Our wellbeing expert Niamh Deans explains the hip-opening side of yoga and demonstrates a number of poses designed to build strength and open the hips.
Coming from a background of ballet and dance I have very open hips and for many years I overstretched and focused on making gains in flexibility as the main focus of my yoga practice. It was when I discovered what Yoga really is that I learnt how much more the practice has to offer during my teacher trainings. As my awareness of my body increased, I introduced Yoga HIIT into my practice to strengthen my body (read more about Yoga HIIT here). I was very flexible and hanging out in my joints rather than engaging the muscles. It was a bit of a surprise and discovery to me that the gains I made in strengthening my body actually increased my flexibility rather than hampering it. Also, strengthening my body has transformed my practice and taken away any aches and pains I may have been experiencing from overuse of certain postures.
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Yoga is about cultivating balance inside and out and often modern-day Vinyasa style yoga sequencing can overly focus on flexibility and lengthening the back side of the body rather than stability and strength. When considering hip openers, it is important to remember that the hip joint is a 360-degree ball and socket joint with a full 360 degrees of musculature operating it. The hamstrings are hip extensors and although pretty much all people benefit hugely from opening up the back of the body and lengthening the hamstrings this also needs to be balanced with strengthening this area to prevent overstretch and instability issues over time. I include strength building in pretty much all of my classes - locust pose - and also these alternatives to strengthen the hamstrings.
This is a version of dancers pose which does not include the hand lifting the leg, but free hands (hands in prayer) so that the action of the heel lifting upwards contracts the hamstrings. The action of the heel lifting upwards and inwards towards the body in table-top position is a similar action. Locust pose and all of its variations are also so important for strengthening the back line of the body.
Naturanjasana (Dancers Pose)
Table Top with heel raised
Locus post (variation 1)
Locust post (variation 2)
'Hip Openers' are a focus of many yoga classes and will include the likes of thread the needle, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon pose), Baddha Konasana (butterfly pose), Malasana (squat) and other outer hip focused poses. These poses are fab and feel great and act so well on cranky bodies that are sitting all day long. It is important not to forget that the hips are not only opened from the back body (hamstrings) and outer hips but the full 360 of the musculature that surrounds the framework. So inner thighs being worked and strengthened can impact the opening of the whole hip. In my classes, I encourage the use of blocks between the thighs in both standing poses and in Downward Dog and Dolphin poses, for example, to imprint a muscle memory in the body of activating these inner leg muscles. Garudasana (eagle pose) and Gomukhasana (cow face pose) are also other options.
Gomukhasana (Cow face)
Downward dog with block
Pigeon with block
I have found that strengthening and contracting work of the inner thigh has achieved lengthening of this area in Hanumanasana (splits) and Baddha Konasana (butterfly pose) so equally it is important to have a balanced practice that considers strengthening and lengthening all of the musculatures of the hip. Strength and flexibility go hand and hand – adding strength does not combat flexibility. Keep the full range of motion and movement of your hips happy – they will keep you upright all your life! The hips also house the psoas muscle and the psoas has a direct influence on your fight or flight response. So releasing the hips can often bring emotional release as well as acting on weak or tight lower backs. The benefits are truly amazing and your body will thank you for it!
A sequence for opening the hips
Thread the needle
Anjaneyasana (low lunge)
Niamh teaches Yoga Shred™ inspired classes called Yoga HIIT Fusion in The Samadhi Centre Rathgar Wednesday mornings 11.15 - 12.15 and in The Rathmines Collective Wednesday evenings 19.45 - 20.45. Niamh also specialises in corporate yoga and will come to your office to teach Yoga Flow or Yoga HIIT fusion classes. Yoga HIIT Fusion classes are express 45 minute morning and lunch options available to fit in with your working day.