Julie Gudmestad: Principles of Safe Hip Opening in Yoga Postures

Like tight hamstrings, tight hips can affect alignment in numerous yoga postures and even predispose you towards injury. It’s easy to spot students with tight hips, says Iyengar yoga teacher and physical therapist Julie Gudmestad in this interview. In seated cross-legged pose, their knees will be way up in the air, and the low back often rounded. In this interview, Julie offers insight into the muscles involved, and the princples for a safe hip opening practice.

Q: Most yoga teachers marvel at one point or other about the difference in alignment that you can observe within a group of students doing the same pose. Particularly in seated poses on the floor, some yoga students sit comfortably, while others end up with their knees high up towards their ears. What’s going on here?

Julie Gudmestad: Well, one of the muscle groups that often is involved in tight hips is the external rotators, i.e. a group of six muscles deep in the back of the hip, including the piriformis, which is the largest of these muscles. There can be other muscles involved as well, of course. For some people, it’s more the back of the buttocks; the adductors can be part of it and tensor fascia latae can be part of that equation as well. But the piriformis is often a key player.

Q: Other than in seated poses, how does a tight piriformis impact alignment in yoga postures?

Julie Gudmestad: The external rotators are powerful muscles, so if they’re short, they can pull the leg into permanent external rotation. So a tight piriformis can cause the whole leg to be turned out in standing postures. This is easiest to observe in the foot, but you have to look at the whole femur—the external rotation starts up in the hip, so it’s not something students can just correct by readjusting the position of their foot. It also impacts alignment in backbends and, counterintuitively, in forward bends as well. In people with tight external rotators, you can observe how the legs tend to turn out in seated forward bends like e.g. Paschimottanasana.

Q: The piriformis can also get very painful when it’s tight?

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, when the piriformis gets very tight, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve causing shooting pain, which can be quite debilitating. This condition is also often referred to as piriformis syndrome. So keeping the piriformis flexible and stretched out isn’t just important for alignment in yoga postures, it is also essential for long-term health.

Q: If people have a tight piriformis, which yoga postures are helpful to help stretch it?

Julie Gudmestad: Yoga has several wonderful poses and positions to work on flexibility of piriformis and friends. Unfortunately, many of the hip opening poses commonly used may be too intense for people with tight hips. One example is Fire Log Pose where you’re sitting and you stack your shins right on top of each other. This isn’t a traditional yoga pose but I think a lot of people do it, trying to get the hips more flexible to be able to do Padmasana, Lotus Pose, for example. So, oftentimes students with tight hips will try to get into that pose in class, and they will end up with their knees are way up in the air, and if they force, there can definitely be risk of injury.

So, it’s a tricky situation, because if you have tight muscles, you definitely will benefit from regular stretching. My basic rule has always been that if something is hard for you to do, then you need to practice it. You don’t necessarily even need to analyze which muscles are involved, but you just need to start doing it regularly.

But one of my concerns is that some of the poses that people think of as hip openers actually are a bit wild. For someone with really tight hips trying to do the Pigeon prep, for example, is just way too extreme. Similarly, a pose like Gomukhasana, or Cow Face Pose, can be a wonderful stretch for the piriformis, but for people with a tight piriformis, this is not a pose they can typically get into and be comfortable. So it can be a Catch-22.

People need to have milder versions that they can do regularly, e.g. after every time they go for a run or practice some standing poses. They can do some of these hip openers, like Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), and milder, accessible versions of Pigeon prep for the people that are really stiff. If you start with the mild ones, you can see real quickly if somebody is struggling with even the mild ones or they’re not flexible in the mild one, you will know that they better not go on to the standard Pigeon prep, for example.

Q: It’s interesting because Pigeon prep is a fairly commonly used pose in classes. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to push deeper into this pose than they perhaps should.

Julie Gudmestad: Yes. Teachers can encourage students to do the milder variations, but you do run into students who don’t want to acknowledge that for whatever reason. They want to push on into the full challenge and then sometimes there’s a price to pay for that kind of inappropriate aggressiveness. I’ve seen too many people with X, Y, and Z injury because of this kind of attitude.

Trying to force oneself into some of the seated hip openers like Fire Log before the hips are open enough can cause significant knee problems. And I’ve actually known of a few people that actually tore one of the hip rotators. And believe me, after you do that, you’re not doing anything for a while. Nothing.

It’s the American way to work hard and push on and try to get the job done quickly. But some of these muscles, more than others, are just very slow to change and become more flexible. You won’t make your hamstrings flexible in two weeks of pushing hard either, so take your time. I’ve just seen too many people with torn muscles from aggressive stretching.

So my basic rule for stretching is to put yourself in a position where you’re not in pain and just kind of hang out, relax for 60 seconds or longer. Give it time, and allow the opening to be the gradual process that it needs to be.

Q: Unfortunately, the modifications most yoga teachers learn for e.g. poses like Pigeon Pose may not even be enough for people with very tight muscles.

Julie Gudmestad: Yes, it’s important to have a whole repertoire of early postures that can help people open up slowly and gradually. It’s just nice to have more graduated positions for people who are less able. And of course, that’s my stated long-term goal: To make yoga accessible to even people who are weak or extremely tight or recovering from illness or injury. So you need to have a range of options to pull out for people that are less able.

Q: Julie, you will be discussing safe hip opening in your course on Piriformis and Friends. Tell us more about what you will be addressing.

Julie Gudmestad: We’ll be looking at the anatomy of this muscle group, of course, and what its action is when it’s healthy and contracts normally. We’ll take a look at piriformis syndrome and how you can prevent falling victim to that kind of excruciating back pain. It’s caused by everything from lack of stretching all the way up to tightness that’s related to injury.

We’ll go over some very gentle, easy-to-control stretches you can start students out with if they have very tight hips. We will also look at some of the more challenging or advanced stretches, particularly what you need to be careful of so you don’t overstretch or put strain on the knee joints up and down the line. Up the line from the hip is the low back and the SI joint, and down the line from the hip is the knee and the ankle. So whenever one joint can’t give enough flexibility, then your body is likely to move to the next available joint in line. So that’s the low back (going up the line) and the knee (going down the line).

We’ll also look at what happens when the external rotators are weak. I’ll have some pictures to really illustrate what a pose will look like if it’s weak. We’ll look at a common muscle imbalance in which the adductors are tight and short and the deep hip rotators weak, and what that looks like in a pose. I’m also going to throw in one of my favorite adductor stretches as just a nice preparation for standing poses. We’ll also look at ways to work on strengthening the deep hip rotators in standing poses, including key cues and images to try to get students to engage the muscles, which is not easy for most people if these muscles are not used to doing their job.

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