5 Poses to Increase Hip Range of Motion

by Gabriel Azoulay and Elina Sinisalo

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When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” (~Lao Tzu)

What if you could let go of all the unnecessary tension in your body? The tension in your mind? The chaos in your heart? What could you become?

YinYasa Yoga teaches you to open up your body and open up your mind, expanding and transforming not just your Yoga practice but your entire life through the simple practice of letting go.  This article introduces YinYasa Yoga and a hip-opening practice inspired by Paul Grilley’s work and sequenced by Gabriel Azoulay. It is specifically aimed at improving range of motion, reducing pain, achieving postural balance, and discovering inner Stillness.

We carry so much tension in our bodies, both physically and mentally. From a biological perspective, without this tension we would not sustain life as we know it. Gravity, the major culprit to our structure, both aims to destroy us, yet allows us to enjoy the incredible experience we call life. With Gravity in mind we can appreciate how the human body is an amazing work of Art. It is made up of a strong yet mobile skeletal frame, muscles that enable movement and flexibility, and connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons, which provide stability at the joints and allow muscles to act. Naturally the make-up of our bodies extends far beyond that, but from a simple physiological standpoint, our goal is to enable optimal use and functioning of these parts.

Due to sedentary lifestyles, sleep patterns, injuries, or over-use, our bodies begin to take on less than-optimal postural habits. Today’s modern life means that some of us spend too much time sitting and working in front of computers or watching TV, and we counterbalance our inactivity with hardly any time spent moving our bodies through the full range of motion through stretching, strengthening, or actively releasing the built-up tension. Others of us take on so many sports and activities that our bodies simply can’t keep up with the demands placed on them.  The end result is an imbalance, with certain muscles getting stronger and tighter while counter muscles become weaker and underused. Repercussions echo throughout the entire body, many of which go unnoticed. Low back pain, for instance, can be a result of years of accepting minor strains and avoiding movements that challenge the spinal muscles. Consider that sitting on the floor or squatting to use the toilet engages a balance between our stomach muscles and our Spinalis group (the muscles of the spine); we enjoy the comforts of chairs and sofas and sitting toilets, but as a trade-off we lose the benefit from these natural balancing mechanisms.

Our self-restricted movements translate into a sense of inflexibility that can express itself as pain when we attempt to reach our toes. Backbends, which are literally moving away from Gravity, become a thing of the far past. We attribute our growing stiffness to the aging process, but this is just an excuse. What we really need to do is recapture our childhood and re-teach our bodies and minds the flexibility that we once knew and enjoyed. Pain-free flexibility and balance in body and mind can all be achieved through the practice of YinYasa Yoga.

YinYasa is an expression of Yin Yoga, a practice introduced to the Yoga world by Paul Grilley. The term YinYasa was coined by Gabriel Azoulay, who has spent the last 20 years communicating the physical and spiritual benefits of Yoga and its sister practices through classes, workshops, and publications. Paul Grilley’s work on the term Yin Yoga is well recognized, and a simple Google search will provide great details on both the term Yin and why it is used in reference to Yoga. We will address the quiet aspect of Yin Yoga, but first need to consider the term nYasa. Derived from the word VinYasa, which literally means “placing something on another,” VinYasa often refers to Yoga poses composed together based on the movement of the breath. It inspires us to understand that a house can only feel secure if the foundational stones are placed correctly. If even one stone is positioned incorrectly the whole structure will fall apart. Thus VinYasa refers to an intelligent sequencing of poses to achieve a greater whole. The great sage Vamana Rishi was the first to use the term in relation to the scientific work of Patanjali, who described a step-by-step path to spiritual awakening. Patanjali described an Eight-step path, which when followed in order, would enable the practitioner to arrive at their destination, much as a builder laying down stones in the right order would reap the benefits of a safe, warm, and foundationally-sound structure.

Following this simple understanding, Vamana Rishi said: “Vina VinYasa Yoga Asanadin NaKriyat” – ‘Without vinYasa, yoga poses should not be taken,’ which can be interpreted as: “Without the proper placement of poses, yoga practice should not be done.” YinYasa is the proper placement of Yin Yoga poses to achieve a greater whole, whether it is freedom in the hips, greater range of motion in the low back, or stronger knees.

Yin Yoga focuses on the connective tissue at the joints, and considers bone and the ligament to be the major source of our life force. Research by Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama and work from North Korean scientist Kim Bong-Han provide scientific proof as to the existence of such an energetic force. Furthermore, their research shows that this force follows the specific pathways described in Chinese medicine dating back to the first century BCE, commonly known as Meridians.

Yin Yoga practice challenges the joints through maintaining postures for duration of time. Similar to how subtle force applied on the teeth by braces slowly changes the structure of the mouth, Yin Yoga aims to restructure tension in our deep tissues and bones. Through the process, not only does our range of motion expand at the joint, but we also find that our vital life energy expands. Yin Yoga changes our perceptions and gives us new eyes, asking us to always be aware of the moment and reminding us that we should not crystallize our ideas. Thus this new style of Yoga has the same focus and goal as all other styles of Yoga in terms of quieting the mental/emotional aspect of existence and revealing ones True Nature, but as a physical practice it goes beyond the superficial or muscular tissues, targeting the deep connective tissue such as joints, ligaments, and bones.

The key to Yin is muscular dis-engagement, which allows the posture to work deep into the connective tissue rather than into muscular fibers. While this may seem counter-intuitive to our Western minds, which have been taught to avoid putting any strain on the joints, the gentle stretching of connective tissue in the joints is actually beneficial, building strength and length, and enabling more movement at the capsule. We lose range of motion through our lives because the connective tissue shortens in response to use, and in cases of extreme under-use the connective tissue will actually harden and restrict all movement, as was discovered by Candian Surgeon Amory Codman in exploring the cause of “frozen shoulder.” Yin Yoga helps rejuvenate and restore health and elasticity in connective tissue, but the important point to keep in mind is “slow and steady.” Connective tissue responds best to this style of stretching, as opposed to the contract/release method we normally engage in for muscular stretching. It is only once muscular engagement in the posture ceases that we can achieve stretching of the connective tissue.

For many of us, restriction in the hips is a primary cause of many postural problems. Our bodies were built to stand upright, but as a result of our lifestyles, hip musculature often becomes unbalanced. Long hours spent sitting at a work desk doesn’t do our bodies any favors, and on the other end of the spectrum, many athletes, such as long-distance runners, also experience overly-contracted hip musculature due to the repetitive motion of these muscles. The restriction of our hip flexor muscles can cause various issues such as anterior rotation in the pelvis, leading to problems such as exaggerated arching in the spine, forward leaning of the head, and weakness/overworking of opposing antagonist muscles such as glutes. This can result in decreased range of motion, stiffness, and/or pain.

From an anatomical perspective, the hip joint is a ‘ball and socket’ joint, with the top of the femur connecting to a depression in the pelvis. The joint allows movement along three planes: extension/flexion, adduction/abduction, and internal and external rotation. Combining these movements allows circumduction, or a cone-like circular movement of the entire leg. The hip joint is surrounded by strong musculature, which supports posture and movement while simultaneously creating stability. The joint is also reinforced by a fibrous capsule and five ligaments, which keep the joint from hyper-extending along the planes of movement. With this structure, the hip is one of the strongest and most stable joints in the body, and movement at the hip is regulated by an intricate interaction between the musculature and the ligaments.

There are many benefits to expanding the freedom in the hips that include improved range of motion, pain reduction, and postural rebalancing. With this goal in mind, Gabriel Azoulay developed the following YinYasa Hip-Opening Sequence consisting of five Yin Postures, ideally practiced daily with each pose held for three to five minutes in length (though feel free to enjoy them for longer time as you see fit):

Butterfly Pose

Swan Pose

Square Pose

Saddle or Half Saddle

Abdominal Twist

1. Butterfly Pose

This simple posture is designed to relieve inner-thigh tension. It is great for meditation, as well as for reducing joint discomfort in the legs and back, which can show up as a result of too much time spent standing. It stretches the fascia crossing the iliosacral region.

Steps:

1. Sit on your mat with legs extended in front of you.

2. Bend both knees, allowing them to fall out to the sides, and bring the soles of your feet together in front of you. Measure the distance by extending your arms in front of you. You should be able to barely

touch your heels with your fingers tips…this is how far forward you need your feet. Any closer puts the pose into your inner groin, as opposed to opening your back.

3. Bend forward, allowing your spine to round over your legs. DO NOT pull your body, NO need to grab feet or push knees down. If you want a deeper stretch, feel free to use sand bags on your inner thighs;

however, let your muscles be relaxed.

4. Hold five minutes, moving deeper into the posture as your body allows it, focus on relaxing, letting go.

Word of Advice: Some people do not like keeping their head down for 5 minutes, some people love it. If you need to lift your head, that is perfectly ok. It can rest in your hands, with your elbows on the floor. If you feel like dropping the head after some time, do that.

Reminder:

– Make sure the spine is rounded, not straight, as you are trying to open the spine

– Let gravity take over your knees; no need to push them down

2. Swan Pose

Swan proper is wonderful for strengthening the spine and stretching out the hips, thighs, and lower abdomen. By relaxing the surrounding tissues at the hip, it enables easier external rotation of the thigh, which is helpful for seated cross-legged postures. Both versions can help alleviate problems relating to lower back pain.

Swan Proper

Sleeping Swan

Steps:

1. Begin in Table Top on your hands and knees. Bring one knee forward to touch the same side wrist (right knee to right wrist). Align the ankle with the opposite hip, in line with the opposite knee. Begin to slide the opposite leg as far back as it goes. The angle of the knee should be kept at a comfortable range. The closer to 90 degrees, the more potential tension at the knee, so be aware of what feels right.

2. From Swan Proper, brace yourself on the hands; for sleeping swan let your chest come down. Relax your leg muscles. It’s ok if your opposite hip slightly rolls out, giving your body a slight twist shape, as long as you feel a stretch along the bent knee side from the outside of the knee, along the back of the leg, and up around the sit bone area toward the lower back. This is your IT Band line.

3. Hold for 5 minutes, breathing into your posture and allowing the hip to open up gently.

4. You can roll to the bent knee to the side and stay in a cradle-like pose, or you can push to down dog, or any other expression you feel you need after releasing the pose. Repeat on the other leg.

Reminder:

– Be gentle with your body, not forcing it to overstretch

Contra-indications:

– If you have problems with your knees (especially any problems with the inner meniscus), be aware of the pressure; if pressure is too great, bring the front foot back, more towards or under the opposite hip.

3. Square Pose

Square pose is a beautiful hip opener which can serve as a good preparation for Lotus pose. It provides a deep opening of the hips and outer thighs through strong external rotation, specifically targeting the connective tissue of the outer thighs and the glute region. It can be extremely beneficial for alleviating lower back pain, tight hips, and knee pain, and can help lengthen the ITT (a thick band of connective tissue which runs down the outer thigh).

Steps:

1. Begin by sitting with legs crossed in front of you.

2. Place one ankle over the opposite knee, resting the foot on the outside of the opposite knee. Make sure you are rotating out fromyour hips and not your knees.

3. With a straight spine, exhale and slowly bend your torso forward over your legs, extending arms out in front of you and allowing your hips to stretch open.

4. Hold the pose for 5 minutes, slowly come out. Switch legs and repeat.

Reminder:

– Be aware of the pressure on the knees; if the hips are too tight, it may show up as over-rotation in the knee, causing overstretching and pain in the joint. If this is the case, begin by crossing the legs completely, knee over knee, moving into Shoelace Pose.

– This posture can aggravate sciatica. This can be remedied by elevating the hips using a cushion.

– Keep a straight spine when bending forward to avoid lower back problems.

– Do not allow your feet and/or ankles to cave inward – this puts undue stress on the knee joint.

Contra-indications:

– Not intended for practitioners with serious knee, groin or lower back injuries.

4. Saddle Pose or Half-Saddle Pose

Saddle Pose and Half Saddle Pose offer a deep stretch to the sacral lumbar arch, and work to open the hips flexors and quadriceps, as well as the feet, knees, and thighs. These postures realign the sacrum and spine, encouraging the natural lumbar curve of the spine.

Steps:

1. Sit on your knees with feet behind you, big toes touching one another. Keeping feet in place, gently slide your knees apart, wider than the hips. The wider you go, the deeper the stretch.

2. Using your arms behind you as a support, begin to drop your torso backwards down to the floor. You can use your elbows/forearms to help guide you down. If the posture is too intense, a bolster can be placed under the lower back to tone down the stretch.

3. Bring arms over the head to stretch the chest muscles.

4. Relax into the position, maintaining your slow, steady breath. Allow the muscles to open up to the stretch. Hold 3-5 minutes, then slowly release, coming up the exact opposite way you went into the posture.

5. For Half Saddle Pose, follow the same steps, except release one leg. This will make the stretch less intense.

Reminder:

– Listen to your body, do not overstretch. Use a bolster or practice half saddle pose as needed until sufficient flexibility is achieved to reach the floor.

5. Abdominal Twist

Abdominal Twist rebalances the entire internal system, returning internal organs back into position, and flushing the abdominal wall with nutrients. The Chinese tradition holds that the organs were created first from the energy of the mother, and as each organ developed, it sent its energy down the body, creating bones, ligaments, tendons, and eventually limbs. Abdominal Twists are said to have a calming effect on the entire system.

Steps:

1. Lie on your back, draw one knee high into your chest, twist the knee to the opposite side.

2. Make sure your hips get out from under you to achieve maximum twist.

3. If you wish you can take your legs into eagle style legs, make sure to rotate knees to the lower leg side.

4. Arms can stretch out as the letter T.

5. Make sure shoulders stay on the floor. Knee might not reach the floor.

6. Hold 1-5 minutes. This is a final pose, and can be used to rebalance the body, being held for just a minute, or it can be utilized for its full benefits of stretching the entire cross fascia along the front of the body.

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YinYasa Yoga can change your body and open your mind. When you learn to let go, you will discover a whole new world of possibilities. As a word of caution to teachers and long term practitioners, it’s important to recognize that the human body is extremely diverse and no two bones are ever built the same. While the Hip Joint can theoretically enjoy great freedom, the various shapes of the head of the femur and the placement and size of the greater trochanter may mean that some extreme range of motion will never be available for a practitioner. Only an X-Ray can reveal any physical limitations, but nevertheless should only serve to inspire the principles of the practice, which are to develop an ability to feel our body from the inside and to appreciate that it is not about what the pose looks like, but rather what it feels like. Over months and years of practice you will notice that you choose to practice not because you will gain more “freedom” but rather because it enhances the energetic life force from within.

If you knew you would lose your teeth based on genetics regardless of what you did, would you stop brushing them today? Highly doubtful. We brush our teeth because of the wonderful feeling it provides us, and more importantly because of the experience it creates for the world around us. In the same way, Yoga practice, Yin or Yang, helps to keep the body fresh and the spirit bright and shining. If you don’t believe it, simply ask your friends and family. They can tell when you have and when you have not “brushed” your bones through yoga practice.

“Practice and all will come” – this is a quote that Gabriel likes sharing from his Ashtanga teacher Pattabhi Jois. Because in the end, practice is what matters.

For more information about YinYasa Yoga and additional sequences targeting knees and lower back, download a free copy of our YinYasa e-book, available at www.YinYasayoga.com

Namaste,

Gabriel Azoulay and Elina Sinisalo

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is strictly for reference only and is not a substitute for medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. The authors assume no responsibility for injuries that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program. Always consult your healthcare provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. Yoga should be practiced under direct supervision of a qualified instructor, which can help avoid injury.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mountainousninja
    Sep 18, 2012 @ 07:20:24

    elina you do such amazing work. great job ellu. way to work those hips. jason stork says what’s up.

    Reply

  2. mountainousninja
    Sep 18, 2012 @ 07:21:01

    i am flying to colorado soon. close to where you are. i think i need to set up a massage.

    Reply

  3. mountainousninja
    Sep 18, 2012 @ 07:21:21

    nice talking. explorer is still doing it big.

    Reply

  4. mountainousninja
    Sep 18, 2012 @ 07:26:57

    hey i am flying close to where you are i hope you want to kick it. i will be within 30 miles of you. i will be there for 2 weeks. hope to see you. peace. i need a back massage

    Reply

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