Updated: Sep 22
Practicing opening the hips is not simply functional movement, to continue to move comfortably in many different ways throughout our lives, but it can also strengthen and tone the muscles of the lower body, help us to feel grounded and work into the energy of the lower three chakras to feel more at home in ourselves, more creative and more able to regulate emotions.
The hips are an incredible area of the body. They allow us to sit, stand, walk, run, bend forward and crouch down, to name a few day to day movements. However it is common to have challenges with accessing a full range of movement in the hips, especially as we age. Many people spend a lot of the day sitting, whether that's at a desk, driving, commuting, or just on the sofa, which may mean the hips get used to a single, closed position with the legs more or less parallel. Doing a lot of walking, running, or other types of exercise can result in tightness in the hips, and if we simply don't practice the full range of movement that our hips are capable of we run the risk of losing it, because our bodies (and minds) tend to mould themselves to our habitual positions. As children we may have been able to squat at will and get up off the floor easily, but as we grow and learn to sit in chairs we may begin to find this much more difficult or even impossible.
Hip opening poses in yoga work most often with the external rotation of the hip (where the knee moves outward away from the pelvis) and engage the hip flexor muscles which run down the front of the hip and through the pelvis. They also often engage the muscles at the front and back of the thighs and the buttocks, which means they're great for overall conditioning which may ward off issues with the knees and the lower back when properly and regularly practiced.
Some of our most familiar and widely practiced yoga postures work to open the hips. In Warrior 2 pose, the front of the pelvis faces the long edge of the mat whilst we turn our front foot to the front short edge of the mat and spread the feet wide, stretching the hip flexors at the front of the pelvis. This works best when the pelvis is neutral (tailbone facing the floor underneath us), which is why I often suggest that students check in with their tailbones and make sure that they don't have 'duck bum' stuck out behind them!
By bending into the front knee in Warrior 2, we work deeply with the strength of those upper leg muscles, but by also keeping equal weight in both the front and back foot we continue to engage with the strength and stability of the back leg.
Practicing active hip opening poses where the muscles of the thighs and buttocks are fully engaged can help with all round strength and conditioning of the hip area and help to build more mobility into the hip joint. It's also possible to practice more passive hip opening poses that stretch the hip flexor muscles and the associated tendons and ligaments. These passive poses can feel a lot more challenging than they look, especially if you already feel that you have 'tight hips'!
Badda Konasana, also known as bound angle, cobbler's pose or butterfly pose is where we bring the soles of the feet together and allow the knees to fall away from each other to either side. Depending on the yoga style or variation, we might sit upright (probably less strong if things feel tight), fold forward over the feel (stretching into the outer as well as inner hip) or recline backwards either on the floor or on props (focusing deeply on the inner hip stretch).
Passive hip openers can quickly highlight the state of our body, mind and energy as we move into and hold them- sometimes holding for extended periods if we are practicing styles like yin or restorative yoga.
Unless you're hypermobile or already well practiced at opening in this area of the body, chances are you'll find some challenge and resistance.
The urge to 'fight' the pose or disassociate the mind (e.g. think about work, what you're having for your tea, what your children have been up to...) to experience less of the sensation can be overwhelming, and although we should never push through unbearable sensation or pain during a yoga class, the benefits of learning your mental strength, resilience and developing presence whilst practicing hip openers is a major win both on and off the yoga mat. We may feel more confident about our abilities and capabilities, working with the energy of the root or muladara chakra which is located at the base of the spine where it meets the pelvic floor - an area that we naturally stretch and tone as we open our hips.
Depending where our bodies and minds are at particular times in our lives, we may be able to practice more gentle or more deep hip opening poses to great effect.
Using yoga props and variations is a great way to ease into hip opening postures if we're feeling less flexible or more likely to be overwhelmed with sensation. Tree pose (Vriksasana) is a balancing posture that opens the hip on the non-standing leg. It can be practiced with the open hip at varying degrees of rotation up to 90 degrees, and we might find that it's different in one hip than the other (which is totally normal - how often do you do things exactly the same with your right and left hand?). Janu Sirsasana (head to knee forward bend or half butterfly pose) can be practiced with a brick, block or rolled up blanket under the bent knee (sole of the foot into the opposite thigh) as we bend forward on the floor along the other outstretched leg, depending upon the degree of stretch that's okay in that hip.
Deeper hip openers such as pigeon pose, where the front leg is arranged on the mat with the shin facing away from the torso, knee bent with back leg out long behind, are not always accessible to everyone with or without props even after years of practice (as not all hips are capable of the same degree of rotation, amongst other things).
Any amount of opening into the hip in whatever pose, particularly if we feel some degree of challenge, will help to relive tension in the body that we build up from regular life stresses, which is why people often report experiencing emotional release from hip opening practice. A great joy of hip opening is that it doesn't only help to release stored tension, but as we encourage the body to be more open, relaxed and less tense through regular practice, we can prevent tension, stress and trauma from being stored in the body as much in the first place, feeling more relaxed in body and mind. When more relaxed we can be more creative, take in and enjoy life more fully, tapping into the energy of the sacral or svadhisthana chakra which is located on the front of the spine just below the belly button.
Working with hip opening yoga postures helps us to move more and more freely both in body and mind from wherever we find ourselves when we come to practice. Because accessing hip opening yoga poses can be very individual and may require props or variations of the pose, coming to an in-person class or even working 1 to 1 with a yoga teacher can be beneficial. If you'd like to experience the joy of hip opening, use the link below to explore my class options today.