Balanced Hip Strengthening with Yoga

Hip strength and correct hip function is vital to a pain-free yoga practice but the saying “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” is applicable here: focusing too much on the legs weakens the hips. How much leg exercise is needed in relation to core strength depends on an individual’s physical activities apart from yoga and it can be difficult to get the balance right.

In general, yoga classes that follow the formula of sun salutations, standing asanas, a floor sequence split between strengthening and stretching asanas and a closing sequence are less likely to cause hip problems than classes featuring 90 minutes of standing poses and hip openers. Less is often more with the hips: mindful practice with good alignment and conscious engagement of hip muscles is essential.

Gluteus Medius activation is very important in yoga practice. To learn this:

  • Stand with the hands on the upper buttocks, feet hip-width apart and toes turned slightly inwards
  • Do not move the heels but contract leg and hip muscles as if to bring the heels closer together. It should be possible to feel the upper portion of the gluteal muscles contract
  • Try again with the feet parallel

Activating the hips this way before and during practice brings added stability to standing asanas and is as important to the hips as activating the legs by pulling up the kneecaps

A focus on alignment as is taught in Iyengar yoga is very important for the hips: poor alignment often shows existing hip problems and practising yoga with incorrect hip alignment can lead to problems, although focusing on alignment alone will not necessarily improve hip problems. Additional rehab exercises might be necessary, especially if hip problems are a result of yoga practice.

It is a highly questionable practice to start classes with intense hip-openers before warming up: intense stretching of cold muscles tends to inhibit them, or even cause spasms or tearing. If the hips feel stiff and sore all the time, more stretching is the worst possible way to treat the hips.

Isolation exercise as a means of strengthening hips tends to cause muscle imbalance. It is better to practise movements that engage the entire body than to try to improve weak muscles with isolation exercises. Bodies unfortunately don’t come with a gauge that tells you exactly how much to exercise a particular muscle and only trained people should try this.

Variation is vital to healthy hips. There are many standing asanas and practising the same asanas over and over again is not wise.

  • Lunging asanas can be problematic because they strengthen the legs and cause reciprocal inhibition of the hips and the position of the legs stresses the sacroiliac joint.
  • Utkatasana can also be problematic if it is always exited by bending forward and performing vinyasa. Utkatasana should be exited by straightening up while contracting the Gluteal muscles and pushing upwards from the legs, not by extending the upper body upwards: then it is an excellent hip strengthener.
  • The best hip strengtheners are standing balances: Utthita Eka Padasana, Utthita Surya Yantrasana, Trivikramasana, Dighasana, Natarajasana, Vrksasana and Eka Pada variations of Setu Bandasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana. Utthita Eka Padasana and Dighasana variations are counter poses and should be practised equally
  • Ardha Chandrasana needs to be practiced with special focus -it can be problematic because the hip is often opened by twisting the torso instead of contracting the Gluteus Maximus, and weak hips are easily overstretched in Parvritta Ardha Chandrasana. Practising the hands-free variations teaches correct muscle usage.
  • Standing balancing asanas are difficult and are often skipped in favour of lunges and Virabhadrasana or Parsvakonasana variations. If these particular asanas are held for long periods they stress the pelvic and sacroiliac joints.
  • Practising standing asanas that are oriented towards the front or back of the body exclusively makes the adductors and pelvic floor tight.  Standing sequences should include lateral movements like Parsva Anjaneyasana (lateral squats) and Prasarita Virabhadrasana (horse squats) to maintain dynamic flexibility in the adductors. These asanas work best if they are not held for longer than a breath or two but used as smooth, controlled movements, resisting the temptation to bounce.

Pelvic stability is greatly enhanced by core stability and although many consider core strengthening to consist of abdominal exercise, abdominal muscles are only one part of the core and effective core strengthening understands that the body’s core consists of front, back and sides. Equal amounts of Purvottanasana variations, Salabhasana, Planks, Bakasana variations, Navasana variations and Vasistasana improve core strength and function far more than traditional abdominal crunch-exercises: these are only suitable for beginners who have very little abdominal strength and cause postural problems and mid-back pain and stiffness.

Focusing on core strength in this way is effective in managing and preventing many Sciatic and Sacroiliac issues that are common in yoga

Reading Sources:
Sharkey, 2008, The Concise book of Neuromuscular Therapy
Cook, 2003, Athletic Body in Balance
Franklin, 2004, Conditioning for Dance

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Balanced Hip Strengthening with Yoga

  1. I appreciate you saying a word on protecting and balancing the hips rather than forever trying to open them. However, I do think we need to be careful about suggesting that the classical alignment taught in Iyengar Yoga is the example of “good alignment.”

    For instance, lining the heel to inner arch in lunging poses is often far too restrictive depending on the width of someone’s hips and needs to be modified to allow for more space. The classical alignment here presents a particularly “tight rope” to stand on that is inappropriate for many.

    Also, the very wide stances taught in Iyengar yoga tend to destabilize the pelvis. With all the sciatic and sacroiliac issues that abound (myself included), I think it is unwise to prop Iyengar up as a model. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about Iyengar Yoga that is very useful but its lack of emphasis on breath and the rigidity of the method inhibit individualization and often makes for injurious practice.

    Your points here are well taken. I only mean to suggest that wrote alignment that doesn’t allow for a person needs or situation is most problematic.

    Cheers.

    Like

    • Thanks for that, Jason. I’m no Iyengar devotee but I do appreciate Iyengar’s attention to squaring off the pelvis properly before getting into poses as opposed to the ‘it’s all good’ attitude of many teachers and I think that is the point I was trying to make. I agree that rigid methods don’t serve any useful purpose

      Like

    • Hello,

      I have read your response. I have had totally the opposite result to my practice and my students. I receive many students that pass through contemporary yoga practice with no guidance and end up being turned off of Yoga entirely due to poor instruction and attention to detail.

      I sometimes teach wider stance I sometimes teach narrow stance based on the persons needs. The beauty about yoga is everyone has their own personal pose based on the intent of the pose, far far far beyond the shape. That is my job to help them find their ever changing pose. Yes, Iyengar yoga is rigid and is a discipline. I was a pro athlete and dancer and understand discipline and the necessity to stick with something grounded and full. I am grateful for the 10 years I spent in training. One thing about Iyengar teachers is the information they receive is based in science and grounded. Unfortunately the information that Mr. Iyengar is diseminating is not always understood or always taught properly.

      When was the last time you attended an Iyengar class. I suggest trying it again as the edge with the new teachers coming up the ranks is not there with most. It as anything has evolved. So, check it out.

      Take this type of Yoga from a gifted teacher for a year minimum and see how it goes. You may have done this already and had a bad teacher. Im not sure your experience. I, however, stand you corrected for my experience has been totally the opposite. Yes I have ran into some not so good teachers, however, in my experience, the not so gifted teachers, if they go by the book, know more then a large majority of contemporary Yoga teachers know.

      How long have or did you practice Iyengar Yoga?

      Who was your teacher.

      Have a great day

      Namaste,

      Sylvanus

      Like

  2. Great article, Niki. Especially since I, too, have SIJ Issues. I tend to agree with J. Brown, but then I teach and practice mostly in the Krishnamacharya lineage, so I am biased! Of course, I ended up there because it allows me to modify for myself and, of course, for students…

    Like

    • Fortunately, I haven’t encountered Iyengar teachers who were as rigid as you both suggest. They seemed more concerned with keeping the body in good alignment than many others I’ve encountered.
      It’s ridiculous not to be able to modify poses according to your own body, however what often gets called hip a structure issue may also be a symptom of hip weakness. Personally, Ive been successfully treated for hip issues by physical therapists who deliberately used very narrow foot positions in lunges (but with the back knee below the hips to protect the SIJ) to improve the connections between the Glutes and spine.
      But it’s always a case of getting assessed by someone competent rather than teachers thinking they have the answer based on their particular school of thought.
      If I have a beef with classical yoga teachers, it’s the elevation of SIJ-wreckers such as Virabhadrasana 1, Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana, etc as the cornerstone of yoga practice

      Like

  3. I’m also going to add a bit of my experience with which asanas have helped me strengthen my hips in a safe and pain free way, and those that have allowed me to stretch the front of my hips to bring a happier rhythm to that area:

    Virabadrasana 2, as long as I am not having an acute day – I modify the foot position so the feet are lined up heel-heel rather than heel-arch, and I don’t bend the front knee all that much.

    Goddess Squat, with feet wide and turned out at 45 degrees, and knees bent at 90 or more – nice symmetrical strength, and for my particular kind of pelvis, very useful.

    Natarajasana and Vira 3 are good on days when my pelvis is pretty stable, but not on wobbly days – on those days, all I do is samasthiti poses (both legs doing the same thing)

    On those days, I practice things like salabhasana in the KYM way, as a back and glute strengthening baby backbend.

    Side stretches are *marvellous* as are supta virasana, modified as need be, and sputa baddha konasana to ease out quads and psoas muscles, which, in my swaybacked body, are chronically tight and contribute meaningfully to pain and dysfunction if I don’t keep them long.

    Now I’m all inspired, if it wasn’t weekend, I’d trot off and write more on the topic!

    xo

    Like

    • The asanas you use do help, I’ve used similar combinations to strengthen the back and glutes and loosen psoas and pelvic floor muscles but sometimes you also have to think out of the box: I started yoga as a fit, strong, highly flexible athlete who had a previous history of trauma to the SIJ but no instability problems and very good hip and hamstring flexibility. Within a year, I had an unstable SIJ and very reduced hip flexibility and all kinds of pain.

      Lots of rehab and a few years later, my SIJ is stable and my flexibility has improved. What can happen is that the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the body are magnified and transform into injury. Yoga can be healing in an individual context, but in a general class, it’s highly unlikely. Many practices are inherently harmful because they don’t constitute a balance of body movement and are too focused on particular parts of the body. I wish teachers paid more attention to what constitutes balanced exercise.
      What you describe is common to many yoga teachers or long-term students and mainly, it seems to be that yoga makes Gluteal muscles weak and tightens up the pelvic floor – a recipe for SIJ problems. I think that doing nothing but yoga also predisposes people to these kinds of problems, a wider range of physical activity seems to mitigate some of the side-effects of yoga.

      I still do yoga, but mainly self-practice, with a much greater emphasis on balanced amounts of asanas requiring core strength, rather than spending large amounts of time in ‘classic’ yoga poses.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s