Monday, July 4, 2011

Hip Summer

It may not be what we normally assume but almost three quarters – maybe more – of all yoga poses work on openness in the hips.  Think about it. The hips are the connection between the lower limbs and the pelvis and spine so any pose that uses the legs or the torso is also going to use the hips.  But let’s not stop with yoga poses.  Name any position of the body that doesn’t.  The hips are our vital center for locomotion and for grounding yet they are also the base of each articulated movement of the spine as we reach away from the earth and towards the stars.  They are our center for creativity, fluidity and pleasure yet they also represent our stability and our readiness to fight or fly.  From the hips we bend forward, backwards, sideways.   We can twist and shake and dance all on the basis of the 6 possible movements of the rotators, abductors and flexors.   

You would think that with so much depended on fluid hips that we would work to maintain their openness but this is precisely what is threatened by our modern lives.  If we were sitting on the floor half the day we would be exploring the full range of motion of these vital joints on a constant basis.  But instead we sit on chairs which means not only that our rotators don’t get to open but that we spend far too much time with shortened hip flexors.  Chronically shortened hip flexors can pull the pelvis out of alignment which can result in lower back pain. Shortness in the hip flexors, which is emphasized by repetitive movement such as running or cycling also restricts our ability to back bend – which means the upper back as well as the lower back becomes contracted – An upper back that doesn’t open can produce tight shoulders and neck and so it goes on…

One of my yoga teachers said that we should think of our hips as diamonds.  To open them and make them shine we need heat, pressure and time.   The heat of the Doha summer makes now the perfect time to work on opening your hips.  As you begin to do so it is useful to divide the hip stretches into 3 basic categories.  There are those that work on stability, those that help to lengthen the hip flexors, and those that work towards releasing the groin and rotators.  None of these stand on their own and as I said just about every yoga pose works on the hips but this is a good way to try to understand the progression of the poses.  So to start I would recommend that you focus on stability and the standing poses such as standing forward bend, triangle and extension pose.  Balance poses are useful here as well.  While you are experiencing the poses notice how each one finds a different area of the hip to lengthen.  Once you are warm, and standing poses usually do this, I would suggest you move towards poses that focus on the hip flexors especially the psoas muscle.  Long deep lunges are good for this and have the advantage of maintaining the heat in the body.  After this you can move to the floor and take a more yin approach to opening the rotators.  The classic pose here is pigeon pose and you can really never spend too long in pigeon but there are many others – such as butterfly position or wide legged forward bend to name just two.   Please remember that these poses should never be forced.  The hips represent a feminine part of the body so they should be approached with sensitivity and an aspect of surrender.  Oh – and one final point about the hips.  They are emotional.  It is said by many traditional practices that we store our emotions in our hips, especially our fear, our insecurity and our grief so it may be that emotional releases will accompany the physical release.  If an emotion happens to arise while you are breathing in a hip pose just keep breathing and let it go.  A hip practice can be a cleansing as well as an opening.   

As the Doha summer sand storms rage and our cars bake, as our steering wheels burn, and our cold water turns bathtub hot it is good to remember one advantage of our desert home.   Heat- heat that will serve our hips, and free our movement.   Heat that will increase our mobility and range.  Go with it. Make the most of it.  Enjoy a hip summer.