Tight hips? Try these ...
Do you suffer from tight hips? Are you trying to sit in lotus and instead continually asking yourself, "will my knees ever go to the floor instead of propping up my chin?" If so, this blog is for you!
I would like to share the postures and modifications that have allowed me to become more mobile around the hips and in turn have helped to alleviate lower back pain and improve my overall posture.
Right ... the postures ... keeping it simple ... 4 postures with 4 levels in each (apart from 3 in lotus). I have placed them in levels purely to show the order I have moved through these. They are all challenging and should be approached with awareness and no expectation, just a consistent regular practice.
Look to hold each posture for a minimum of 10 breaths. The option is always there to increase this but start with 10 which should equate to roughly 60 seconds.
Pigeon has to be one of my favourite postures. It targets the external rotators (including piriformis) and potentially alleviates sciatic pain as well assisting in creating more freedom in the front of the hip in the straight leg. This posture builds good external rotation of the hip in the front leg and, if done correctly, improves internal rotation in the back leg. Your lower abdomen and pelvis are the centre of your body, so helping them become more mobile (without losing stability) will definitely help to improve your overall movement.
Pigeon Modifications -
"Rock the Baby" - Preparatory exercise to warm up the hip joint
'Rock the baby' aims to mobilise the hip joint by utilising the spherical shape at the head of the femur. This rocking motion should follow a slight circular motion, drawing similarities with a feather's movement when dropped from height (back and forward) on the upward and downward phase. This will help to access the following postures more efficiently.
Pigeon modification - Figure 4 - Level 1
This modification has many variations and if you require more assistance with balance you can place the hands behind. We will use the picture below as a reference ... start with the left leg straight infront of you and place the right ankle just above your left knee; ensure that when you are placing the leg you rotate from the hip joint (not the knee!) keeping the ankle flexed to keep everything stable and in line.
Placing the hands behind for stability, slowly draw the left ankle in towards your pelvis, bending the knee as you do. Keep the heart lifted throughout and try not to collapse in the shoulders - remain active by pushing down towards the ground to create structure throughout.
If you're struggling, this can also be done on your back in a supine position holding the back of the left thigh.
Pigeon modification - "A pigeon with padding" - Level 2
This is for those who are ready to start working on pigeon but need some assistance or padding from a soft block, cushion or even a rolled up towel. I have always like to flow into this posture from down dog, bringing the right knee towards the elbow before feeding the foot into place.
Placing the block under the right sit bone helps to reduce pressure on the knee and opposite hip flexor, creating a slight elevation and space between you and the floor.
Send the left hip forward and the draw the right sit bone back whilst maintaining length through the core and keeping the rear leg lengthened behind you with good alignment. Remain soft in the shoulders with a neutral neck position looking down the nose throughout.
Pigeon posture (heel towards hip) - Level 3
This follows the same principles as the previous level but without the block in place. Again, think about keeping the hips square and pelvis level.
Let's switch sides - this time, the heel of the left leg is drawn back to the hip flexor whilst finding length in the rear leg and core. I like to use my finger tips to maintain good posture and will use this to creep forward to a folded forward position on top of the leg.
Go steady and always ease out of the posture if there is any pain in the knee as it is probably 'too far too soon'.
Pigeon posture (heel away from hip) - Level 4
The difference between level 3 and 4 may be months, even years - the tension is increased in this position due to the heel moving towards a right angle so progress can only be measured by yourself; stay free of expectations and listen to the feedback you get from your body.
Folded forward variation with a "figure four" leg - Level 4 option
This posture becomes more intense by folding forward over the front leg. I like to move my 'centre' back as I feel I have more control using my hands and can easily move forward should I go too far. Keep the foot flexed and always utilise props to 'pad out the gaps!'
If pigeon posture wasn't enough I am a big fan of 'double pigeon' too, which requires the legs to be 'stacked' on top of one another in a seated position.
This posture really targets the lateral /outside line of the leg (especially the top one) and deep into the external rotators. As with all of these ... go slow and ease into them utilising controlled even breathing throughout. Keep the feet flexed to add stability to the knee and ankle - this will make sure the emphasis is higher up the chain towards the hip.
Double Pigeon Modifications -
Figure of four (Side angle) - Level 1
The modification has many variations. This one particularly helps those who require a bit of extra support by placing the hands behind. We will use the picture below as a reference ... start with the left leg straight infront of you before placing the right foot just above the knee, on the thigh. Keep the foot and ankle flexed to protect the knee. Placing the hands behind for stability, slowly bend the left leg to bring the right foot towards you. Keep the heart lifted throughout and try not to collapse in the shoulders; remain active by pushing down towards the ground. Again, if you're struggling, this can also be done on your back in a supine position holding the back of the left thigh.
Padded double pigeon (Use if a soft block or towel) - Level 2
Double pigeon will really target the external rotators (glutes) and the outside of the legs. Prepare for this posture by bending the left leg and placing it flat on the floor so your calf is parallel to your pelvis - make sure the knee is okay and you're not forcing anything. Repeat the same entry with the top leg, placing it on top of the left leg. Confirmation of the correct position will be seen when looking down and seeing the creation of a small triangle. If the knees do not sit flush on top of the ankle then this is where the block or cushion can be added to take tension off the knee and hips.
Double Pigeon (Upright) - Level 3
This posture is identical to the padded double pigeon but without the padding! Prepare for this posture as before and check in again with the knees. As the hips start to open this will start to feel more comfortable - don't force anything!
Double Pigeon Folded Forward - Level 3 variation
As with all forward folds, this makes the posture a little more intense. Enter the posture as before and try and weave you way down to the folded position, working the lower spine rather than hinging at the mid spine (thoracic region). For more information and guidance on the 'weave' see the Baddha Konasana section.
Double Pigeon - Ankle slides past the knee - Level 4
The 'normal' variation of this posture is difficult but this takes it a little bit further. Enter the posture the same way as the previous levels keeping the foot flexed to maintain good alignment. Once you have scooped the leg into place continue to take the ankle past the knee. This small adjustment can make a huge difference and you may feel it a lot more than in the previous level - with that in mind, go slow and ease into this gradually. The next stage will be to weave your way forward maintaining length in the spine and working your way down to the ground- think chest to the floor.
Bound Angle Posture
"Baddha Konasana is one of those postures that should be included in every asana practice" (Paul Dallaghan 2015) due to the large amounts of benefit it provides. This posture is also known as "Cobbler postures" derived from the seated position used by cobblers in India whilst working.
Baddha Konasana helps to increase mobility in the hips and across the chest if done correctly. I personally benefit from keeping the hands behind, even utilising the fingertips to continue to find length through the spine and maintaining good posture. The hinge is then initiated from the lower spine rather than mid thoracic. A personal favourite of mine is also using a 'figure of eight' pattern to get down into the posture, weaving from side to side to compliment the design at the head of the femur and hip joint.
Bound Angle Posture Modifications
Padded Bound Angle Posture - Level 1
Padded bound angle means the assistance of blocks are used to elevate the knees slightly, taking strain off of the joints - particularly the hips. The temptation here is to round the spine in an attempt to escape the stress, so this is where the breath comes as well as some intelligent movement which compliments the way the body is designed! (See the weave below for more details). Keeping the hands behind will continue to maintain length in the spine and encourage good posture. As with all of the postures ... maintain even breathing, inhaling for around 3 seconds and exhaling for the same amount of time. Allow the balls of the feet to part naturally as the hips open and the knees move out to the sides to rest on the blocks.
Bound Angle Posture - Upright modification - Level 2
The other option that can be used here is the use of a block under the sit bones. This will elevate you slightly off the floor to help make the posture more accessible. Try both to see what works best for you!
Bound Angle Posture - The Figure of Eight Weave!!
Ok now we get to the fun part! Sometimes if we just lean forward we tend to meet some restrictions, yet if we weave side to side (like a feather falling to the floor from a height) we can make our way down by working around those barriers! I have found this far more effective and I was able to go from a 45 degree lean one day to almost flat on the floor the following. This is also great for building awareness and learning how the body body works; more specifically the hip joint's relationship with the head of the femur. Once you get to the sticking point, inhale then as you exhale try and weave around it in almost a figure of eight pattern. Continue this as far as is comfortable then remain in a central position with even breath.
Bound Angle Posture (Upright) - Level 3
Start by grounding the sit bones and distributing the weight equally. Create length through the core before weaving your way down using the breath.
Bound Angle Posture (Folded forward) - Level 3b
This is the other end of the above posture and the more intense option. I am always aiming to take the lower abdomen as far up the feet as possible, I find this helps to encourage length in the spine.
Baddha Konasana (Deeper modification) - Level 4
I have found that the use of a soft block under the feet can help to increase mobility around the hips as the angle and depth of the posture has also been increased. It has taken years to get to this point and I would always advise seeking guidance and assistance before attempting these first.
In my opinion Lotus is the posture that is associated with Yoga more than any other, as fundamentally the asana's that are done on a daily basis are designed for this reason - to sit in a comfortable position focusing on the breath and the subtle movements of energy (prana) throughout the body. The key with lotus is to ease into it gradually and when I say gradually I mean months ... even years ... but again the key is to work on this every day. Keep stress off the joints by feeding the leg into place (always take the knee back towards the arm pit, moving from the hip before scooping it into place. This is so much more beneficial that pushing straight down). Your feet may tingle, temporarily go numb and may even turn a shade of purple ... this colour is normally a very good sign to change sides or get the feet moving again!
The postures shown below can be done within a practice or at any point in the day. I would do these whilst watching TV or whenever I sat down sometimes totalling up to 4 hours a day. Start with 10 minutes and build up slowly!!
(All of the above postures are working to prepare the hips for this posture, so repeat any as and when you feel you need to, and lotus will slowly come when your body is ready.)
Easy seated posture / 'Flat Lotus' - Level 1
For a lot of us a full lotus posture may be years down the road ... so why force it? Simply place one foot in-front of the other with the knees out to the side. Getting used to sitting here for around 15 - 30 minutes helps to strengthen and stabilise the core and spine.
Half Lotus - Level 2
This is my preferred sitting position when sat for long periods of time. Focusing on one hip at a time allows the other to relax and is definitely recommended when you are working on moving towards a full lotus posture. Examples of this are seen throughout yoga practices prior to moving into the full posture towards the end of an asana sequence.
Full Lotus - Level 3
Finally we get to the last section and what can be seen as one of the 'ultimate' indications of mobile hips. Most people tend to prefer placing the right leg in position first and the left leg on second. If it becomes too much you can always regress to a previous level. If any pain is experienced where the shins touch then a towel can be placed in between to elevate the pressure.
As with all guidance online, please seek a qualified teacher who can help you access these postures. I feel that all movement requires a hands on approach to assist and 'feel' where the body is in space as most of us learn this way. We can only base our current learning on our past experiences, so utilising a teachers help to access further knowledge and accelerate results in a safe and efficient manner can be essential for continual development.
Also bare in mind that ... "We become what we repeatedly do ..." (Aristotle) ... remain consistent and listen to your body to avoid injury and start to see great results.