Tension in and around the hips can contribute to a lot of other issues within the body: lower back pain, knee troubles, poor posture, and even referred pain down in the feet or all the way up in the neck can all be linked back to imbalances within the muscles of the hips. No matter how cliché it may sound or how often we hear it, hip tension could also be totally unrelated to any physical cause and more due to our emotional wellbeing or the way our bones are formed…. (click here for a post I wrote on the hips & bone structure a while ago).
In short; the muscles of the hips – primarily the hip flexors and psoas, contract when we feel stressed and the ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This response was originally ‘discovered’ by the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, and is a particular response that is hard-wired into our brains and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect us from bodily harm.
This response is closely linked to a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, and when stimulated it sets off sequences of nerve cell firing and a chemical release that prepares our body for running from danger or fighting for our lives.
This reaction was originally intended to keep us safe when we needed to be aware of any wild animals likely to see us as prey… but this was a very long time ago indeed…. The stress response is indeed useful if we are actually in danger, and we need it to keep us alert if we’re running from a burning building or actually being chased by a wild animal, or even when we’re crossing a busy and dangerous road. The problem with stress though, is that we experience it a lot in our modern culture, and as emotionally-driven humans, we tend to hang onto this stress a whole lot more than we need to….
When the fight or flight, stressed-out system is in full swing, we tend to perceive everything around us as being a possible threat or enemy – again, this is useful if we’re in real danger, but not so useful if we’re about to give a speech in front of a group of colleagues…. Of course stress is going to happen, and in no way am I saying we should wander around floating on a cloud and smiling from ear-to-ear every moment of the day, but we can choose what we hang on to and what we let go…
Taking our focus around to the outer hips, the IT band is another part of the hips where we’re likely to experience tension if we sit for long periods, hold habitual emotional tension in this area, or if – like many people – you’ve taken up running as a healthy new year’s resolution….
Tightness in the hip flexors and IT band often means there’s an underlying weakness in the glute muscles, which is something that can contribute to hip pain or groin strain when running (more on this in another post….) One important factor to remember when working with the hips though, is that we need a balance of stability and mobility within our yoga practice to create a balanced, healthy body and mind.
There’s often a feeling of lightness when we open up the muscles surrounding the hips, and a new found sense of openness and freedom of movement within the body that isn’t usually accessible if we spend our days hunched up or in a fixed sitting position…. Although the IT band (which we primarily open in this posture) isn’t a hip flexor, tension in this part of the hips will also contribute to a heavy ‘blocked’ feeling in this area of the body.
Relieving the IT band can be difficult, so many people opt for a foam roller to ease out any tightness after running, hiking or cycling. Unsurprisingly, as we learn more about the body and its interconnectedness, we find out that squishing our muscles, ligaments and nerves with a roll of foam isn’t particularly natural or helpful for the IT band or the rest of the body…. If we want to cure a problem in the body, the best place to start searching for a solution isn’t the point of pain, it’s usually somewhere above or below. As mentioned earlier, tension in the IT band is actually more closely related to weakness in the gluteus medius, which is extremely common in a lot of us. (Click here for more detailed information on this subject, and reasons as to why you might want to leave your foam roller alone for a while….)
Because this variation of anjaneyasana works with a sense of pulsation and buoyancy, it both opens the IT band and strengthens the glute medius…. So there’s a bigger chance you’ll find the relief you’re looking for by using your body in this way instead of putting yourself through the unpleasant task of foam rolling! (yay)
To prepare the body for this variation of anjaneyasana:
Practice surya namaskar A for a few rounds to get the circulation moving in the body – take as many rounds as feels good to build a little internal heat, our muscles are most primed to work and open when they’re warmed.
After your last round, practice virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2), utthita parsva konasana ( extended side angle) and trikonasana (triangle pose) – try a variation of trikonasana in which the upper arm is extended along-side the ear. These actions will all help to open and lengthen the side of the body and the IT band in preparation for the posture we’re looking at.
- Make your way into a lunge position with the [right] foot forward, and the hands either side of the front foot and the back knee off the floor.
- Take the [left] hand a little wider than the [left] shoulder, and being mindful of not locking the elbow. Keep a small – almost invisible – bend in the arm, so that the muscles are engaged, awake and supporting you rather than putting pressure on the joints.
- Turn the toes of the front foot out to the side and come on to the outer edges of both feet.
- Keep the front foot flexed to maintain the engagement of the muscles which connect to the ligaments around the kneecap to protect it.
- Reach the [right] arm up as you inhale, keeping the chest open and space around the shoulders and neck.
- As you exhale, begin to simultaneously reach the [right] arm back towards the back foot as you lower the hips down towards the floor. This action opens up the [left] IT band and outer hip, but it also takes strength in the serratus muscles and obliques to prevent from collapsing in the upper body…. The serratus anterior and obliques are used a LOT during a flow-based yoga practice, and it’s the strength in these muscles that helps make postures like plank and chatturanga a whole lots easier.
- This posture can be held static for a few breaths…. But to be honest, if we want to create a balance between stability and mobility, and build an intelligent, communicative relationship within the body, then working with buoyancy and movement is going to help a little more….
- To work with more movement, begin by sinking the hips down towards the floor as you exhale, and on the inhale engage through the obliques at the side of the torso, and use this to raise the hips back up. Do this three or four times in a fluid motion to build range of motion and strength in the hips.
- To transition out of the posture and back into the lunge, bring the hands back down either side of the front foot as you turn the feet forward.
To counterpose this asana, make your way back into downward facing dog and then to the floor to practice baddha konasana, opening up the adductors of the inner thighs, and paschimottanasana to re-align the hips.
Finding balance between mobility and stability, strength and fluidity, and movement and stillness in our practice on the mat can all translate to helping cultivate a more balanced state of mind, which we can bring off the mat with us….