Yoga Hip opener - Let's stop this obsession!

Updated: Jan 3

Yoga Hip opener - Let's stop this obsession!

Although mobility, that Yoga Hip openers are good, foremost stability is always important! As we will see, too much mobility through yoga hip openers for some can lead to injury. However, many may indeed need some mobility (it feels good!) as nowadays we sit too much on our buttocks, but the question is, how much and when is it too much?

The region of the hip is in contact with the lower limbs (and upper limbs) and affects, therefore, the organ of action for the sacrum, the lumbar spine (lower back) and the organ of digestion and reproduction. The shoulders are associated with the organs of action for the upper back and thoracic spine, and the heart and the lungs. Both hips and shoulders are designed to create force times velocity to propel our body forward and have great ranges of movement.

A lot of classical yoga postures require substantial mobility (some more some less) of the hip. People who perform those asanas with overly tight hips (often combined with overly tight hamstrings or/and tight quads, flexor muscles etc. etc.) find it hard to sit on the floor and often have rounded backs and find it very difficult to keep the spine in its neutral position. However, muscle stiffness might not be the only factor that sitting may, for some, just a bit more challenging! It can also simply depend on the shape and forms of their bones.

There is a tendency of some to overarch the back when trying to bring the knee back in postures such as the Warrior 2, or in Downdog it is impossible to keep the knees straight. It may not be a problem for some, but for others (e.g. those suffering from lower back pain) this might be vital to address! There are muscles all around our joints that can pull our spine in all directions, and although it is important to keep our joints mobile, it is never a good idea to overstretch anything! As with almost every other posture, we must consider the modern body coming to class and therefore help to gradually increase the range of movement and bring it back to its natural fluid state. However, overall, I keep asking people coming to my classes "how do you feel?" – is that shape supporting you in feeling good?

Because if it's not "why you are forcing yourself into it? Can you modify it? Can you choose another more comfortable one?

Before physical yoga became all about lots of postures, the main posture was a seated one, and this was mainly Padmasana (the lotus). To do Padmasana, the hip must be incredibly open. Our ancestors and other cultures do not seem to have had stiff hips as we nowadays tend to have, because their lifestyle differed from people who mainly sit on chairs working on the computer or watching TV. If you mainly sit in your life, your hip flexors will become overly stiff, and this combined with other stiffness can make some of the classical yoga postures problematic.

It is also important to note that there are differences in the shapes and sizes of the hip. This plays an essential factor in how we can do specific yoga postures. Some cultures or people are in general better at squatting and, e.g. weightlifting. In contrast, others are smaller build and seem to have more flexibility and mobility compared to others which find squatting difficult because of deeper hip sockets (e.g. Celtic Western Europeans). So, when those who have deep hip sockets are forcing a squat, the femoral neck collides into the labrum (lip that surrounds the hip socket and is soft cartilage). When you keep pushing your hips into squatting or other extreme hip openers, you might end up damaging the labrum – that is through continued accumulative pressure, you are crushing the cartilage, and this can lead to compression, that is bone to bone rubbing.

Therefore, pushing yourself into these postures is dangerous. It can also lead to

osteoarthritis or a possible replacement of the labrum.

Look at the difference in the body built of a ballerina and a basketball player! Consider how does, for example, a traditional yogi look and with traditional I mean here the yogi per excellence? The one who devotes his life 100% to a yogic lifestyle and you can see frequenting events such as the Kumbha Mela in India! Now, this does not mean that we can also find modern yogis in other parts of the world, but means that our shapes and bones and therefore ability might be different!

Furthermore, there are gender differences, so, for example, is the female pelvis larger and broader than the male pelvis, which is taller and narrower (owing to a higher iliac crest). The distance between the ischium bones usually is smaller in males. All of this will affect how yoga postures are performed! Consider for a moment the difference this could make when balancing on the sitting bones or simply sitting on the floor.

As above mentioned, some need replacement of the labrum of the hip (small ring of cartilage around the hip joint), some may need another kind of replacement. We must take good care of our hips. Therefore, foremost stability is necessary, but often mobility is so restricted, that mobility also becomes vital as a factor in training. If we look at joint replacement statistics, we see that many hip replacements have been performed in the UK since the 1960s.

According to the National Joint Registry "In 2017, the number of primary hips and knee replacement surgeries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland totalled 91,698 and 102,177 respectively", and 160,000+ total hip and knee replacement procedures are performed each year.

According to the BBC, the rise in hip replacements for under the 60s is increasing by 76% in the last decade (NHS figures for England). For example, in 2004-05 there were 10,145 hip replacements for people aged 59 and below, with 17,883 in 2014-15.

The hip is bearing our weight through the legs for everyday walking. Many people get hip problems if they get older, although it seems as above mentioned that even younger people require more and more hip replacements too. Therefore, as a yoga practitioner, we should enquire about the right balance between sufficient stability and mobility. We should never force ourselves into strong hip openers!

Studies show that, e.g., Caucasians have the highest hip replacements (on average they have the shallowest roof or socket at the front of the hip. Please note that this is on average and does not mean that everyone is the same!

Let us have a look at the hip joint in more detail.

The main joint of the hip is the ball-and-socket joint (synovial joint): the ball is the femoral head, and the socket is the acetabulum. The hip joint is the articulation of the pelvis with the femur, which connects the axial skeleton with the lower extremity. Often as we get older cartilage can wear out, and bone rubs against bone, which causes pain when moving.

In the hip or pelvis, we have other smaller joints, that is the sacroiliac joint and the pubic symphysis, which also is a cartilaginous joint.

The sacrum is the fused lower part of the spine. The Sacrum ilium joint has some movement (the sacrum moves to distract (as pulling apart) or push together (compression), if one turns thighs inwards, or outwards this can also affect the above.

You may have heard of some people who experience sacroiliac pain. This pain is felt in the lower back and buttocks. It can also transfer pain to the hip and groin, and people can experience numbness or tingle in the leg(s). It often is uncomfortable sitting. Sacroiliac pain can also mimic other conditions, such as a herniated disc. Some strong ligaments and muscles support the SI joints, and there is only a small amount of motion in this joint for reasonable body flexibility. As we age, as mentioned before, our bones may become arthritic, and ligaments may stiffen. When the cartilage wears down, the bones may rub together, causing pain. The SI joint is a synovial joint filled with fluid. This joint has free nerve endings that can cause chronic pain if the joint degenerates or does not move properly. Sacroiliac joint pain can range from mild to severe, depending on the extent and cause of injury.

Whenever the pelvis moves, this affects the sacrum and the lumbar spine (lower back and therefore also the knees) – remember the more we force the movement or opening of the hip, the more we can potentially damage our knees and affect the lower back negatively. This is due to one joint always affecting the next due to multi-joint muscles.

Through the movement of the hip (anterior or posterior tilts, a pelvic hike, we affect our spine! So, for example, in a lunge, an anterior tilt will put the top of the hip forward. This makes the spine arch more, and the hip flexor will stretch less. If we apply, on the other hand, a posterior tilt where the top of the hips moves backwards, this will arch the lower back less, and stretch more the hip flexor! How much of this is necessary depends on each person! In a back arch, we may move the top of the hip downwards. This potentially stretches the groin more and could unsquash the lower back. It is the same action as slightly tucking in the tailbone. In a forward bend, we can apply an anterior pelvic tilt that would stretch the hamstrings more, but on the other hand, will stretch the spine less! Therefore, applying a posterior tilt so that the top of the hips push backwards will stretch the spine more. Please note that you should only do this when your hamstrings are adequately stretched out! So, once you are flexible enough in forward stretches, it would be prudent to do a posterior pelvic tilt, that flexes the spine and brings heat into the spine, prepares the spinal cord for poses such a plough pose.

For most beginners, it is advisable to either bend the knees when going into a forward fold so as not to stress the spine if hamstrings and/or hips are stiff. Again, there is not one cue for everybody. It makes sense to let the beginner feel where it pulls and for him or her to experience the difference between straight and bend knees. A bit of stress is always good for tissues and bones, but as anything too much is not recommended and can be harmful.

Pelvic hikes and lifting hip upward and downwards affect not only the spine (side bending) but also affects the abdomen. You can combine a pelvic hike with the shoulder action to increase the bending and stretching. You can apply this knowledge to postures, such as Parsvakonasana.

We also get a twisting effect by using our pelvis. For example, when performing a cross-legged twist to the right, if you let the top of the right hip push backwards this encourages a posterior pelvic tilt, twisting to the left side causes an anterior pelvic tilt to the right side. You can use this knowledge to go deeper into a twist by simply doing the opposite once in the twist!

At the front of the pelvis, we have the pubic symphysis (secondary cartilaginous joint) during pregnancy. The hormone relaxin rises and increases the body's range of motion for childbirth. This hormonal change causes ligaments around the symphysis pubis to be stretchy, soft, and relaxed. In turn, the symphysis pubis can become unstable, leading to pain in some women). Therefore, often pregnant women seem to be more flexible, hence must be more careful not to overstretch.

The sacrum is the fused lower part of the spine. The Sacrum ilium joint has some movement (the sacrum moves to distract (as pulling apart) or push together (compression), if one turns thighs inwards, or outwards this can also affect the above.

Not only is the hip arguably the most complicated set of bones, but also offers different forms and shapes!

Bone shapes and angles can limit or free our ability to get into a yoga pose – it is said that the hip has got the most variations in bone shape and therefore effect on movement, for example, the angle of the neck of the femur or/and length of the neck of the femur, the femoral head can be fuller for some and the level of depth of the acetabulum are a few examples of those differences.

In addition to different bones and sizes and angles and sizes, we also have other evolutionary characteristics that, according to different people and cultures might be different. We are NOT all born equal – the form of our bones is different. This predisposes some people to specific sports, that is, some might be better runners, some better gymnastics, weightlifters etc. Increases in the angle are generally associated with decreased joint stability but would allow a broader range of movement (internal, external rotations, abductions, adductions, etc.). As already mentioned above, the depth of the acetabulum can be different in different bodies and can, therefore, affect our ability to move either. It also can affect the wear and tear that is possible. There are gender differences but is also can depend on the relationship between body weight and depth. According to Bernie Clark "the degree of shallowness is correlated with osteoarthritis" If it is too shallow it is prone to more stress. In principle, a deeper hip socket will lead to less likelihood of arthritis, but also will provide a lesser range of movement. An excellent example to demonstrate that greater flexibility is not necessarily an indication of better health!

So, as we have seen, there is some adaptation through cultural habits and activities, and, also, activities stemming from childhood that affects what we will be able to do later.

We have a lot of support regarding strength and stability (joints, ligaments, muscles). However, many people have an unhealthy lifestyle and therefore need to move more because the hip has become too stiff. It is stress-relieving to get some mobility back into the hips. We all agree on how good it feels to do hip exercises. It is really about the right balance, and each person may need something else. Creating appropriate mobility can unleash the power of our hips!

If you like my article, please give me a like on Social Media, share it, recommend it, comment on it if you have any useful feedback. I am offering teacher training. If you would love to learn more about joint stability, bandhas and how to increase the movement of information and energy around your body, please get in touch.

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