By Ray Long, MD | Originally published here in Yoga Journal
While studying in India with B.K.S. Iyengar years ago, I heard that he was traveling to Bangalore to teach, and I asked if I could join him. He responded that there was nothing for me to do in Bangalore. As I walked away that day, it occurred to me that he hadn’t said no—and I had a burning question I wanted to ask. So, I booked the seat next to him on the plane (you could do that back then).
When I got to the airport, I found Mr. Iyengar sitting at the gate. I walked over, sat next to him, and said jokingly, “Mr. Iyengar! Are you going to Bangalore, too?” He laughed at my bold maneuver, and we chatted while waiting to board. Finally, after the plane took off, I turned to him and asked the question I so wanted him to answer: “Mr. Iyengar, what’s the key to mastering yoga?”
He didn’t respond by dismissing me, nor did he give me a standard answer like “Just practice.” Instead, he said, “To master yoga, you must balance the energies and forces throughout the body.” To demonstrate, he held up one hand and, with his other pointer finger, indicated the outside of his index finger and then the inside, and so on through all of his fingers and the front and back of his wrist, explaining that the energy should be balanced on both sides. “You have to do this throughout the body in each pose, on each side of each joint, according to the forces needed for each position,” he told me.
Mr. Iyengar’s words contained great wisdom, and as I dedicated my study to this concept over the following years, I learned that balancing forces is particularly crucial when it comes to addressing the feeling of “tightness” many of us have in our hips. Because so many of us sit for a living—or for far too many hours when we get home from work each night—our hips are subject to a lot of imbalanced forces. To wit: Sitting leads to shortened hip flexors (including the psoas, iliacus, and rectus femoris) and weak hip extensors (especially the gluteus maximus), which prompts the hamstrings to work harder. The combination of all of this leads to a common set of muscle imbalances that can produce, among other things, abnormal pressures within the hip joint itself and that dreaded tightness.
Stretching the muscles that surround your hip can help to maintain healthy mobility of the joints, to improve circulation of the synovial fluid (which reduces friction in the joint cartilage during movement), and to counteract some of the imbalances created by our chronically sedentary lives. However, while maintaining range of motion in your hips is very important, it’s not all about flexibility. Based on firsthand experience, both from my perspective as a doctor who treats patients with hip-joint pain and as someone with occasional hip pain myself, I’m confident stating that balancing flexibility with strength in the muscles around the hip joint is the key to mobility and stability.
Mobility and Stability in the Hip Joints
To better understand, let’s look at what determines mobility and stability in your hip joints. First, there is the joint shape: a ball fitted into a socket. Surrounding the bone are a capsule and tough ligaments (which connect bone to bone at the joints). Finally, there are the “dynamic” stabilizers of the joint—your muscles. Bones do not change shape, and in general, the ligaments do not stretch very much. So, if you can’t change your bone shape, and your ligaments and cartilage are fixed in shape and length, what can you adjust so that you can more easily get into hip-opening poses? The answer: your muscles and tendons.
Find Your Own Imbalances in the Hip Joints
To activate the muscles in your hips—and learn where your weaknesses and imbalances are so you can ultimately find more openness—try this exercise: Come into Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). Your knees should be flexed, while your hips will be abducted and externally rotated. Now, squeeze your calves against your thighs and notice that your hamstrings contract. Next, squeeze the outsides of your hips and buttocks to draw your knees down, then notice that you’ll go deeper into the pose. This exercise engages many of the muscles that create the form of the pose—including the tensor fascia latae, gluteus medius, and hamstrings—and you will likely experience more “open” hips in the pose as a result.
Now, do this exercise again, and notice if there is a difference between your muscles on each side. Does your right knee melt toward the floor more easily than your left? Do your left hamstrings seem weaker? On the side that feels less strong, engage your muscles a little more strongly than on your other side (while still keeping your stronger side active) to find more balance. You can apply this same observation to your hips: Are the gluteals on one side stronger than the other? If so, practice engaging the weaker glute, without letting the stronger one go slack.
To work on activating the muscles of the hips to find more balance, try this sequence.
The Emotional Effects of Hip Openers
The beauty of finding more balance and openness in the hips is that not only will it lead you into your fullest expression of hip-opening poses, it will also help on an emotional level. That’s because stress causes our bodies to contract and curl inward—a natural action to protect the vital organs. But hip openers counter this energetic closing, which means there is a good chance they will affect your mental state and perception of well-being for the better.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Teacher Ray Long, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon in Detroit and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a website and book series dedicated to the anatomy and biomechanics of yoga. He trained with B.K.S. Iyengar.