Before jetting off on his most recent trip to Hong Kong, I sat with Jason to answer more listener-submitted questions. This time we just happened to get questions that all centered around the lower body. So, we talk about:
* How to best work with tight hamstrings?
* How to best recover when your hamstring has been overstretched?
* How to find stability and strengthen the low back, quadratus lomborum (QL), and sacrum after pregnancy?
* What’s up with hearing about yogis having hip replacements? How can you keep your hips safe in yoga?
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I am a vinyasa flow girl through and through. I believe that spending time studying alignment is vital to a lifelong yoga practice — whether in the form of Iyengar classes/workshops or with a flow teacher like Jason who occasionally slows things down. When you learn to understand and tune into the details of alignment you not only stave off potential injuries, you truly learn the skill of connecting your body and mind.
But after years of studying, I find that most days I want to flow. I like to begin and end practice with postures that are close to the ground because these poses simultaneously help me settle in and open up. And in between, I like to move. Moderately-paced movements help me build heat and keep my busy mind focused. And when I repeat poses — as opposed to doing long, static holds — I give myself the opportunity to slowly open up into a pose.
The sequence below is a simple, forward bending flow that I love. Here are some notes on how to do the practice:
Poses 1-3: Half Happy Baby, Supta Padangusthasana A and Supta Padangusthasana B
Warming up your hamstrings on your back is a gentle, grounding way to begin. Be sure to keep a natural lumbar curve — don’t press your low back down into the ground. Do each of these poses for five breaths on both sides.
Poses 4 & 5: Downward-Facing Dog Pose and Uttanasana
From Supta Padangusthasana, draw your knees into your chest and rock back and forth on your spine. Keep rocking until you can place your hands on the floor in front of you and step back into Downward-Dog. Use this Down Dog to shake off the cobwebs. Feel free to pedal your feet and move and groove. Stay for 5-8 breaths.
Walk your feet to your hands and come into a very relaxed Uttanasana. Some people call this version Ragdoll. I’d like to coin the name, “Chill Uttanasana.” Do you think that will catch on? The point is: Bend your knees. Press down through your feet and try to gain length in your spine. After 5-8 deep, full breaths, roll up to standing.
Yahoo, it’s time to flow! Jump your feet wide and face sideways on your mat for poses 6-10. Repeat these poses on the second side. (If you know how, you can incorporate this section into Sun Salutations and repeat it twice on each side.)
Move into your seated postures remembering that the goal of a forward bending practice isn’t to slam your torso against your thighs. The goal is to stretch the whole back side of your body in a way that works for you!
In each of these poses press the tops of your thighbones down as you lengthen your spine into the forward bend. Stay for 5 breaths each (do Janu Sirsasana on both sides) before taking a 5-minute Savasana.
Sorry: Preschooler in a tutu not included. But feel free to incorporate your own, or your dog, your cat, your bird, your guinea pig…
Hanumanasana feels different each time I do it. There are days when I can get my pelvis to the floor with my hips square. But these days I focus more on getting the benefits of the pose instead of going all the way into the pose.
There’s a distinct difference between these two approaches. If I’m going for the full pose, I’m more likely to push myself aggressively. I might ignore my quirky left hamstring that sometimes spasms from a decade old injury. I might overarch my lower back because I’m bypassing the tightness in my back hip. Doing those things (and getting my pelvis to the floor) doesn’t make me adept. It just means I’m grasping for something that ultimately causes suffering – in the form of back or hamstring pain the next day!
This isn’t really the attitude I want to bring to mat – I’d rather use my time there to let go of pressure, to experiment, and to be grateful for what I have. This is where the real work is for me.
So. Instead of pushing, I try to focus more on asking my body what’s going to work on that particular day. Is it going to work better if I hold Half Hanuman for a long 10 breaths as I work up into the pose? Or is it going to feel amazing if I just let myself hang out on top of a bolster and work on stretching my back hip?
The truth is, it’s natural to want to take a “final” form of a posture. But, if you can check your ego a bit and ask your body what it needs, you will learn so much more about yourself. You’ll learn to respond to your own needs with honesty and resourcefulness. And when you’re true to yourself and your needs on the mat, you’re building a foundation for being true to yourself and your needs in your life.
These are a few of our favorite poses leading to Hanumanasana. You can use the first four poses as warm-ups for Hanumanasana, or you can substitute Hanumanasana with any of these variations when you take a class. If you’re going to take the former route, I recommend doing poses 1-15 of Jason’s Hanumanasana sequence and then moving into these variations. Let us know how it goes!
1. Half Hanumanasana
To come into Half Hanumanasana, start in Down Dog and step your left foot between your hands. Come into a Low Lunge with your back knee on the floor. (If you have sensitive knees you put a blanket or pillow underneath your back knee.)
Draw your hips back as you straighten your front leg. Flex through the front foot and come forward as far as is appropriate for you. Stay for several breaths, feeling into your hamstrings and IT bands.
To come out, bend your front knee and come back into the lunge. Then step back to Down Dog and do the other side.
2. Hanumanasana with a bolster
This one is sooooo good. Grab your bolster and place it next to your mat. If you’re on the tighter side, grab two blocks as well.
Come back into the Low Lunge and place the bolster under the top of your back thigh. Put your blocks under your hands for support if you need them.
From there, lower your left sitting bone onto the bolster and begin to straighten your front leg. Don’t worry about getting it completely straight. What’s more important is to work on two actions: The first is to square your hips, so that both hip points are facing forward. The second is to resist a forward tilt (anterior tilt) in your pelvis, which leads to compressing and overarching your lower back.
You have to really engage your leg muscles to get these actions — no sinking into the bolster! Press down into your front heel and draw your front hip back. At the same time, tuck your back toes under, press down into the floor, draw the back hip forward. Hug your inner thighs in toward the midline and notice how this creates room for you to draw your tailbone down (resisting the anterior tilt) and lift your spine up!
To come out, bend your front knee and come back into the lunge. Then step back to Down Dog and do the other side.
3. Hanumanasana with a block
Start in the Low Lunge once again. This time, you place a block just underneath your front sitting bone.
Repeat the actions that you did above: Engage your leg muscles. Press your feet into the earth and hug your legs in toward the midline to make space for your pelvis to come into a neutral position. Breathe into the spaces that need it. Then release, and do the second side.
4. Hanumanasana at the wall
** Please note that I switched legs in this photograph so that you could see the pose better! I am going to instruct it according to the way it looks in the photo.
This one is tricky to get into and requires some experimenting. Start in a shortened Down Dog — hands and feet closer to each other than normal — with your feet about a foot away from the wall. Place your left leg up on the wall, toes tucked under.
Now, check in with yourself — do you need more of a stretch? If so, walk your hands toward your foot and hop your standing foot closer to the wall. Continue to check in and figure out if your body wants to go deeper, all the while keeping up the actions of the pelvis and legs that you did in the earlier postures.
Once you feel like you’ve found a good place to stay, you can come to the top of the back foot. Come out of the pose slowly by walking your hands forward and hopping away from the wall.
Before I instruct this pose, a quick disclaimer: I have been doing this pose since I was a gymnast at age 6. It’s always been basically within my reach, even in the years when I was chained to my desk and didn’t do as much yoga. I’m saying this because we rarely openly acknowledge in yoga that some poses come easily to some people — and some poses might never feel great in our bodies. I don’t think I will ever feel great in a deep backbend. I’m OK with that now. And I can still work the preparatory poses to take me through my range of motion and keep me agile in my daily life. That’s the goal isn’t it? To feel our best?
OK, my lecture is done. If the previous poses felt GREAT, then come into Half Hanumanasana and slide your left leg forward. With your back toes tucked under, draw your back hip forward. Hug your inner legs together. When you keep your legs engaged, your pelvis might not touch the floor (notice mine doesn’t here). That’s perfectly OK.
On particular day I was not feeling open enough to lift my arms skyward into that crazy-beautiful-deep expression of Hanumanasana. That’s the truth! If you are feeling gloriously open and you want to reach your arms up, go for it. It feels amazing and playful.
To come out of the pose, place your hands on the floor and lift your pelvis so that you come back to Half Hanuman and Downward Dog.
Try the other side. Notice the differences. Thank yourself for practicing and being present today.
Nothing beats a good side-bending practice. And, truthfully, the recipe for the classic posture Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana is simple: the practice needs to focus on stretching the hamstrings, adductors, and the sides of the torso (which are largely comprised of the lats, obliques, and the quadratus lumborum). The sequence above sticks to these three basic focal points.
Let’s break it down a little further:
What could be better than resting on your back and stretching your hamstrings and adductors? Not much. Supta Padangusthasana A & B are simple, effective, energy-saving postures that target your hamstrings and adductors and allow you to transition into your practice gently.
You really can’t go wrong with Down Dog and Three-Legged Down Dog. You can use them in nearly any sequence, but I like them here because they continue the work of stretching your hamstrings, they lengthen your spine (which is helpful in side bends), and they provide a smooth transition from reclined to standing postures.
This combination of postures flows together smoothly and builds on the work of you’ve already established by opening your side body. An important note here is that most students will only receive a mild stretch in their side body in these postures. This is ideal sequencing because you don’t want the first side bends in a sequence to be intense or abrupt. Most students don’t spend a ton of time working their side bends, so the muscles involved (lats, obliques, and quadratus lumborum) need to be prepared slowly.
These postures hone in on the hamstrings, adductors and side body. At this phase of the sequence, you’re going more deeply into the targeted areas of this practice.
This progression of poses takes you deeper and deeper into your hamstrings, adductors, and side body. If you have more flexibility, you can bend your bottom elbow and take it to the floor in gate pose (pose 12). Once you arrive in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, remember to bend your top elbow and lean your upper-body slightly back. Breathe into the side of the waist you’re stretching and savor the pose. If you’re stuck and struggling, there’s a 99% chance that the restriction is in your hamstrings and adductors. If this is the case, be diligent with the first 8 postures of this sequence for a few more months.
Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!
AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.
Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. Learn more here here. Or I have three separate teacher trainings available online. Learn more about my Arm Balances, Sequencing, and Anatomy Online Courses here.
These are, hands down, my favorite 15 poses for opening the hips.
Creating a balanced, effective hip-opening sequence is simple if you know how the hip muscles are laid out. When you don’t have for a map for their hips, you’re at a higher risk for overstretching your hamstrings and external rotators compared to your hip flexors and adductors. Teachers make this mistake in their sequencing regularly and, as a result, hamstring insertion injuries are one of the most prevalent injuries in modern yoga.
If you haven’t read them already, start with Yoga and Your Hips, Part I and Part II . The model of the “5 Muscular Compartments of Your Hips” in Parts I & II is the same approach that I take when I teach anatomy live and online. (And If you want to learn even more about yoga anatomy and yoga sequencing, you can join one of my ongoing e-courses.)
The sequence here contains my three of favorite postures for each compartment of your hip. I practice this sequence several times a week and I still love the feeling of space and mobility it gives me. I hope it helps you feel good in your body!
One quick thing before the sequence breakdown: If you’d like to be among the first to know about our new posts, sign up for our newsletter. As a thank you, we’ll send you a free arm balance guide, plus 5 sequences that are not on the blog!
Hip Compartment #1: Hip Flexors
Pose 1: Anjaneyasana
Keep your back thigh vertical here. Why? Because keeping your back thigh vertical and stacking your pelvis and spine directly over your thigh helps stretch your quadriceps and hip flexors.
Pose 2: Anjaneyasana
Lower your hips forward and down to isolate and stretch your hip flexors, especially your rectus femoris.
Pose 3: Anjaneyasana
Leaning into the side bend from Anjaneyasana helps stretch your obliques and quadratus lumborum along with your hip flexors.
Hip Compartment #2: Adductors
Pose 1: Malasana
Malasana provides a thorough, inner leg stretch while also flexing the knees and hips deeply.
Pose 2: Prasarita Padottanasana with bent knee
Bending one knee and pressing your forearm against your thigh allows you to create a deep, sustained stretch on the entire adductor group.
Pose 3: Bound Side Angle
The action of binding in this posture provides you with a shoulder opener in addition to the adductor stretch.
Hip Compartment #3: Hamstrings
Pose 1: Parsvottanasana
This foundational standing pose allows you to focus on stretching one set of hamstrings at a time. This may be more effective for students with tight hamstrings than stretching both sets of hamstrings at time like you do in Uttanasana.
Pose 2: Prasarita Padottanasana
In addition to stretching your hamstrings, this pose also stretches your adductors.
Pose 3: Standing Split / Warrior III Hybrid
While similar to Parsvottanasana, this one-legged standing posture provides a deep, isolated hamstring stretch.
Hip Compartment #4: External Rotators
Pose 1: Pigeon Pose
This bittersweet posture uses the weight of your entire body to stretch your external rotators.
Pose 2: Ankle-to-Knee
Placing one ankle on the opposite inner knee externally rotates your thighs even more deeply than Pigeon Pose.
Pose 3: Reclined Pigeon
Clasping your leg and reclining in Pigeon Pose stretches your glutes, external rotators, and abductors.
Hip Compartment #5: Abductors
Pose 1: Reclined Gomukhasana
Reclining in Gomukhasana allows your entire body to relax and settle, while providing you with a deep abductor stretch.
Pose 2: Gomukhasana
This classic seated posture provides efficient leverage for opening your abductors.
Pose 3: Gomukhasana with sidebend
Including a sidebend in this posture gives you a deep abductor stretch while also releasing tension in your obliques and quadratus lumborum.