Open those hips
Shakira was right – hips don’t lie, especially if they’re tight. If you’re anything like me getting into pigeon pose is a pain (literally). But having fairly inflexible hips poses other problems that manifest in or are easily aggravated by daily actions, such as sitting in a chair for long hours and subsequently having difficulty in standing up. Where the lumbar spine is stretched and the pelvis is pulled into an anterior tilt, lower back pain may also become an issue.
From an anatomical perspective, when we say that someone has ‘tight hips’ this could be due to one or a combination of the six hip flexor muscles, all of which will work when there is flexion at the hip. These include the sartorius, the rectus femoris (a superficial muscle; also known as the quadriceps muscle), the pectineus, the adductor longus, the gracilis and the main hip flexor muscle, the illiopsoas. The illopsoas is unique as the only muscle that attaches to both the spine and the leg. It comprises of two muscles; the psoas major, which originates from the lumbar and thoracic spine (T12-L5) and merges with the tendon of the iliacus, where it inserts at the lesser trochanter of the femur. Tightened hip flexor muscles can result from inactivity, such as prolonged hours on a chair, or activities emphasising repeated use of the same muscle groups. For example, in tennis the split-step to sprint movement is repeated with every shot taken. To provide for the explosive power needed to sprint, the hip flexor muscles shorten for the fast twitch movement. The shortening of the muscles is what creates the tightness in the hip area. Runners and cyclists also experience similar problems, which may in turn affect their gait and posture.
But another reason for tight hips, often mentioned but seldom elaborated on in yoga classes, is due to the emotional trauma and negativity stored in the hips. Liz Koch, whose work focuses on studying the iliopsoas, argues that the iliopsoas operates as a mechanism for the autonomic (involuntary) response of fight or flight. Being a “bridge between upper and lower body (due to its origin and insertion), the resonating iliopsoas vibrates the nuances of discord or harmony; fear or safety.”
Koch describes the action of the iliopsoas as such: “When the survival response is activated the powerful iliopsoas muscle responds by bringing together the two ends of the spinal cord; pelvis and head. Just as when a child picks up an earthworm or caterpillar, witnessing the tubular being curling, so too our spine curls when afraid. It is the iliopsoas muscle that rolls the body into a foetal ball, protecting the portals of perception (located in the face) and vital organs from harms way. Pulling the two ends of the spinal tube together forms a resilient spine, protecting the organism from blows and falls. The ignition of the iliopsoas prepares the leg to kick high and jump quickly. Fleeing, the dynamic iliopsoas propels forward into a run. Fighting, it steels in time of combat. Playing dead, a frozen iliopsoas expresses a heightened survival response of protection or trauma.” Correspondingly, because of its location as a deep and thoroughly protected muscle, it has been called a “perfect place for the body to store deeply-rooted emotions… (as there is) nothing that can touch the psoas, with the exception of internal organs”.
Following this, hip opening poses may thus help to release negative emotions stored in the repository within the hips. As the iliopsoas are “the primary muscles that contract to protect the center of gravity”, the relaxation of these muscles thus allow for somatic (voluntary) recovery process to begin. However, not every student will benefit equally simply from performing a hip opening asana. The degree of trauma, for instance, might vary. While a student might come out of a hip opening pose feeling unburdened, another might be unable to even get into it. In this respect, Richard Miller’s view resonates with the approach that I would personally adopt when taking a class. That is, there is ahimsa when forcing a class to stimulate emotional release, because “it suggests that ‘you need to be other than you are.’ A true yogic view focuses not on change… but on self-acceptance on the student’s part.” Thus a student should not enter an asana with the intention of having an emotional release; if it happens, it happens.
So how exactly can you help loosen and stretch the deep hip flexor muscles? The most effective asanas that you can try are Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon pose); Lunges (coming into a low or high lunge from down dog); Utthan Pristhasana (Lizard pose); Ustrasana (Camel pose); or Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle pose). These asanas can provide comfortable relief or a lesson in willpower to stay in a rather painful position, depending on which category of hip flexibility you belong to. Personally, I tend to run away from hip opening exercises if given the chance to. Maybe it’s because of the intensity of the stretch. I’ve been playing tennis since I was a teen, and the repetitive movements on the court with inadequate post-activity stretching has resulted in some pretty stubborn hips and hamstrings. But I’ve also come to realise that hip openers have the capacity to turn me into one hot, sweaty emotional mess – a fairly uncomfortable position in the middle of a yoga class. There were classes where I had left feeling even more unsettled and restless than when I arrived for it; it took a while for me to make the connection that those classes usually involved going into ustrasana, camel pose. As hard as I try, my shoulders refuse to drop back any further than an embarrassing half-bend; even as I try to maintain ujjayi I can feel my chest constricting and the duration of my breath shortening. The numbing vines of vulnerability that comes with the pose stem from the exposure of the entire surface of the body, the opening of the both the chest and the pelvic region up for scrutiny.
But I don’t want my hip flexibility to be compromised at the extent of a slow resolution rate for my unresolved issues. For those who feel the same anxieties when entering ustrasana, try working your way up from the gentler, less confronting hip opening poses such as lizard pose. I feel most comfortable in Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle pose) and will willingly wriggle into it. No surprises here; as a restorative pose, it taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, with increased blood circulation in the lower abdomen. At the same time, the hips are open and externally rotated, and it is also a quiet chest opening. Nothing as dramatic as Ustrasana, but still a good way to get into embracing and opening those hips while you continue your journey of self-awareness.
200hr TTC Weekday
 Clinical application of neuromuscular techniques, 412-413.