“These postures to open the hips will bring heat, breath and increased awareness to the pelvic area. With hips swinging, you’ll blossom, cheer up, and do the dance of you!”
The year that I worked in a physical therapist’s office I was surprised to learn that the number one problem bringing people through the door had nothing to do with accidents involving speed, twisting, jumping or even crashing. The main complaint came from the opposite situation—lack of movement, causing lower back pain.
Day in and day out, the therapists gave back rubs and applied hot packs to people who were perfectly healthy, except that their backs were killing them. They all had jobs that required them to work for hours in office furniture that created tension in their hips. The therapists would prescribe simple exercises to benefit the body parts related to sitting—lower back, pelvis, hips and thighs—but most people weren’t disciplined enough to do them regularly after the six-week sessions ended.
We saw return customers over and over. Sure, they liked getting away from their desks twice a week to come to therapy, but it wasn’t enough to give lasting relief. What these patients really needed to do was balance their sedentary hours with equal time moving their lower body.
The whole hip department of our body is about functional movement—walking, running and climbing stairs. Even the words for what happens inside the pelvis are active verbs: digest, reproduce. Without the heat and spaciousness created by regular exercise, the range of motion in these ordinary activities diminishes, and so does our range of motion in the world.
There are lots of reasons—societal and personal—that each of us has for minimizing our hip movement. Although the first dictionary definition of “hip” is the projecting part of each side of the body formed by the pelvis and the upper femur and the flesh covering them, for our purposes we will include genitals, abdomen, lower back and thighs. Who doesn’t have some issue with at least one of those places?
Pema Chödrön says, “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already.” The ground of practice is knowing who we are right now, just as we are. So in this case, we can begin by increasing our awareness of the current range of motion in our hips, pelvis, lower back and belly. Start to notice your walking patterns: do you take long steps, or small steps? Do your legs swing freely or does it feel more like your hips are fused to your pelvis as you move? Do you wear tight pants or loose pants? What kind of shoes do you wear? When was the last time you sat on the floor?
Here is a short yoga program designed to open your hips, gently strengthen the abdominals, massage and stretch your lower back, and lengthen your hamstrings. This routine has a lot of movement in it, so remember that just as you don’t like to be pushed or pulled before you are ready, neither do your hips. Your hips respond the same way you do when someone is aggressive or pushy: they either shut down, tighten up, or get hurt. So let your breath be the boss every step of the way. Watch how each exhalation creates a tiny opening and let your mind fall into that opening, too. Stay in each pose for three to five breaths.
1. Lunge. Reach back through your right heel and forward through your left shin. Feel a strong connection to the earth through the balls of your feet and your finger tips. Try to lengthen your spine so your belly can be soft and fluid as you breathe fully.
2. Straddle. Walk your hands around in a half circle to this position. If you can’t reach the floor easily, you can bend your knees or place your hands on yoga blocks or a big book like a dictionary. Keep your feet equally balanced on the floor and reach your tailbone and the crown of your head away from each other.
3. Lunge. Walk another half-circle around to the right again and bend your right leg coming into a lunge on the other side. You can use your blocks here too, to keep your back leg straight and give you space to breathe.
4. Cobbler’s Pose. Step your back leg up to your front leg and sit down on the floor. Bring the soles of your feet together and hold onto your ankles. Press your feet together and reach out, not down, with your knees. Never push down on your knees. If your pelvis is tucked under in this position, put a cushion or two under your sitting bones, which will create balance in your pelvis and allow breath to move into the area. Inhale a deep breath and as you exhale, slowly begin to fold forward with a long spine. Only go as far as you can, maintaining length in your torso. After three to five breaths, inhale to sit up.
5. Hamstring stretch. Bring your knees together. Place your feet flat on the floor and roll down through your spine. Try to feel every single vertebrae along the way, getting familiar with your own back. Draw your right knee into your chest and hold onto your leg behind the thigh. Let your torso fall into the floor. It feels good to circle your ankle here.
6. Bigger hamstring stretch. Unless you are super-flexible, use a belt or towel to loop around your foot. On an exhale, reach your right foot up to the ceiling. Keep broad across your chest and long with your neck.
7. Hip opener. Turn your right leg out like it was in cobbler’s pose and place your right foot on your left knee. Then draw the left knee toward your chest. Your right arm can thread between your legs, left arm on the outside and clasp your hands together behind your left thigh. Take this slow and easy—focus on your breath and try to be gentle and patient with yourself.
8. Rock and roll. Bring both knees into your chest and rock back and forth on your spine. Let your breath move you like wind blowing you up and down. Inhale to rock forward and exhale to roll back. You can do this with a blanket under you.
9. Repeat the sequence (1-7), starting with the left leg back in the lunge.
10. Goddess Pose. After the hip opener, replace your feet to the floor, legs bent. Gently let your knees fall open and rest in this position for as long as you feel comfortable, up to 20 minutes. If it is a strain on your inner thighs or groin, put a pillow under your thighs to support the weight so you can completely relax here.
This flowing series will bring heat, breath and increased awareness to the pelvic area, where it is particularly common for us to hold tension. When we can balance the chakras of our heart (expression) and our heat (motion) we experience the dance of our own unique life’s activity. If you are too busy to do this yoga program, another way to get movement and connection and breath is this. Stand in the center of your living room and raise your arms over your head. Bend your knees and slowly begin to make swinging motions with your hips. Add some music and begin to blossom, cheer, and do the dance of you!