When there’s an imbalance between tension, flexibility and strength in the hips, this can often cause problems primarily in the lower back and knees, although as mentioned last week, an imbalance in one part of the body can effect just about any other part of us – physically, mentally and emotionally.
The gluteus medius, and outer muscles of the hip (the hip abductors) all work to keep the pelvis balanced, and because the pelvis is pretty much our centre of gravity (a little higher up for males, but the same principal applies), it’s important to make sure the muscles are balanced too. The gluteus medius in particular is a muscle we need to be able to use to keep the body healthy, and yet it is often weak and ‘tight’ in most of us. A weak gluteus medius is often associated with chronic ankle sprains, reduced plantar flexion, and IT band syndrome, and an increased likeliness of developing anterior cruciate ligament injuries (the ligament running diagonally inside the front of the kneecap.)
We engage the gluteus medius in postures like utkatasana, ardha chandrasana, utthita hasta padangusthasana, and lengthen it in postures like parivrtta trikonasana, gomukhasana and garudasana – it’s also very much in use when we walk or run. If you feel wobbly or easily fatigued in some of these postures, you’re not the only one, as the glute medius can be quite weak in most people.
How much to engage the glutes – and whether we should even engage them at all – during backbends is debatable. The glutes are indeed at work when we practice backbends like the different variations of salabhasana and setu bandhasana (bridge pose), but it’s the squeezing of the butt cheeks we want to move away from. Using the deeper muscles of the back and hips takes a lot of inward focus, and it means the outward appearance of the asana might not be as deep or ‘impressive’ – but it ultimately helps us build a stronger and more intelligent body – and are we really practicing because of what it looks like?
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the muscles of the hips are very closely linked to our stress response (also known as the fight or flight response) so when we work with them, it’s common to come across not only physical challenges, but emotional reactions we may not have anticipated. The glute medius is partially ‘hidden’ underneath the glue maximus, and it isn’t a muscle we tend to use very often (essentially it’s a bit of a ‘lazy’ muscle…) When we do start to open and engage muscles that have been storing emotional ‘stuff’ in for long periods of time, we might find that all this ‘stuff’ starts to emerge too…. Discovering parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed (both physical and mental) is a huge part of a yoga practice. Each time we get on the mat we have the chance to get to know ourselves a little better, and we discover all the good bits and the not-so-good bits that have been hiding away.
Luckily, our practice is so not about being perfect or ‘getting it right’…. It’s about having the ability to show up and be there with ourselves through the parts that make us feel really good, and the parts that challenge us – which ultimately allows us to take a whole lot more off the mat with us than a healthier physical body….
Ardha chandrasana (half moon) can be surprisingly difficult, and even a little scary to attempt if the hips aren’t providing that balance of mobility and stability – that stress response will definitely switch on if we’re wobbling, pushing and holding our breath…. So this is a great way to prepare for it, and to practice awakening the muscles we need in order to practice the full posture. If you do find this easy, add in an extra challenge by lifting the bottom hand away from the floor, which requires lots of core strength and balance! (Plus it’s fun….)
To prepare the body for this little tiny version of ardha chandrasana:
Make your way into a seated position – even by just crossing the legs, we begin to open upand bring awareness to whether the hips are full of tension or not.
Slowly reach the hands forward to come into a fold, and then walk over to the left to open out the right hip and IT band. Stay for 5-10 breaths, and then walk all the way to the other side. When you’re finished, come back to center and onto all-fours.
Move through a few rounds of cat/cow to wake up the spine.
After a little movement, extand one leg straight back behind you – this begins to wake up the muscles of the back and the glutes – but focus mostly on not gripping in the butt cheek… Instead, bring more awareness to the deeper muscles of the back and the hips, and imagine you’re pressing something away with the heel in order to connect the action of the foot all the way into your core.
Do this to both sides of the body, and then come to sit on the heels, before moving into parighasana (gate pose) with the [right] leg extanded out to the side. Stay here for 5-10 breaths in order to create space in the ribs, intercostal muscles and waist, which all helps in maintaining a sense of power and spaciousness in your final asana.
- From parighasana (with the [right] leg extended to the side, your body in the position of the side-bend that accompanies the posture), raise yourself back up to the center on an exhale.
- Maintain all the length and space in the sides of the body, and bring the [left] hand down to the floor beside you, so that the hand is just a little wider than the shoulder – this mimics the position of the arm and hand in the full ardha chandrasana.
- Raise the [right] arm straight up, with the palm open and fingertips reaching up.
- Ensure the shoulders and ears have plenty of space around them, as there can be a tendency to lock out the bottom elbow and collapse into the shoulders here….
- Finally, raise the [right] leg up so that the inner thigh and inner arch of the foot is parallel to the floor.
- Again, imagine you’re pressing something away with the heel, and flex the foot to focus the muscular energy in towards your core and center of gravity.
- For some people, lifting the leg might be near impossible, and for others completely easy…. It all depends upon our habits, the way we’re built, and how much tension we’re holding compared to the amount of strength and flexibility there is in the hips….
- Stay for 5-10 breaths, or however long feels good to you.
- To transition out, bring the foot back down to the floor and release the hands to make your way into an all-fours position before practicing on the other side of the body.
Add in this variation to at the beginning of your practice to wake up the adductors and glute medius, and to become aware of how strong the hips are at the moment. If you don’t often use these muscles, there’s a chance they may be a little shaky the first few times you engage them!
It is SO not the strength of our muscles that matters most, but the strength of our presence and acceptance of where we’re at right now that will lead to a practice which sustains us for a lifetime….