- Hip alignment for healthier hips and spine, and for increased serenity
- Posted 10 Jul 2017
Hip alignment can be challenging—perhaps more so than the alignment of any other joint in the body—because of tightness of the ligaments that support the joint, and tightness in the muscles that articulate the hips. While none of our joints are as flexible as they were when we were infants, the hips typically lose a greater percentage of their range of motion over time than any other joint in our bodies. This is because the hip joints are extremely flexible when we are born, but in our daily lives we make use of a very limited part of their original range of motion, and muscles and connective tissue will tighten up naturally to permit no more than the range of motion repeatedly required of them. The reason for this tightening is efficiency, and in order to be able to walk and run efficiently, it is actually advantageous to have hips that don’t permit much more than the range of motion required in walking or running.
There actually is at least one scientific study that has been done on this, and it found that marathon runners whose hip range of motion is only large enough to permit the motion of running are about 15% more efficient at running than people whose hips are more flexible. If you have very flexible hip joints and you find running unstable and uncomfortable, your hip flexibility is probably part of the reason. So why would you care about open hips, if all you want to be able to do is sit on chairs and in cars, and walk, run, and ride a bike? Isn’t that enough?
Research shows that regularly taking joints through their full range of motion is important for longterm joint health, because it helps maintain the integrity of the smooth cartilage that lines the joint surfaces. The fact that most people in industrialized societies only ever move their hips through a very small part of their full range of motion may help explain the growing epidemic of hip replacement surgeries in the industrialized world (though as far as I know there is no evidence yet of a direct causal link).
Another reason why open hips are beneficial is that if you try to do something with your hips that you don’t usually do, like sitting on the floor, the hip joints will resist the motion, and some other body part gets to pick up the slack. That’s almost always the lower spine, which has to flex extremely to compensate for the lack of motion in the hip joints, leading to lower back pain, the most common health complaint in the US. So increasing the range of motion of your hips offers two main benefits: improved health of the hip joints (which can suffer from underuse), and reduced strain on the lower back (which suffers generally from overuse).
Chairs bear a good part of the blame for our lack of hip flexibility, so sitting on the floor as much as possible, or sitting cross-legged (or at least crossing one leg over the other) even on chairs and couches, is a great start to bringing back or at least maintain some of the flexibility that permits external rotation of the legs. But even for people whose hips are relatively open, hip alignment can still be challenging, because we typically don’t have a very good idea of what our hips are doing. This is understandable from an evolutionary perspective, as it is much more important for our brain to know where our hands, feet, and face are in space. Consequently, our brain uses much more of its processing power to interpret information coming from spatial sensors (called propriosensors) in our hands and face than from sensors located in the hips.
One trick to make up for the poor processing of proprio-information coming from the hips is to place your hands on your hips in challenging poses so that you can use the brainpower devoted to locating the hands in space to figure out what your hips are doing. The more you focus your awareness on the position of your hips, the easier it becomes for you to keep track of what your hips are doing, which will make your hip openers more effective as you become more adept at placing the stretch exactly where you need it.
Why aren’t we automatically placing the stretch where we need it? Because of our natural tendency to conserve energy (i.e., be lazy), which causes us to complete any motion by following the path of least resistance, using our strong muscles to articulate our flexible joints, while ignoring our weak muscles and tight joints. When we do poses that are designed to open tight hips, we tend to do the required movement with the lumbar spine, because it simply requires less effort (both physical and mental) to articulate the lower back instead of the hips.
Don’t believe me? Try this simple test: Lie down on your back with extended legs, and notice how your lumbar arch keeps your lumbar vertebrae off the floor. Draw one knee towards your chest and hold your shin with outstretched arms. This is a simple act of hip flexion, the one hip movement that we actually do all day long. Holding your shin, notice whether your lumbar spine is still off the floor. It’s not? Well, that means you flexed your lower back unconsciously in addition to flexing your hip joint. Now lift your lower back off the floor by tilting your tailbone down into the floor, and notice how the stretch sensation in that hip increases as you stop compensating with your lower back. When we compensate with the lower back, it is difficult if not impossible to get a good hip stretch, while at the same escalating the risk of lower back injury. This week we will focus on aligning the hips neutrally to protect the lower back while greatly increasing the effectiveness of hip opening poses.
Notice also that when you lifted your lower back off the floor while holding on to your knee that you felt more spacious in your chest. Better hip alignment doesn’t just improve hip joint health and lower back health, but it also helps create greater spaciousness through better spinal alignment. The increased spaciousness that you feel is real, and facilitates a smoother, deeper, and more effortless breath, because you are literally allowing more air into your lungs with less effort when your spine is in a more neutral shape. Whenever we avoid stretching our hips, the rounding of the spine inhibits the breath. And when you can’t breathe, it’s very challenging to remain present in the moment with a sense of serenity, which to my mind is one of the main reasons to be practicing yoga.
If you want to experience the connection between your breath and your serenity, come into Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) for a few breaths and observe your serenity. Bow Pose is not a difficult shape to make for most people (feel free to use a strap around the ankles if you cannot reach them with your hands), but nonetheless most people experience it as very difficult and unpleasant. The reason is that in Dhanurasana your breath is extremely labored, because you have to lift a significant portion of your body weight with each inhale in order to get any air. If you focus on taking deeper breaths in Dhanurasana, you will probably feel that the pose becomes much more pleasant. The take-home message is that learning to maintain a spacious breath even under challenging circumstances helps you learn the immensely powerful lesson that it is possible not to get stressed out even when stressful things are happening.
Try it now: Do a couple of sun salutations to warm up, and then come into Warrior II with your right foot forward, ideally facing a mirror in which you can see your hips. Instead of reaching your hands out immediately to shoulder height, place them on your hip crests. Bring your awareness to the position of your hands (or look in the mirror) and notice that in all likelihood the left hand (and thus the left hip) is higher than the right (front) one, and that your tailbone is tilting up behind you. If this is true and your shoulders are level (which they typically are), then your spine is side bending AND back bending in order for your hip joints to avoid having to stretch. Ideally with eyes closed, try to level your hips side to side by leveling your hands, and notice that the improved alignment of level hips may increase the intensity of the hip stretch, particularly in the back leg, while also freeing the breath.
Then note whether your hips are level front to back, or whether your tailbone is still tilting up behind you. Intentionally increase the anterior hip tilt (or inner spiral) and feel how this integrates the hip joint of the rear leg by pulling the head of the femur deeper into the hip socket. Then engage your abs and scoop your front sitbone towards the big toe of the back foot (posterior hip tilt or outer spiral) to level the hips front to back, and notice how this movement helps align your bent right knee over your second toe while further intensifying the stretch, especially in the front inner thigh. The intensification of the stretch sensation makes it obvious that before the adjustment you were indeed subconsciously but very effectively minimizing the hip stretch. :)
Also notice how emphasizing inner spiral on the rear leg and outer spiral on the front will make you feel more integrated, stronger, and simply more “warrior-like”, giving you a visceral understanding of why this pose is called Warrior II. Inhale your arm to horizontal if you like, then exhale and expand out into the soles of your feet, your fingertips, and the crown of your head to balance your new-found strength and integration with spaciousness and expansion, because aligning your hips has also aligned your spine, which in turn has freed your breath. Stay for a few smooth, savored breaths, then repeat the alignment sequence on the other side.