Hip openers: we crave them, but are they really what we need?

Yoga instructor, before class starts: any requests?
Class, in unison: hip openers!

I have witnessed and participated in this mini dialogue many, many times as yoga class begins. As a physiotherapist, I have often wondered why we yogis continually feel the need to open our hips. Are we not already doing enough hip stretching during our usual classes?

Fast forward to my work as a physiotherapist whose practice includes many persons who are experiencing hip pain and stiffness. Often, these symptoms create an intuitive desire to stretch and open their hips as a way to help their hips heal, increase flexibility, and reduce their pain. They include many hip opener poses into their practice, including baddhakonasana, Warrior series, and pigeon.

Despite this, their situation does not improve….in fact, it gets worse! 

When they come to see me, often my suggestion is to avoid stretching your hips.  This usually takes a little bit of convincing; it seems so counter-intuitive. Those who follow my suggestion are often surprised to experience a relief in their symptoms.

Why would this be? With yoga (and in certain types of dance and martial arts), there can be an emphasis on increasing flexibility. This is great when we start from a place of limited range of motion, and we are helping our bodies find their way towards their full physiological (intended) range of motion. Having full range of motion accessible to our joints helps with their health, and our function. However, we tend to not stop there….we think that we need to keep going, to keep increasing our flexibility, even though we have achieved what is typically considered to be the full range of motion for that joint. We may take our joints beyond their natural, intended range of motion. 

Our nervous system (a.k.a. our bodyguard) can sense that our joints are threatened, and they do their work to protect these joints….by increasing tension in the muscles surrounding them. This is experienced as a feeling of tension in our muscles. It may be perceived as something negative that we need to eliminate, when it is actually our body protecting itself! And we try to eliminate this feeling of stiffness by stretching. 

This can evolve into a self-perpetuating cycle. When we stretch a muscle that is tense, it may tense up more in order to protect itself. We sense this as our dreaded stiff hip feeling, and we stretch it some more…and this continues until eventually the muscles, tendons, or the joints themselves become painful.

Avoiding holding poses at their extreme end of range will allow the muscles to soften because they no longer need to protect the joint. It will also be more work to hold the pose, which can be beneficial. By strengthening the muscles surrounding the joint, our bodyguard will sense that the joint is now safe and supported, and will reduce its signal to the muscles to tense up. 

Once the system is in balance, our joints and muscles can function in a balanced way: activating when they are needed, the amount needed, for the length of time needed, and softening and relaxing when their work is not needed.

This is one example of how tension is perpetuated in the muscles surrounding our hips. Other reasons may include pelvic floor dysfunction, lumbar spine dysfunction, inner core weakness, foot pain or weakness, and even limited range of motion of our shoulders. Misalignment during asana practice, or a practice that is stronger than what is currently available to you, can also lead to hip tension and pain.

Your pelvic health physiotherapist will be able to help you sort all of this out. Meanwhile, as a starting point, if you are experiencing persistent hip pain or stiffness, and stretching has not been helping, you may want to experiment with less stretching and see what happens. Even though it is the opposite of what you are craving. 

Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions at fraser@fraserpelvichealth.com

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