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