What exactly do yoga teachers mean when they say “this is a hip-opening posture?” Such a vague description when what we really mean the poses foster better hip mobility. Most of us feel tightness in our hips because of either overuse or under-use. When you sit for hours, the muscles in the area weaken and shorten. The flip side is through repeated motion or repeated contraction of the muscles.
This limited range of motion–whether due from weakened, shortened, or tightened muscles–can cause other issues such as low back pain. When the hip muscles are weak and shortened they “pull” on the lower back muscles.
Some of our favorite poses in yoga-asana class focus on hip poses, but we’re not opening up the hips. We’re increasing their range of motion, decreasing the stiffness in the area, and strengthening the muscles.
To better understand how poses improve the function and mobility of the hips, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the anatomy involved.
Bone anatomy of the hips
The hip area is a powerhouse of bones, muscles and ligaments. The pelvis and femur–your two heaviest bones–meet up to support your entire upper body’s weight. This meeting point happens at a ball and socket joint. The deep socket (the acetabulum) supports the weight of the upper body, your lower limbs, and allows for the greatest range of motion.
Movement through this joint allows the hip to flex, extend, abduct, adduct, internally and externally rotate.
In a typical yoga-asana class you flex by lifting one leg straight off the ground in utthita hasta padangustasana. For abduction, take the lifted leg and swing it out to the side in supta padangusthasana.
Adduction occurs when you pull the leg toward your body in marichyasana (seated twist). Garudasana (eagle) internally rotates the joint while baddha konasana (bound angle) externally rotates.
muscles + ligaments of the hips
There are more than 20 muscles that cross the hip and aid in the proper functioning of hip movement: gluteals, adductor, illiopsoas, hamstrings, quadriceps and lateral rotator muscles.
The hip joint is reinforced with four major ligaments: iliofemoral, ischiofemoral, and pubofemoral ligaments and the ligamentum teres. (That’s for you anatomy geeks out there.) These ligaments help prevent excessive range of motion.
The first three ligaments become taut when the joint is extended, stabilizing the joint and reducing the demand of the muscles when standing. (And if I write and say it enough times, I’ll remember ligaments attach bone to bone.)
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5 yoga poses for hip mobility
To clarify “hip-opening,” I think what most participants would prefer is greater range of motion, increased circulation to their lower limbs, more stability and balance (because lack of these last two is what causes most elderly to fall).
A well-rounded, hip-focused yoga-asana class addresses all three elements: range of motion, stability derived through strengthening, and balance.
The following five poses address one or more elements at a time:
In seated forward bend, you strengthen the piriformis and adductors while stretching (increasing range of motion) your hamstrings and back. A seated forward bend creates flexion in the hip area.
In bound angle, your iliopsoas and adductor muscles are stretching as both joints externally rotate.
In pigeon, your gluteals are strengthening while the quadriceps of your extended leg and the inner thigh of your bent leg are stretching. The forward leg is externally rotating while the back leg is in an extension.
In eagle pose, the standing leg creates strength through the adductors and piriformis of the standing leg, and the quadriceps and gluteals of the wrapped leg. Eagle poses has the dual honor of internally rotating the joint while also rotating the pelvis.
In warrior two, your gluteals are strengthened as well as the quadriceps of your bent leg, the adductors of your extended leg are stretched. The front hip is in flexion while the back leg is in an extension.
As you design your next “hip-opening” class, instead think in terms of range of motion, strengthening and balance. By combining these elements your participants are more likely to walk out of class feeling more ease and stability in their hips.