your sequences for a more thorough practice.
Dolphin to Forearm Plank (Core + Hamstring-to-Spine Mobility)
This one helps you develop the ability to lengthen your spine in an inverted position with your shoulders in flexion (the preparatory position for headstand) in relationship to straight legs.
From tabletop position, lower your forearms to the ground, and just as you would in headstand prep, measure the distance between your arms by holding your biceps with opposite hands, then place your palms flat on the floor, forearms parallel to each other. If keeping your palms flat on the ground is challenging, hold a block between your hands on its lowest setting and parallel to the top of your mat. You can hold the block between your palms or grip it with your fingers—either will create a stronger base than the commonly taught “L-shaped hold” with palms flat down.
Lift your knees off the ground and reach your sitting bones to the sky to come into dolphin. Keeping your legs as straight as possible, take small steps toward your elbows, actively pressing down through your forearms and lifting your hips high. Once your hips are as close to being stacked over your shoulders as possible and your feet as close to your elbows as they will go, begin walking back to forearm plank. Repeat many times!
Remember the note on prerequisite mobility for headstand? This helps develop it! If students cannot execute this range of movement, it’s a good indicator that they lack the necessary mobility for headstand. Simultaneous knee extension, hip flexion, and spine extension are often compromised (i.e., people struggle to straighten their legs and keep their spine erect in the same postures), but dolphin helps to develop this ability.
Bonus shoulder strengthening: Weak rotator-cuff muscles could be the reason a student’s elbows keep sliding outward in this setup. Practicing with a block between the hands (as described above) can help!
Students will often try to swing their hips up and then walk forward. Keep reminding them to take small, straight-legged steps so that their hips and shoulders move forward and back at the same pace.
Glute-Strengthening Bridge Variation
Did you know your gluteus maximus is the biggest muscle in your body? Even so, the size of our biggest hip extensor doesn’t necessarily help our ability to engage it, but this activity helps find engagement quickly. It’s also a great way to strengthen some of the musculature that students typically want to stretch with poses such as forward-folding pigeon.
Lie down on your back, bend your knees, and bring the soles of your feet together, allowing your knees to fall open (like baddha konasana, “bound angle pose”). Press into the outer edges of your feet and engage your bum cheeks.
Roll your spine up off the floor, as you would if rolling up into bridge pose. Pause at the top, emphasizing strength in the buttocks, and then roll back down, releasing one vertebra at a time to the mat, barely touching the ground with your hips before rolling back up. Minimize side to side movement to the best of your ability. Repeat several times.
This activity strengthens some of the musculature that weakens with sitting, including the gluteus maximus, and most students grasp this exercise easily. Sometimes I teach a flowing bridge first, so that they understand the spinal articulation required.
You can prolong the squeeze by holding at the top for a few breaths, and you can even add pulses (just like in the ’80s!).
Reclined pigeon (also known as figure four stretch) is an awesome counterpose.
Not many! This one is accessible to many students, and they will feel the benefits immediately. They may be disappointed they’re not going into supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose), but I don’t recommend teaching that after this activity because it does not alleviate tension from the muscles used. Reclined pigeon is better.
This reclined approach to pigeon may be more effective at releasing tension and developing range of movement, because it’s often much easier to find proper engagement with dynamic activities than it is in static postures. If you’re hoping to improve external rotation in your hips in order to do arm balances such as flying pigeon or dragonfly, this can be a good adjunct to your practice.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the ground. Draw your right foot toward your chest with the knee open to the side. Hold on to your heel with your left hand and your toes with your right. Keep your toes and ankle flexed to prevent sickling your ankle, hug muscle to bone by engaging your entire hip and leg, and draw your foot toward your heart as you use hip strength to press your femur (thigh bone) and pelvis down and forward (like pigeon, but upside down and strong!).
Hold the shape as strongly as possible and slowly count to 20. You can lift your upper body toward your foot or not. Ease off and repeat a few times, punctuating repetitions with a more passive reclined pigeon (i.e., a figure four stretch). Then switch sides.
This is another exercise that is quite accessible and that most students will understand easily. You can keep the bottom leg relaxed with the knee bent and the foot on the floor, or you can extend it and let it hover, straight and strong. Either version sequences nicely as a variation of a figure four stretch, and is better than pigeon for some people who have good strength but fussy knees.
Not many! Make sure yogis keep their ankles strongly dorsiflexed (toes toward knee) and encourage them to move their foot over their chest.
Standing Hip Range of Movement Activity
The list of poses that can benefit from this activity is too long to give. As you do it, you're working to optimize core and hip mobility while exploring your hip’s full range of movement with your lifted leg and maintaining a strong standing leg. That's applicable to pretty much all of your standing poses!
Grab a block and come into tadasana (mountain pose) with your heels at the long edge of your mat. Place the block on its highest setting in front of you so that it’s in line with your heart. Hold on to the block with fingers pointing away from each other.
Position yourself in a half-lift shape (ardha uttanasana), stabilize your core, and draw your shoulders onto your back.
1. Side lift: Hover your right foot slightly above the floor with a strongly flexed foot, spreading your toes. Then lift your right leg slowly out to the side as high as possible and then slowly bring it back down. Keep your heel aligned with the back edge of the mat and emphasize the end range of movement. Repeat until fatigue, and then switch sides.
Students will try to swing their leg behind them, but you want them to isolate muscles in their hip rather than the front of their leg. Remind them to lift their leg out to the side with control and to keep the standing-leg hip as steady as possible.
2. Full range of motion: Same setup, but this time lift your foot out to the side as high as possible, then up behind you, and slowly bring it back down beside your standing foot. Make slow, strong circles for a few repetitions before you change directions. Then switch sides.
This one is tiring, accessible, and effective! Encourage students to keep their standing-leg hip still and to make the largest, slowest, most controlled circles they can.
To explore shoulder-focused functional movement exercises, check out Kathryn's companion article Strong Shoulders.
Photography: Andrea Killam