In yoga we often speak of tight hips, needing to open the hips, balancing the opening of our hips from side to side (etc), but there is more to a balanced body than open hips. We also need stability and support from our hips. This is important not only in yoga but also in day-to-day activities like simply walking. It is especially important if you are an athlete and need to perform on one leg. A Look Inside the Hip Our hip musculature is made up of many muscles, large and small. For stability we need the muscles of the side of the hip to be active and engaged. If you place your hands on the sides of your bony pelvis below your waist, you can imagine a tear drop shaped area below the ridge of your pelvis. The front part of the tear is the Tensor Fasciae Latae or TFL which connects with your IT band to join at the knee. At the back part of the tear drop are the Gluteus Medius and Minimus, which lie underneath your big Gluteus Maximus. These muscles are what support and keep you steady in balance poses or when you transfer weight from one leg to the next as you walk or run. For many of us these muscles are fast asleep, so we recruit our hip flexors at the front or our glutes and our hamstrings at the back to do a job they were not designed to do. Overtime this can lead to low back pain and sacroiliac joint pain. Forcing our body to compensate will lead to problems over time. A look outside the hip Tree pose can be a simple test to see if we are accessing our side/lateral hip stabilizers. Stand in front of the mirror and take a medium size tree pose with your foot resting on the shin (even if you can go higher). Place your hands on your bony pelvis again and see if they are level from side to side. If not, press the shin into the foot and the foot back into the leg so that the standing hip drops to make the hips level. If this is too difficult to achieve, keep your foot off the ground but come out of tree pose so that your knee is facing forward, raised to hip level with the knee bent. Try to level the hips again here by firmly rooting into the ground with the standing leg. My Three Favorite Lateral Hip Exercises Most of us can benefit from a little extra love and attention to the side of our hips. Try these exercises to wake up your hips and begin to stand taller on one leg
- Kick the Ball Standing, lift one foot off the ground. Keep your leg straight and send your heel forward, toes pointing out, as if you were passing a soccer ball in slow motion. Reverse this motion by turning your toes in and sending your leg behind you. Flow forward and back, heel in and out, in a short arc. Don’t forget about your standing leg: root into the earth and don’t let the hip hitch out to the side. Repeat this motion ten times and then switch sides.
- Clam Shell Lie on your side with either your arm or a foam block supporting your head. Bend both hips to 90 degrees with knees bent, feet touching, stacked on top of each other. Slowly lift your top knee up towards the sky while keeping your feet together (as if you were a clam shell opening). Keep your hips stacked and avoid rotating with the pelvis. Lower, repeat times, and switch sides.
- Bicycle Lie on your side with both legs straight. Flex your feet, as if standing, and stack them on top of each other. Lift your top leg so that feet are hip width apart. Keep this distance as you flow through this sequence: a) knee bent move forward to the hip at 90 degrees, b) straighten at the knee, c) float straight leg back to start. This should look like you are slowly pedalling a bike. Keep the hips stacked and stable. Strengthening our lateral hips will not only improve our yoga practice, it will also balance our body and prevent injury so that you continue to walk, vinyasa and run for years to come.
Dr. Robin Armstrong has combined her decade of experience as both a Chiropractor & Yoga Instructor to develop a unique type of yoga therapy known as Yoga Rehab, blending traditional yoga practices with modern rehab exercise to help students overcome pain and injury. She has shared her knowledge of yoga injury prevention and anatomy with the Canadian Press, American Council of Exercise, Impact, and Alive magazines as well as many local yoga teacher training programs. She practices at Yoga Downtown Flow studio in Vancouver, Canada. You can visit her website at StayActive or on Facebook and Twitter.