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

17 thoughts on “Balanced Hip Strengthening with Yoga

  1. Hello,

    I’m a 42 yr old female. I have FAI in both hips, with cartilage damage on the femoral head & hip itself (probably on both sides), & at least one torn labrum. I was in pain & having difficulty moving from seated to standing. I did an Asthanga Flow class around 9 mths ago & found that it helped reduce the pain in my hip & improved mobility (it seemed to stop the cracking & clicking). I decided to enrol in an Ashtanga teacher training course starting this Summer.

    I just did a week long Karuna (Iyengar based) course. The 2 teachers on the Karuna course – one who’s been practising for 40 yrs & who practised with Iyengar himself for some time & a physio, told me that I shouldn’t practise Ashtanga yoga as it will increase my flexibility where I am already too flexible (my hips are too shallow so my femors don’t sit in them tightly enough). They feel that I should be practising a yoga that avoids increasing flexibility & focuses on increasing strength.

    I’m concerned that although the stretching in Ashtanga has helped me, that it will effect me negatively in the lomng term. The Ashtanga teacher has told me she feels that there isn’t a problem & that I should listen to my body.

    The main reason I want to do a yoga teacher training course is to improve my physical situation, not to teach. I wondered if you feel that I should avoid Asthanga & would be better suited to Karuna/Iyengar? I have emailed my OS asking him & he’s replied saying that he doesn’t know the positions in yoga, so isn’t able to advise me.

    I wondered what your advice would be please?

    Many thanks!

    Sam

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    • Hi Sam

      There are a few things you should consider when making your decision:

      Firstly, the physio you spoke to is correct when he says that you should be focusing on hip strength rather than flexibility. Kurmasana, Supta Padahastasana, Rajakapotasana, splits and putting your feet behind your head, etc. are not goals that you should be working towards, no matter what style of yoga you practice. Yoga in general is not recommended for FAI.
      Secondly, Ashtanga is usually a daily practice and frequently causes muscle imbalance in the hips in the long term. Although some stretching has helped you because your muscles must have become very tight – it may be difficult to know how much stretching is enough: you will know how much is too much when you are in pain, but what will the causes be attributed to? It could be muscle imbalance or FAI-related at that stage.
      Thirdly, what you experience practising Iyengar styles will depend entirely on who you practice it with and what and how they prefer to teach. Sometimes, postures are held for way too long to be good for the hips and the stances can be too wide, putting pressure on pelvic structures and although the focus on keeping your body in good alignment is extremely important, teachers can be overly dogmatic about the wrong aspects of alignment.

      Finding a yoga teacher who is also a physio or rehab specialist, no matter what style they teach, would be the best outcome for you. All forms of yoga can be a little too preoccupied with stretching the hips. I think you should have your hip-muscle function assessed regularly, regardless of what yoga you choose to practice, especially if you feel pain. Pure strengthening will make your hips tight and clicky, but keep your hip stretching within limits. Yoga takes hip flexibility far beyond a normal range and that would be unwise for you. I think that both systems have advantages and disadvantages so not committing to either might be the best option: do what makes you feel comfortable, only for as long as you do feel comfortable.

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    • Hello Sam-
      I have the same problem with my hips, I am 39 and after xrays for a few years didn’t show anything- the MRI showed this hip impingement issue, with tears in both labrums in the front. The doctor said going to yoga, running, etc… anything is all fine as long as it feels o.k. But I hope I am not making things worse. In any event, I just wanted to share with you that I had the same issue.
      Take care, namaste,
      kelly

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      • Hi Kelly,
        I’m sorry to hear it. Has your Dr suggested surgery? Mine wants to opreate, but I’m trying to delay it in case I can fix myself enough to not need it.
        My consultants have all said I should do what I feel comfortable doing (even skiing if I feel I want to), but I’m not sure that my body can tell me what I don’t feel comfortable doing, I tend to pay later. I carried my 5 yr old up one flight of stairs twice over 2 consecutive nights & was almost unable to walk any dustance for 5 days. It was totally unexpected. I know I shouldn’t ski (my legs have always felt like they were going to pop out of my hips, but I figured everyone felt that), run, salsa, speed walk, practise hot yoga…but I feel I can find my limits with yoga (home practise or with a good & experienced teacher). cycling, swimming…I have decided to disregard what the Drs have told me I can do & am trying to gage it for myself. I followed Niki’s advice & found a pilates teacher (who teaches on machines). He’s also an osteo. I had a number of 1:1 sessions & noticed a marked improvement. The pain reduced dramatically, I felt stronger, & more in control of my body (if that makes sense?). I’ve seen 2 teachers who have both told me about FAI clients who were ready for surgery but didn’t need it since they started pilates. I would highly recommend trying it. Alas I can’t afford any more sessions moment.
        With warmest regards, namaste,
        Sam

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        • Hi Sam
          It’s good to hear that you’ve found something that works. The stronger and more balanced you can get the muscles around the joint, particularly the Gluteus Medius, the better support for your joints. This may help you to avoid surgery and will improve pain, as you have felt. 1:1 sessions with a suitably qualified person are the answer, although it is expensive – though nothing near the cost of surgery and long-term pain. What I did was budget to see someone every 4 – 6 weeks to monitor progress and worked on it at home in between. I hope your hips continue to improve.
          Best wishes,
          Niki

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  2. Hi Niki,

    Thanks so much for this, I really appreciate it! I’m a little embarassed to say that the TT class I’ve enrolled on isn’t Ashtanga (!)….it’s Vinyasa Flow. I assumed they were one & the same! The teacher’s style of teaching is a mixture of influences. She knows about my hip problems, she says that she would hope that anyone that is taking part is doing so with an open heart and mind – and is coming to the course to begin the process of getting to know themselves completely – not only though asana (postures) but by the eight stages of Yoga….. That by the end of the course they will have developed the ability to intuitively know what is right for them & that yoga is so much more than postures – as she discovered on her journey. And this is what she wants to share on the course. We will be practicing asana, but as a means to check our understanding of the underlying philosophy. I have great respect for her, she’s a brilliant teacher, she never pushes us to move quickly, quite the opposite. Do you still feel that with this style of yoga I’d be better off not committing to a TT course? So sorry to waste your time!

    Many thanks again!

    Sam

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    • A TT course in vinyasa flow is not a bad idea, because vinyasa yoga draws from a variety of influences and the approach is often less fixed. That’s potentially useful, if you maintain an awareness that strength-building is more important than flexibility for your hips.
      If you learn how to build a balanced practice, that will be fine.
      Good luck with it

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  3. Hi Niki,

    I recently woke up with severe pain in my lower back (right hip), and noticed that my alignment is completely and visibly out.
    You can see and feel the height difference in my hips and i believe this is what is causing the pain, as i have never noticed this before.

    I practise and teach hatha daily, and recently did a strong yin hip opening class guided by another teacher.
    I think i may have over stretched the right side as i can think of no other reason or cause for this severe and sudden misalignment.

    I live remotely and as such cannot get to an osteopath for quite some time to address the issue.
    I was wondering if it is possible from your knowledge to use asanas to stretch and equalise both sides, or atleast alleviate some of the discomfort in the mean time?

    Regards,
    Bree.
    Namaste.

    Like

    • Hi Bree

      It sounds to me like your Sacroiliac joint is causing the problem: classes focused on hip openers have a tendency to cause restrictions in the joint’s natural movement, both through inhibition of the surrounding muscles from overstretching and from holding the pelvis for long periods in positions that are stressful to the joints.
      I do not recommend that you do any more stretching to address the problem but what might help you is strengthening the lower core: the Sacroiliac joints often release spontaneously if you improve the tone of the supporting core muscles. Do equal amounts of all these asanas, 3 – 5 of each

      • back extension asanas like Salabasana, holding for 5 breaths or even Mayurasana variations if you are able
      • Get your lower oblique abdominals working with jathara parivartanasana: a good variation is to only lower the legs as far as you are able to keep your lower back in contact with the floor. You can also bend your knees, with your feet on the floor and twist from side to side engaging your pelvic floor muscles as much as possible
      • Vasistasana to strengthen the sides of the body
      • one legged bridging to strengthen your butt: tilt your pelvis backwards before lifting and really squeeze those butt-muscles – relaxing your butt, as some people teach, is not useful
      • Purvottanasana
      • Utkatasana with your feet hip-width apart: make sure that your are squeezing your butt and lifting your pubic bone and exit the pose by pushing upwards from your feet, do not bend forward
      • Tolasana
      • Vriksasana (Tree pose)

      Afterwards, these stretches may help, but don’t hold for longer than 5 breaths:

      • bhujangasana
      • malasana
      • crescent lunges – DO NOT lift the back knee off the ground. Don’t lift your arms but place your hands on your hips to make sure that the hips are level as you stretch
      • supta baddha konasana
      • supine twisting and starfish pose – your Sacroiliac joint is most likely to release in these stretches, but don’t force it, and do these last

      I recommend avoiding hip openers and warrior postures for a while until your hips feel normal again and my personal opinion is that yin yoga for hips is damaging

      I hope this helps

      Niki

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Niki,

    Reading across some early post you state that Yoga is not recommended for FAI
    I also suffer from FAI, cartridge damage, torn labrum and early onset degenerative osteoarthritis. A long time marathon runner, I rarely took the time to stretch and it has all caught up with me.
    As the practice is, arthroscopic surgery has been suggested as the only remedy for my condition. I would like to try and manage it for a while through a lower impact lifestyle and attempt toga in more flexibility.
    Can you please explain why yoga is not recommended and perhaps what would be?
    Thank you,

    Norma

    Like

    • Hi Norma
      My comment about yoga and FAI was in relation to Ashtanga yoga, not yoga in general. A gentle Hatha yoga practice which focuses on hip strengthening and very gentle hip stretching may be helpful for you. What you don’t want to be doing, is putting your feet behind your head and practising extreme ranges of motion in the hips: you might end up tearing the Labrum again. That is why yoga is mostly not recommended for FAI.
      Arthritic joints do need mobilisation and strengthening of the muscles that support them so gentle yoga may help, but choose your teacher wisely: make sure that they have a suitable physical therapy background and are aware of your condition, do not simply walk into the most convenient class near you.

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      • Thank you for your time. I am thoroughly enjoying all the education on strenghthening the hips and SI/glute that I have found here.
        This site is a wealth of knowledge.
        I agree and will chose an instructor carefully, hopefully one who can help realign and correct my lower crossed syndrome so I can avoid future labrum and hip damage, as you stated as well.
        I am excited to discover a different path of exercise/fulfillment.
        Thanks again,

        Norma

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  5. Hi,
    I’m a fit 37yr old male who found I had FAI when I tore a labrum with a combination of long distance running and hanuman asana. My 10 year yoga history started with powerful flow yoga and progressed to Ahstanga, which I knew almost immediately didn’t feel right for my body, despite being capable of advanced postures. I’m my experience flexibility is something that is clearly praised in these styles. I’ve since found slow and deep Yin yoga suits me perfectly. I use a variety of Pilates, exercise bands and exercises using body weight to work on core and more specific strengthening.

    After some research and appointments I found a surgeon to repair the labrum, cleaning away the loose bits that were catching with hip flexion and medial rotation. He also performed an osteoarthectomy on the femoral head, shaving off the troublesome little bump that was causing impingement. The surgery was a scope that left two very small scars. I was walking a little within 3 days, doing most things within 6 weeks and trekking the Himalayas within a few months.

    I found I overused the quadriceps and large hip flexors in the rehab process which afforded me mobility and guarded against uncertain hip extension. However overuse of the psoas eventually resulted in compression of the lower spine and ceased any vinyasas or fast yoga if I wasn’t already convinced it didn’t suit my hips. More focus should have been on specific gluteal exercises. I still feel ocassional pain in the hip in some end of range movements and proper massage is key together with strengthening of the smaller stabilising muscles.

    Thanks for this site Niki, it’s a great resource.

    Like

    • Thank you, Richard.
      It sounds like you are on the right track now with your hips: keeping the stabiliser muscles in good shape will protect your hip joints from further damage. My experience has been that vinyasa styles of yoga are almost guaranteed to weaken the hip stabilisers

      Like

  6. Hi Nikki,

    I just found your most helpful website. I have already had labrum tear surgery on my left side and found out that I have hip dysplasia when my right side starting bothering me. It is not the worst case nor the best. My surgeon was surprised that I got to the ripe age of 56 without any problems. I have skated (inline) and biked for 3 decades and stopped running 14 yrs ago (after 20 years). I have started attending Yin Yoga classes and notice more tenderness deep around my hip joints. After reading your advice to others I think I need to made some adjustments…maybe start hathayoga. You suggest keeping stabilizer muscles in good shape. Can you tell me specifically what I could do? Then I can see if Utube as videos to view of these positions/exercises. Thanks in advance.

    Jo Anna

    Like

    • Hi Joanna
      I don’t think that yin yoga will do you any good but I’m not sure that hatha yoga is a great idea either. I would recommend seeing a sports injury specialist for an evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses in your hips and getting a personalised exercise plan. Getting a correct assessment can save months or years pain from doing the wrong thing.
      Good luck

      Like

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