Our bodies are built to move in a natural way, but unfortunately we have a habit of doing things that don’t necessarily serve us so well. Sitting in chairs for long periods of time, cycling, running on hard pavements in unsupportive shoes, and exercising on machines that don’t support the way our bodies naturally like to be. This can all lead to a feeling of ‘tightness’, which often leads people to their first yoga class….
‘Tightness’ in the muscles is often a very vague description of what’s actually going on in our bodies, and isn’t generally a very insightful way to describe or help the issue we’re dealing with. Instead of continually revolving around the cycle of ‘oh, my muscles are tight’, and stretching, then going about your day and a couple of days later saying ‘oh, my muscles are tight’ and stretching some more, let’s have a look at what’s actually happening here….
The body is a map of our lives. The way we move, the emotions we hold, and the habits we form all mould us to look and feel the way we do. This mapping or moulding is easy to decipher from things like posture, muscle shape and size, and even the shape of our bones. When we sit at a desk day-in and day-out, our shoulders hunch, we’re more likely to experience neck pain, and the upper back rounds. In just the same way, someone who spends a lot of time being active or lifting weights at the gym will start to visibly show the effects of their activities in larger, more pronounced muscles. It’s not so easy to glance at someone and tell whether they have ‘tight’ hips, short hamstrings, knee pain, or any of the more subtle patterns our body adheres to due to our actions.
The more we do one particular thing, the more our muscles, our nervous system, and especially our fascia, gets accustomed to the body moving and in a particular way. Contracting the hips and sitting with the hips in one position for a large amount of time will encourage the hips to feel comfortable in that one particular position, and uncomfortable in others…. It’s all down to muscle memory….
The good thing about Yoga – and creative, flow-style classes in particular – is the fact that our muscles are continually challenged to find comfort in new positions.
In order to help our hips become more flexible, we don’t need to ‘stretch’ ourselves extensively, or collapse into hip-opening postures. What we actually need to do is to find a way to get the muscles to work at a wider range of motion. When the muscles are engaged, active and awake, in a position where they’re being asked to open up a little, that’s when our fascia and our nervous system starts to respond and recognise a new pattern emerging, and the body will – over time – become comfortable with the hips opening to a larger range of motion.
So what are we supposed to do?
Instead of collapsing into postures (this is especially important for those who are over-flexible, too!) we can build strength within the muscles while they’re in a more flexible position. This is what helps us find healthy and natural flexibility without over-stretching muscles.
Try this approach out in Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), a posture which is often prescribed for ‘tight hips’.
But first, prepare the body….
Move through a few rounds of Surya Namaskar A and B to warm the body a little, which is likely to be more than enough to prepare you for this posture….
- From your Downward Facing Dog, step your [right] foot forwards between the hands and bring your [left] knee to the floor.
- As you exhale, ground the front foot down and spread the toes, and isometrically (without moving anything), draw the front foot in towards the back knee, and the back knee in towards the front foot. This action can help to connect us to our ‘Deep Front Line’, a long line of fascia which runs from the inner arches of the feet and up the center of the body, and connects to the cranium. This is a very useful way of realising that our body is completely interconnected and in relationship with each and every part of itself. Having this connection to our center helps us move with more fluidity and strength, and helps us to also more readily create a relationship with our physical bodies.
- As you next inhale, raise the arms up along side the ears and open the chest.
- Exhale to relax the shoulders, jaw and face, which will in turn allow the nervous system to begin to relax.
- Continue to draw into your center, and lift the pelvic floor (another connection to the deep front line). Draw the navel in and up, and continue this lift up through the body all the way through to the crown of the head.
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or longer if it feels good to you.
- To transition out of anjaneyasana, bring your hands back to the floor either side of the front foot and tuck your back toes under.
- Lift up and back into downward facing dog, and observe how the body feels before moving on to the other side.
- To counterpose anjaneyasana, move in to balasana (child’s pose) or sit in sukhasana (easy pose, or a comfortable cross-legged pose) for a few moments.
This approach can also be taken with ashta chandrasana, eka pada raj kapotasana, and lizard pose. Give it a try and see how waking the muscles up in a different position works out!