Tight, stiff hips: it’s something that we often don’t begin to care about until we want to do yoga or meditate, or when we find out that we can’t make basic movements without feeling blocked or even in pain. While some may want to put their feet behind their neck, for others the goal is just to be able to sit on the floor without too much trouble. Both are valid, and this article will discuss how you can begin the journey of increasing your hip mobility from a functional, Yin Yoga perspective. If you don’t know what functional yoga is, the short version is that you make the pose work for what your body needs, not the other way around. You can read a more extensive explanation here, and if you’re new to Yin Yoga, check out this page!
This article will give a brief explanation on hip anatomy, and what poses you can do to get your stiff hips to soften up and carry you through the day like a pleasant summer breeze.
Why Hip Mobility Is Important
As is often the case with taking care of our bodies, you won’t feel a need for a change until you hit a barrier and the accompanying frustration of not being able to do what you set out to. So what are the barriers that you might encounter in your hips?
To answer that question it is important to first know what part of our body we’re talking about exactly. You may think it’s obvious, but often people will only point to one part of their hip when you ask them where it’s located. If you already know all about hip anatomy, you can skip this part and move on to the poses.
Hip Anatomy: The parts that make a whole
The hip joint is made up of two bones coming together in a ball and socket joint: the thigh bone (femur) and coxal (hip) bone, which is a part of the pelvis, which in turn is a combination of several bones that are fused together. In between these bones we find amongst others, synovial fluids and cartilage; connective tissue, or fascia; and of course our muscles. All of these tissues combined will ideally allow us to smoothly lift or push back the legs, step sideways, duck or bend forward. On top of that the hips are connected to the back muscles and our abs, so they really have a very central position in our body.
To know which yoga pose is best for increasing our hip mobility, we can go with a trial and error based exploration to see what works and what doesn’t, and this approach is crucial! However, adding a bit of knowledge of the general purpose or function of our muscles, joints and their corresponding poses, can help tremendously in understanding what we are feeling while in a pose, and what other poses we could or should choose to practice. In order to know the function of a pose, we need to know a little bit about the body and how it helps us move. In this post we will specificallylook at the movement of the different parts of our hips, so we know what stretches for hip mobility we can do.
Ball and socket joint
Let’s begin with the most well known part: the ball and socket joint, where our thigh bone, or femur connects to the hip bone. The top of the thigh bone, called the ‘head’ and ‘neck’ of the femur, is the part that is most commonly replaced partially or entirely during hip surgery.
The head of the thigh bone fits snugly into the socket (acetabulum) of the hip bone, and depending on how deep that socket is, combined with the size of the femur, we have an anatomical predisposition towards more or less flexibility in the hip joint.
For example, if your hip’s socket is facing more towards the side of the body, it’s likely that you will be able to sit cross-legged on the floor, more comfortably than if the sockets face more forward. Other factors that come into play are how deep the socket is and how big or small the ball is.
Next to the ball and socket joint, some people may also point to their iliac crests when asked where their hips are. These can usually be felt sticking out below your lower back, and curving around towards the front of your body. That ridge which we can sometimes feel on the outside of the body, is attached to a flat bone which roughly covers our gluteal area, or in common words: our butt!
I can tell you from personal experience that these bones can protrude quite a bit more in some than others, and combined with a clumsy day and the pointy corner of a marble bar … let’s just say that when I first grew them as a teenager it took quite a lot of bruises and yelps at my first waitressing job before I got used to their presence.
Perhaps a more elusive part of our pelvis is the sacrum. Often it is pregnant women who will be more aware of this part of their pelvis, because during the end phase of pregnancy (and sometimes earlier or even for non-pregnant women who are menstruating), the body releases the hormone relaxin which causes the cartilage between the sacrum and ilium to soften. This in turn allows for a baby to pass through the birth channel more easily. An unpleasant side effect of this can be pelvic instability and a dull, aching pain.
For those of you who don’t know where this bony structure is located: it’s the last few vertebrae that are fused together, and fit snugly in a triangular shape into the pelvis, ending just above our tailbone. If you’ve ever done supported bridge pose, then you might have an idea of where the sacrum is located.
Synovial fluids / cartilage
While the bones in our body are important, and our muscles allow us to actually move, they wouldn’t be able to do that without the cartilage and synovial fluids that allow bones to painlessly pass by each other, and absorb the shock from movements like walking or running. This part of our body is a really good example of something we won’t know is there until it becomes inflamed, brittle or dried up through the process of ageing, excessive use or illness. In a healthy body, cartilage and synovial fluid that covers our joints, is kept moisturized so that it stays flexible and can function properly. As we get older, however, many tissues in our body become more dry and therefore more brittle. That dry brittleness makes it more painful to walk, and in time or with excessive use, the synovial fluid can dry up entirely, such as in osteoarthritis. Another age related ailment is rheumatoid arthritis, where the joint swells up with an excess of synovial fluid, and becomes inflamed.
image source: sciencedirect
Naming all of the different muscles that in some way create motion in the hip, would quickly become a very long list. Instead, we can look at different muscle groups, which together are responsible for moving specific parts around the hip joint. It’s always good to remember that while there is a general consensus in the scientific world as to which muscle causes what motion, this doesn’t mean that everyone’s body moves in the same way. This has something to do with anatomical variation, which is basically how all of our bodies are unique in their own way. An example of this is that only 40-60% of people have a psoas minor muscle, as opposed to just the usual psoas major (both are hip flexors). Some of us have broader hips, others have more narrow hips, shorter or longer legs, and so on. All of these things combined make it so that we can use different muscles than what is deemed ‘normal’, to make the same movement.
The different muscle groups that are part of the hips are the quads, adductors, hamstring, glutes, external rotators and hip flexors. We’ll go into more detail in the descriptions for their corresponding poses, so that it’s not just theoretical but you can actually feel where the muscles are.
Ligaments have several functions, the most obvious being that they are what connects your muscles to your bones. While that is their main function, some ligaments also serve a few other purposes, like stabilizing a muscle or joint, or aiding with movement
There is a common belief amongst yoga teachers and enthusiasts that ligaments should never be stretched. However, research tells us that unless we put a healthy amount of stress on our muscles, joints, bones and basically all parts of our body, including ligaments, those tissues will not properly develop or maintain their integrity and strength.
When it comes to the hips, you’ll likely not know when you’re stretching a ligament or some other tissue. The same golden rule as always applies, that you use your own common sense: if it hurts, back off. If you are experiencing pain, either try a variation on the pose you’re doing, or an entirely different pose that targets the same area.
Nerves / sciatic nerve
The purpose of your nerves is to send electrical impulses with information from your body to your brain. These can be sensations like cold, warmth, pain and so on.
Although we probably won’t be trying to stretch our nerves, they can still be affected by yoga. For example, if a nerve is compressed between muscles or bones during a pose. They can also be pinched from physical injury like hernia, or strain or tight tissue like when glutes are very tight from overuse. Sometimes an issue can be anatomical,
The sciatic nerve is a very important nerve when looking at hip anatomy, because it goes from the spine down through the front of your hip, towards the back and in between your buttocks towards the back of your legs all the way down to your feet.
Many people suffer from sciatic pain, which can show itself in a variety of ways. Sciatic pain can be felt as a tingling sensation or a numb or dull pain in the thighs or just the back of thighs, or the glutes. It can also be felt as a sharp, shooting pain, or when it is painful to sit down on chairs or other hard surfaces.
Sciatic pain can have many different causes. Consulting a medical professional is always the first step to make. Once you know what you’re up against, and with approval from your healthcare provider, yin yoga can be one way to work with sciatic pain and to help ease the pain.
Connective tissue, or fascia as it used to be called, is a tissue that exists throughout our body. The argument over what actually counts as connective tissue is ongoing, and expanding. 50 years ago, doctors used to cut away this tissue when they had to perform surgery. It was seen as nothing more than filler material in between the skin, muscles, fat and organs in our body. Nowadays we know that even ligaments, bones and other tissues can be considered connective tissue. Connective tissue is considered as the scaffolding or matrix for the specific bone, muscle or any other cells in our body.
Scientists only began to research this tissue recently, so there is still much to discover. We do know that connective tissue responds differently to movement than for example muscles. Where muscles need short, repetitive movement to grow, connective tissue generally needs long held stretches to become affected. It is made of a much harder material than muscles, because it contains a larger amount of collagen. This is where the long held poses of yin yoga come in. While there are no studies on yin yoga in relation to connective tissue, there are studies such as this one, that show the effect stretching and long-held stretching has on our connective tissue.
Connective tissue can retain a lot of long held tension and cause our neck, back, hips and other body parts to feel stiff and even painful. When we hold poses for a long time without engaging our muscles, we can slowly begin to let that tension go.
5 poses for hip mobility
Now that we have established a basic understanding of hip anatomy, we can look at what yin yoga poses we can do to relieve stiff and achy hips, or help us with more mobility.
In this post we will be looking at 5 poses. It’s good to keep in mind that for each of the poses offered here, there are many alternatives, some of which I will make a quick mention of. Sometimes we need props to help us relax in a pose and I can highly recommend that everyone try these. Yin yoga should never be about being able to do the perfect pose, but always about making things work for your individual body, just as anyone else will need to adjust things to their body.
I would like to especially invite those of you who never use props, to give it a try! You might discover something new, like when I started doing yin yoga in bed. I have to admit that initially I was just lazy and didn’t want to set up my mat and have to get back up to go to bed. But, what I discovered is that the softness of the bed was actually really helpful in some poses, so that I could relax much more easily and could rest in a pose for a longer period. Staying in the pose longer made a huge difference to how my body felt after.
A bed of course can be seen as a prop, but other options include any pillows, folded blankets and duvets, bolsters and cushions you already have lying around the house, as well as more traditional yoga props such as blocks and straps. They can be used to prop up your legs, knees, elbows, head and torso, elevate the hips and support any other part of your body.
The following pose descriptions will show you not only some available variations, but also what area they are meant to target and how props can help you.
Gluteus: Eye of the Needle pose
The glutes are the muscles you sit on, your bum! Their names are the gluteus minimus, gluteus maximus and gluteus minimus. They start roughly from your iliac crest (ridge at the top of the hips) and sacrum (last few vertebrae), and move over the side of your hip, down the outside of your leg, attaching to your knee. Their main function is to help you with movements such as climbing stairs or running.
The glute muscles are very much a group that needs attention, for many people. Either because of sports, or a mostly sedentary, seated lifestyle, they can be incredibly tight or too weak, causing other muscles to take on too much work. This can cause pain in the lower back, but also knees, and can even cause sciatic pain, depending on your personal anatomy.
Stretching the glute muscles will always involve the external rotation of your knee joint, this means that for anyone with troubled knees, extra caution is highly advised. For some people, a severe knee injury can make any glute stretches impossible.
Personally I would advise caution for anyone. Never push, always keep your knees’ health in mind and stop or adjust when you feel any kind of pain or intense pressure on the knee.
That being said the benefits of glute stretches can be tremendous, so if you are otherwise healthy, don’t be too alarmed!
Other poses that also stretch the glutes are Deer, Sleeping Swan, Shoelace, and some twists.
In this post, we’ll take a closer look at a pose called Eye of the Needle. Since it already has a lot of potential variations in itself, I think it’s a great way to start with glute stretches.
Props: a wall
Time in pose: start out with 3 minutes per side. This can be increased over time to however long you wish.
- Lie down on your back, bend your knees while placing your feet flat on the ground.
- Now take the right knee towards the body, use your hands to take a hold of your right foot and place the right ankle over the left knee.
- Use your hands to draw the left knee and right foot towards your body, until you feel a stretch.
- You can hold either the back of your left leg at the hamstrings, or somewhere on the shin or knee area if your knee allows it.
- Variations to this pose are:
- Option 1: Use a wall instead of your hands to hold the left leg in place. You may need to shuffle in sideways towards the wall, to make sure that your bum is close enough. The left foot is placed on the wall for support. To increase the stretch, slide the foot down lower, and to decrease, slide it up higher.
- Option 2: instead of using the left leg, you can also hold the right foot in your hand, supporting your knee with the other hand
Hip flexors: Dragon pose
In dragon pose we target our hip flexors: the psoas, iliacus and rectus femoris (which does double duty as a quadriceps muscle). When you stretch these muscles, you will feel them at the front of your hip, connecting your hip to your upper thigh.
These muscles are needed anytime you take a step, so when you lift your foot and leg off the ground. Especially people who like to hike or run, may want to regularly stretch this group to ensure it’s prolonged health.
It is, however, a good idea for anyone to give this muscle group some extra attention, since we do very little natural stretching for it. So let’s loosend those tight hip flexors nad find some sweet relief!
There are of course other poses that can help stretch your hip flexors. A great stretch for both the quad muscles (front of your thighs), hip flexors (front of your hips) and rectus abdominis (six pack, or abdominal muscles), is saddle pose, which we’ll look at more closely in a next post.
Props: a chair or blocks to elevate and support your wrists and arms.
Time in pose: If this pose is new for you, start with 1 minute. Your arms, hands and wrists may need time to adjust to this pose, so don’t overdo it!
- To get into dragon pose and stretch the left hip flexors, begin by resting on your hands and knees, in a table top position.
- From here step your right foot forward, next to or in between your hands.
You can use blocks under your hands to relieve the wrists, or decrease the stretch in your hip flexor.
- Then slide your left foot back, stretching the leg and keeping the top of your foot towards the ground. This positioning of the left foot ensures that you can relax your leg. The right knee can stay either pointing forward, or it can rotate out to the right.
- From here you can choose a few variations:
- Option 1: place your hands or elbows on your right thigh or knee. This allows the body to stay more or less upright.
- Option 2: placing the hands palms down on your yoga mat, or making fists and resting on those.
- Option 3: placing your lower arms on the mat, your body will be closer to the mat.
- Option 4: use a chair or couch to support either your hands or lower arms.
In all these variations of dragon pose, always remember this: while you may feel wonderful stretches in various parts of your body, if you want to stretch your hip flexors and loosen up any tightness there, you will feel them on the front of your hips. So find the variation that does this in such a way that you can still relax your stretched leg!
Adductors: Frog Pose
If you ever wonder what the adductors do, just look to the name: they adduct! Mainly they are used when you squeeze your thighs together, or make a similar motion. As with all muscles, they have secondary functions as well, such as stabilizing your knee joint, together with the glutes and quads.
Also known as the groin, that gives you an indication of where you should feel these muscles when stretching them. They attach to the pubic bone on one side, and along the inside of your thigh bone and knee.
To stretch the adductors, you will need to make the opposite motion as is the function of the muscle, in this case that means you need to abduct your leg, like we do in Frog pose.
Trying out frog pose for the first time requires some care. This pose can easily be too much, because we use our body weight and gravity to stretch the muscle. Therefore it is absolutely important to have props ready and to use them! As always, being in the pose longer, without pain and without having to tense your muscles, is what ultimately gives the best result.
Other poses that you could do are Dragonfly or ½ Dragonfly.
Props: wall, bolster or cushion, blocks
Time in Pose: start out in this pose for about 3 minutes.
- Sit down on your shins and knees, and walk your hands out in front of you to position yourself as you would in Child’s Pose. Now position your forearms underneath your body and rest your weight there.
- From here, bring the knees out wide, while keeping your big toes together. This is also often referred to as wide legged Child’s Pose If you already feel a stretch in your groin or inner thigh here, this position is great for you.
- If you have space in your knees and groin, you can then slowly begin to move your feet apart. Use a bolster or hard cushion to support your chest and decrease the intensity of the stretch.
- Varieties of this pose include:
- Frog on the Wall: lying on your back, your knees are bent and your feet are apart and resting against the wall. With your feet farther apart, you will feel this stretch more intensely. Use blocks under your thighs for support if the pose is too intense.
- In frog, choose how you want to position your arms: they can be folded underneath your body, or stretched out and relaxing on the floor overhead.
½ variations: Hamstrings
If you are someone with short hamstrings like myself, you will know the bane of hamstring stretches! I know, I can be a bit dramatic. For the runners and hikers amongst us, this will be a familiar situation: You try to fix a shoelace from a standing position, bending forward, and can barely reach the shoelace while having straight legs. If I begin to repeat myself, it is only because all of these muscles do in fact work together to help with the various movements we make for running and walking. They are particularly responsible for movements where you use your foot to push your body forward.
So why do hamstring stretches? Well, one reason is the hamstrings attach on the inner and outer knee, and on the tip of our sitting bones. Our sitting bones are part of our pelvis, and that means if we have tight hamstrings, this will pull our sitting bones and with them our whole pelvis. You can see how it feels in your body by standing with straight legs, and folding your body and arms towards your thighs. Don’t push, but see how far you can go, with a straight back and straight legs. That will give an indication of hamstring length.
Other options for stretching the hamstrings include Dangling or Folding Forward pose, or Caterpillar. Keep it mind that usually the asymmetrical poses will give you more of a hamstring stretch, since symmetrical poses like Caterpillar and Folding Forward Pose will often affect your back more than your hamstrings.
Props: folded blanket, blocks, bolster
Time in pose: begin with 3 minutes per side, and gradually increase over time.
- Come into a seated position, and stretch both legs out in front of you.
- From here you have a few options:
- ½ butterfly: Bend your right leg and let the knee drop to the right. Your right foot can be roughly at the height of your left knee, possibly slightly lower than the knee.
- ½ shoelace: take the right foot and cross it over the left leg, bringing it towards your left buttocks.
- ½ frog: bend the right knee and position your right leg so that you sit on or next to your shins.
- Then fold your body over, towards your thighs. Let the head hang, and make sure that the left foot is relaxed.
If you feel pain or sharp discomfort near the knee, you might try to place a rolled up blanket under your leg, just above the knee under your hamstrings.
If this pose is heavy on your neck, you can use a sturdy bolster. Place one end on the floor, and rest your forehead on the other end.
If you feel that the stretch is too intense, you can use a bolster or folded blankets and duvets, or pillows, placing them between your body and thighs.
If you have very tight hamstrings, consider sitting on a folded blanket or even cushion to elevate your hips.
½ Saddle Pose: quads
In many people the quads need a lot of attention, because it can feel quite intense when first stretching these muscles. They too, help our body make walking and running motions, particularly pushing the body up, such as when you climb a stairs or come up from a squat.
The quads and glutes are another great example of human variation. Some people are quad dominant, others are glute dominant, others yet again use both muscle groups equally. This means that because of your build, one or the other group may be more developed. This in turn affects how tight the group is, versus the other, and how intensely you will experience a stretch.
While the quads consist of 4 muscles, there is one that has a double function as a hip flexor: quadriceps femoris. This is again another great example of how one muscle group does not necessarily do only one thing.
We’ ll have a closer look at ½ Saddle Pose, but other poses you could consider include Saddle Pose, Dragon Grabbing Its Tail, and Cat Tail pose.
Props: folded blanket, blocks, pillows, bolsters, couch or bed
Time in pose: begin with 3 minutes per side, and gradually increase over time
- Sit down with your knees bent in front of you. Fold the right leg under you, so that you are sitting on or next to your shin, with the top of your foot facing down.
- Lean backwards until your back touches the floor, or until you feel the stretch becoming too intense. From here you have several option for prop usage:
- If your foot is giving you trouble by feeling squashed, you can use a small roll such as a rolled up towel. Place it under the bottom of your shin to decrease the angle. Do not place the roll under your foot!
- Lean your upper back against a couch or pile of blocks and sturdy pillows or your bed side.
- Place a block under your buttocks to elevate your hips. This will decrease the stretch in your quads, but it will increase the backbend, so leaning against something with your upper back may be necessary.
I hope these yin yoga poses for the hips will be of benefit for you! Do let me know in the comments if you have any questions or need help with a pose.
Does your current life not allow you to follow classes at a local studio? Having a steady yoga teacher is never an easy thing to find, but taking online classes can help! As long as you have your wifi and phone, tablet or laptop, and a yoga mat or soft carpet, you’re ready to go!