Yogis love to talk about the hips, so much that it has become a joke.
The hips are big joints with diverse movement, and they are central in the body. It is hard to consider any movement or yoga posture without considering the hips.
The main hip muscles that give us everyday problems are the hamstrings, in the back of the legs. They can get very tight from sitting, running, cycling or any number of activities. The problem comes because tight hamstrings can cause the pelvis to tilt backward and flatten out the curve in the lumbar (lower) spine. This will create weakness and seizing muscles in the low back. As such, back pain can be caused by tight hamstrings.
The muscles in the front of the hip that help us lift the leg forward are called the hip flexors. These get very tight when we sit a lot (which most of us do). Tight hip flexors can also prevent the pelvis from moving freely, causing problems in the spine. Pretty much all of us can benefit from stretching our hip flexors.
This is the movement required for many advanced yoga postures, especially for long sitting that enables breathing and meditation. The hips externally rotate, requiring flexibility in the psoas and iliacus, the tensor fascia latae, the gluteus medius, the adductors (inner thigh), and the stabilizers like the piriformis. Hip rotation gets into a lot of small, tough muscles, so progress is often far slower than when we stretch longer muscles. Be patient.
The sciatic nerve comes out of the low spine and weaves through the hips before running down the leg. Irritation of the sciatic nerve can result in hip pain and pain or tingling that radiates down the leg. This irritation can be difficult to heal, since the nerve is long and complex. A good place to start is with the piriformis, one of the externally rotating hip stabilizers. Postures like Pigeon that stretch the back of the hip may bring some relief.
Once the pelvis is free to move forward and backward, and the spine is able to maintain its natural curves, the hamstrings are long enough. Sometimes there is a tendency in yoga to stretch the hamstrings as far as humanly possible, but that is rarely healthy. And it actually doesn't serve many advanced yoga positions, which generally require hip rotation instead of hamstring length.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
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