Yoga Rant: "Opening the Hips"

I feel compelled to offer something here, in response to a lot of the yoga teacher conversations going around about hips. There is a big message I keep seeing from very concerned and experienced teachers that we should stop "opening our hips" in yoga.

First, I want to say that I am glad that ideas like "functional movement" and "healthy biomechanics" and "joint stability" are spreading through the yoga world, and I am glad some teachers are really getting into understanding repetitive stress injuries, and into practicing for longevity.

I feel so fortunate to have found Structural Integration, as a yoga teacher (and as a human and as a professional). Structural Integration bodywork and movement re-patterning has been my main profession for the past 10+ years, and although I started teaching yoga first - 15 years ago- yoga became a secondary profession. I have no idea what my yoga teaching or practice would be like had I not found Structural Integration.

Structural Integration offers an elegant and useful language for understanding, explaining, and teaching the attributes of a kinesthetically healthy human body. (It also offers a program for moving towards that.)

If we know what we are going for, then it can help us figure out what to do with ourselves to move towards balance and healthy functionality.

SI offers concepts like flexor-extensor balance, core-sleeve balance, rectus-psoas balance, rhomboid-psoas balance, the Line, tensegrity (you can find a lot of this explained in my book Stack Your Bones btw) and has brilliant ways of illustrating mobility and stability.... and understanding imbalance and postural and kinesthetic problems, adaptive and maladaptive patterns....

Back to hips. First of all, talking about "opening the hips" is problematic.

Opening IN WHICH WAY? Since many yoga poses that stretch the deep external rotators are called "hip openers", can I assume that the yoga community is talking about external rotation when they are talking about "hip opening" ? 

The thing is that external rotation is only ONE DIRECTION of "hip opening." What about "opening the hips" in internal rotation? Or what about opening the hips in extension? Or in flexion? These are all ways of stretching hips or mobilizing the hip joint.

So when you say "yoga people, stop opening your hips" what do you mean? What are you talking about? 

Are you talking about stopping doing stretches of the deep external rotators?

Or are you talking about general mobilization of the hips in all directions? Are you trying to say "don't work towards hip mobility" ? Or something else?

OK so here are the problems besides the vagueness of the statement:

Some people have really open hips in one way and really really tight hips in a different way. Baddha konasana could be easy as pie but virasana is really difficult. This person should practice virasana.

For some people, virasana is easy as pie but baddha konasana is incredibly limited. This person should practice baddha konasana. 

What we need depends on our starting place. We should open what's tight and strengthen what's weak. It is going to be different for everyone. 

One could argue that "ankle to knee" forward bend is a "hip opener". External rotation of the thighs plus hip flexion. Sure.

One could argue that supta virasana is a "hip opener". Internal rotation of the thighs plus hip extension. Sure.

Something could be your medicine and someone else's poison. And vice versa. This is the problem with making the asanas themselves the devil.

Not to mention the fact that, for example, as a hyper-mobile person in the lumbars and groins, you could do a posture like warrior 1 , and totally "dump" in the pose, hanging in your flexibility . Or you could do warrior 1, back off the "depth", take a shorter wider stance, and work on stability, gather your hips, firm your gluts, etc etc. The same pose could be your very own poison or medicine, depending on HOW YOU PRACTICE IT. In fact, the poses that easily lend them selves to your "dumping" are going to be the hardest ones to practice *stabilizing* in, what a great opportunity!

No pose is intrinsically evil. Some poses are inappropriate for people . Some poses require actual TECHNIQUE and different types of ability and physical facility and different body constitutions in order to do them safely. What we need is to check our egos, and learn what is appropriate.

We also have to be careful to not get into a mode of assuming that the human body is always so fragile. Every thing doesnt have to be GENTLE all the time. We can be vigorous, and also structurally/functionally sound. Sometimes re-patterning needs to be vigorous! The point is, if we are working vigorously, is it towards a constructive direction? 

Back to hips. Let's get to know the mobility or lack thereof in our hips in various directions, and work on creating more freedom and range of motion where there isn't enough. And more stability/strength where there isn't enough.

Then the question is, how much mobility is enough? Once we can agree that "balanced mobility" is important-- meaning similar range of motion in counter-opposing directions or in all direction of a joint (which would indicate balance in tone, strength and suppleness of counter-opposing muscle groups), then .... we should ask, well how much mobility in general? I would say there is a generous window of healthy mobility-- some people are a little more supple, some are a little more stable, naturally. We can honor our constitutions and still be reasonable. 

IT IS NOT SMART TO JUST SAY PLAINLY "DON'T OPEN YOUR HIPS WHEN YOU DO YOGA. HIP OPENING IS BAD." "

"HIP OPENING" as a phrase is vague as I explain above, and it's also wrong that NO ONE needs to "mobilize" their hips. Plus even "loose" people often need to mobilize the hips IN A PARTICULAR DIRECTION. (hyper mobility somewhere often means hypo-mobility somewhere else.)

I realize the teachers who say this are seeing a lot of hyper-mobile young students who are stretching where they are already hyper mobile, and this is a HUGE problem, and yes it is probably an epidemic in some communities. But the answer isn't to say that "every one has to stop doing hip opening".

Some people have super super tight hips in every direction. They can hardly sit down on a chair. They can definitely not sit on the floor. They can barely rotate their thighs in any direction. these people could use some "hip opening" probably in most directions, because the built in stability is way too much and mobility is lacking.

The answer is to say, we need to create appropriate balanced stability in the joints. And we need to create reasonable range of motion evenly throughout joints. We should practice appropriately so that we move towards balance in our individual bodies. For some people, it will mean to stretch (open?) the outer hips. For some people, it will mean to stretch the outer hips briefly to get them out of spasm, and then to ultimately activate and stabilize those same muscles (this is my situation). For some people, it will mean to avoid outer hip stretches and to only work on strengthening. For some people, it will mean to work on internal rotation by stretching and also activating adductors (stretching not for length, but for RELEASE, can be helptul for activating tight and weak muscles.) And on and on. For some people, it will change day to day.

Appropriate practice starts with self-study. And anchoring into a real language that describes natural human movement.

Stay tuned for my online course: Yoga for Natural Human Movement: Structural Integration Principles for Yoga Teachers

If you are a yoga teacher, buy my book!