Hip opening forward bends are grounding, cooling and yin in nature. They offer a sense of homecoming or ‘coming back to self’ as the body folds in on itself creating an energetic cocoon, where people can reset and re-centre. According to Ayurveda, they balance the apana energy in the body, which supports the immune system and is also responsible for the elimination of waste products. Forward bends also balance vata energy, the dosha relating to the element of air. Vata dosha types are more prone to this energy being out of sync, but all types can experience vata imbalance, especially in times of anxiety, insecurity, excess travel and moving home.
Not all hip openers are forward folds, but when combined with this action, they release tension within the myofascia on the back of the body. This myofascia chain is called the superficial back line. The synergistic approach to yoga, based on biotensegrity, reveals that release of tension in any part of the myo-fascial train will create tension release throughout the rest of the meridian. For example, if you take a standing forward bend and note your level of flexibility on the back of the body, then roll out the planter fascia on the soles of the feet with a tennis or therapy ball and then repeat your standing forward bend, you will probably find that your forward bend has improved. This is because the plantar fascia is connected with the fascia in the rest of the entire body and more specifically with the fascia of the superficial back line. Therefore forward folds open the entire SBL, releasing tension from the back body and creating a sense of release and ease of movement.
Many students misconceive the intelligence of hip openers, believing that to open the hips, we work primarily with the action of external rotation, but as we take a closer look, you will understand why this is not true.
The joint in the hip is a ball and socket joint with the capacity to both internally and externally rotate the femur in the hip socket. The external rotator muscles create external rotation of the hip; an easy one to remember! They also help stabilise the pelvis. These are a band of 6 muscles, which lie deep to the glutes. You can activate them by contracting your buttocks in towards the sacrum. The names of the lateral rotators are: the piriformis, gemellus superior, obturator internus, gemellus inferior, quadratus femoris and the obturator externus.
The piriformis muscle is the only external rotator that directly connects the femur to the spine. It also covers the sciatic nerve and when hypertonic, can create Piriformis syndrome, a condition in which the piriformis muscle spasms and causes buttock pain or even numbness and tingling along the back of the leg and into the foot (similar to sciatic pain).
The internal hip rotator muscles are also known as the hip abductors because their primary function is abduction; hip internal rotation is their secondary function.Hip medial rotation is synergized by the adductors brevis and longus and the superior portion of the adductor magnus. Some of the lateral fibres of the glute maximus also assist in abduction, although the primary action of the glute maximus is hip extension.
What makes the hips complex is that the internal rotators and external rotators inhibit each other. If someone’s external rotators are over active (typical posterior tilt posture), their internal rotators are often under active as the action of external rotation inhibits the muscles that create the opposite action. However, people being people, there are always exceptions and sometimes people have a tight right side or left side, or can have tight/loose internal and external rotators on both sides.
Tightness in the hips can be to some degree determined by your morphology. Please see Muscles fibres, Yoga and Morphology for more details on this. In summary, endomorphs or kapha types tend towards internally rotated hips, where the femur is naturally medially rotated in the hip socket. This tendency is accompanied by typical muscle holdings associated with anterior tilt : tight adductors, weak external rotators and glutes, tight psoas and tight lumbar erector spinae. Endomorphs often find poses like Baddha Konasana and Padmasana difficult but tend to get on better with the internal rotation hip openers like Sukhasana and Kurmasana.
Ectomorphs or Vata types on the other hand tend towards posterior tilt postural holding which involves tight external rotators and glutes, tight hamstrings, tight abdominals, weak lumbar muscles possibly creating flat back and weak psoas. These externally rotated types tend to find poses like Padmasana easy and may find internally rotated poses like sukhasana, agnistambhasana and Kurmasana more difficult.
When the foot is squared in poses like Sukhasana and Agnistambhasana, the leg rotation is internal. The intelligence of this echos back to the principle in Tadasana; when we extend into the big toe mound we create medial leg rotation. Similarly extending into the big toe mound and inner heel will create medial rotation in our hip openers. The internal leg rotation inherent in big toe mound extension also counterbalances external rotation actions in the hips which helps to set the knee on its hinge, preventing excess rotation, possible damage and tends to be more comfortable and safe for the student. Internally rotated hip openers engage the hip internal rotators and release the hip external rotators. This is significant as tight lateral hip rotators are widespread and it is common to see people struggling with the squaring of the foot in these poses as a result. Students with this postural holding pattern will find in difficult to create deep hip flexion in forward folds and instead will round the spine in forward bends in compensation. Being able to square the foot in these poses requires the sit bones spreading away from each other, releasing the posterior pelvic floor, the hip external rotators and the glutes before the femur will be able to comfortable medially rotate in the hip socket allowing the foot to square.
As mentioned above tight external rotators are often accompanied by posterior tilt. This is one of the reasons we activate internal rotation in poses like Baddha Konasana. If we look at the shape of the pose, we see that it is largely an external rotation pose; when the legs are abducted and the knees are wider than the hips, there is a natural external rotation. However, after the legs are placed in the pose, the action of the hip is not to externally rotate the legs as much as possible. This action will create posterior tilt and rounding through the spine. In order to keep the spine tall, we need to allow for a certain amount of internal rotation at the hip. The internal rotation action also sets the knee on its hinge, creating safety for the knee.
If we enter this pose using active stretching, we are targeting the release of the adductors. These muscles have 2 actions, to adduct and to internally rotate, therefore, they have 2 antagonists, the abductors (aka internal hip rotators) and the external rotators. Therefore to help release the adductors to move deeper into the pose, we must contract both the abductors and the external rotators. The cue ‘contract the posterior pelvic floor and outer hip in towards the midline, gathering the sit bones into the sacrum” targets both antagonists and also balances the rotation of the femur, allowing for length through the spine. The activation of these specific muscles sends a message through the CNS to inhibit the adductor muscles, which allows students to move deeper into their pose.
Kurmasana is another great example of internal rotation hip opening. Students often want to allow the legs to roll externally, which creates deeper spinal flexion, taking people out of the pose. Students should roll the legs internally and extend into the big tow mound and inner heel in order to place weight on the centre heel. The internal leg rotation will also help create deeper flexion at the hip and more length through the lumbar..
Supta Kurmasana, on the other hand, where the feet are bound around each other is an external rotation pose. The adductors work strongly in this pose helping to draw the legs into the midline and as you can see from the shape of the pose, requires little release of the adductor brevis and pectineus of the inner groins and a lot more release through the hamstrings and adductor magnus. Because of this, I have seen students enter into this pose successfully, even though their knees were 50 degrees from the ground in Baddha Konasana. Tight adductors which prevent students from accessing poses like Padmasana are not an obstacle in this pose. In addition, the bent knee position also allows for tight hamstrings and some people may find it easier than Kurmasana, which is also its start position. From this, we should be able to see the complexity of the hips.
Padmasana, or lotus pose, is an externally rotated poses essentially but also uses some internal rotation. The action at the hip is external initially as the foot in placed on the opposite hip crease. However when the foot is placed from an externally rotated leg, it is naturally sickled, with the sole of the foot facing up towards the ceiling. This sickled position allows for opening of the hip but has no stability and in this position may create knee pain. To maintain knee stability, after the foot is placed, the student should extend into the big toe mound and inner heel just enough to feel the femur medially rotating in the acetabulum and the knee being re-set back on its natural hinge. This action can take immediate strain off the knee and students often express immediate freedom from knee pain. The knee may draw up away from the ground in the same action, which tends not to look like the classical final expression of the pose; but priority should be given to the felt sense over the aesthetic, and with time, once the knee and hip feel comfortable, the knee will start to drop down again to the ground.
The most important tip I can give people with tight hips in to work gently and slowly around areas of tightness. It can take people years to open the hips. Know your postural disposition and honour that, without becoming fatalist about it. Endomorphs (kaphas) may take longer to develop a comfortable lotus, but with some of that kapha patience, it will happen over time if you practice. Ectomorphs (vatas) may feel like their legs just won’t internally rotate in the hip socket, but working the action on internal rotation from the pelvic floor and deepening the anterior tilt action to find neutral will be beneficial not only for the pose, but for posture and functional movement generally.
Combining vinyasa with yin in your weekly practice schedule can also be very helpful. The heat of vinyasa can really help the hips melt open especially in kapha and vata types that tend to be colder than fiery pittas. Repetitions of the same hip opening poses or working with similar type poses as you sequence up to your pinnacle pose can also be very effective. However Yin style long holdings can also be very useful for opening the hips deep in their sockets, breathing through resistance as space starts to enter deeper into the hip sockets.
Remember that all of the muscles referred to in this blog also contribute to a functional stable pelvis, so it is important to strengthen these muscles in addition to opening them and find the balance relative to your individual body. Enjoy !