For more than a decade, I’ve quivered at the thought of attending a hip-opening workshop. Having played ice hockey and been a skateboarder for more 15 years, my hips were molten lead that no amount of Pigeon Pose could crack open. Now, 20 years in, I’ve chipped away and breathed steadily enough to be halfway comfortable and mobile in these joints.
As I step back and look at the challenges my hips presented, I finally realize that the issue wasn’t just hockey and skateboarding. Part of the problem was that I didn’t understand the joints or muscles that I was working with. I didn’t have a “map” of the region to make sure that I was stretching and strengthening all the muscles involved in the hip joint. I was overly focused on my outer hips and hamstrings, while ignoring my hip flexors and adductors. I didn’t understand the nature of the hip socket and that truly “opening” the hips requires a more intelligent, comprehensive approach.
I’m creating this guide because I know it would have helped me practice and teach more effectively years ago. This is the approach that I stick to when I’m working with my students and trainees—and, when I teach anatomy live and online. I’m hopeful that it will give you a simple framework for understanding your hip muscles.
Make sure to check out my Illustrated Guide to Yoga and Your Hips, Part 1. It describes the structure and ligaments of the joint and will help you understand the hip joint more clearly. Part III provides you with a balanced sequence for strengthening and opening your hips.
The holidays are a mixed bag for most. They’re so often fraught with memory and expectation that it’s as though the frequency of our daily unconscious emotions get turned up to 11. We’re surrounded by messages that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year.” But if you’re nursing heartbreak or confused by your family dynamics or exhausted by your intense workplace, those messages can just amplify your loneliness and anxiety.
I have a little holiday “hack” I’ve used for years and it’s this: Do your yoga practice regularly throughout your holiday season with the idea of creating “good space” for yourself.
It was Richard Rosen who sparked this idea of creating good space through yoga practice. He introduced me to the translation of sukha as “good space” – su meaning good and kha meaning space.
Think of it this way: We have this yoga practice where we stretch, breathe, and move life force to the furthest corners of our body in order to create “good space” physically. You can take that physical space you’ve created and hold onto it. You can think of this space as an inner alter – a place within you that’s solid and sacred and totally at ease. I imagine my inner alter lives around my heart and expands with every conscious breath.
Your inner “good space” doesn’t get penetrated by petty conflicts, old grievances, by self-criticism or even by loneliness. It’s your “true Self,” if you will – it’s joyful, omniscient, and full of potential. When you create this space within yourself, you can remind yourself of it if you’re sad or when you’re faced with a difficult moment. Instead of snapping like a twig when your Uncle complains that there’s no cranberry sauce, you can access a part of you – even the teeniest, tiniest part – that’s still flexible and flowing like a big, willowy branch. You can breathe into it, feel it, and know that you can capably manage whatever you’re feeling or facing without losing your true Self.
Throughout the holiday season, revisit this good space often. On days when you can’t do a full asana practice or sit, revisit the space through your breath, or while you’re on the train, or while you’re doing the dishes. Because no matter what you’ve been through or where you’ve come from, you are alive right now and you’re allowed to feel happy, full, complete.
Here’s a sequence that Jason created to help you create your holiday “good space.” It mobilizes the hips and is perfect when you don’t have time for a full 60- or 90-minute practice. Stay for 5-10 breaths in each pose and do both sides before moving onto each pose in the sequence.
I hear more sweet sighs of relief when I teach sequences that focus on side-bends than any other posture category. Side-bending in poses like Compass releases tension in the lats, obliques, and QLs, leaving students in a momentary state of suspension where everything feels better than it did a moment ago.
Compass Pose is a deep side bend that differs from its close relatives, Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana and Parivrtta Upavistha Konasana (poses 14 & 15): The upright, regal nature of the pose requires you to engage your core and spinal muscles. Instead of using gravity and laying your torso down into the pose, you have to work a little harder to lift up and lengthen your spine.
To meet these increased demands, this 16-pose sequence will:
1) Open your hamstrings and adductors.
2) Bring your awareness to your core and spinal muscles.
3) Stretch your side-body, including your lats, obliques, and quadratus lumborum muscles.
Here’s a closer look at the logic of my Compass Pose sequence.
: These three versions of Down Dog will help you settle into your practice and begin opening your body for Compass pose. The one-legged variation of Down Dog will accentuate the stretch in your bottom leg, while the one-legged variation with the twist will provide your first side-bend of the sequence. Feel free to lean back—almost like you’re going to “flip your dog”—and indulge the stretch in your side-body. Stay for as many breaths in these 3 poses as you like.
For a very long time I thought my backbends were tight because my back was tight. I don’t mean to humblebrag, but, uh, logic is one of my strong suits. Unfortunately, my logic was causing me to see only half of the picture: My hips were impeding me just as much as my computer slouch.
I had to change my perception of backbends: They not only require bending your spine, they require openness along the whole front side of your body. In other words, it might not be your spine and back muscles that are hanging you up in your backbends, it might be tightness along the front of your thighs, hips, and abdomen.
Most of us are tight there as a result of sitting for long periods of time. This tightness makes it difficult to tilt the pelvis backward (posteriorly) — think hip bones lifting, tailbone dropping. This backward tilt of the pelvis is necessary if you want to create an even backbend. If you can’t get your pelvis into position, you’re more likely to compensate by overarching your lower back.
WHY WE LOVE KING ARTHUR’S POSE:
King Arthur’s Pose and its variations intensely targets quads and hip flexors, making it a great prep for backbends. It’s also adjustable: You can press your hips all the way back against the wall to really target the quads. Or you can lower your hips (like a Low Lunge) if you want to get more into the hip flexors and adductors.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT STRETCH?
The effectiveness of King Arthur’s Pose stems form the fact that it stretches all of your quadriceps and hip-flexors simultaneously. The technical reason for this is that your knee is flexed and your hip is extended. This means that the posture is stretching your vasti muscles (3 of your 4 quadriceps), your rectus femoris (your 4th quadriceps which is also one of your hip-flexors), and your illiopsoas. If your abdominals are particularly tight, you might also stretch them in this posture.
A friendly PSA: It can take some experimenting to get into the pose. Be patient and play around with what feels most effective. Knee pain = back off. It is not worth (ever) hurting your bod in an effort to do a pose.
1. Start on your hands and knees with your back facing a wall. Bend your knees and back up, placing your right knee against the wall.
2. Press your right shin and the top of your right foot against the wall.
3. Step your left foot forward so that your foot and your knee at the wall are about the same distance apart as they’d be in a Low Lunge. Take a breath.
4. Place both hands on your front knee and lift your spine. If your knee is uncomfortable, make sure to pad it sufficiently.
5. Refine it: Lift your hip points up, draw your front ribs and navel in, (toward the wall behind you) and reach your arms toward the ceiling.
6. Take 5-6 slow deep breaths before releasing the posture and taking your second side.
BE MINDFUL OF:
Moving your pelvis toward an anterior tilt: If you find yourself sticking your bottom out, it’s a sign that you need to come out of the stretch a little bit. To counteract an anterior tilt, think of lifting your hip points up toward the ceiling as your tailbone drops toward the floor.
Similarly, keep your spine upright, not leaning forward. If you feel any strain, bring your hands to the floor or to blocks.
WHAT POSES WILL THIS HELP ME WITH?
King Arthur’s Pose is an excellent prep for Urdhva Dhanurasana (aka Wheel Pose or Upward Bow Pose) and the whole Pigeon family of poses, which require you to keep your pelvis stable while one leg stretches forward and the other stretches back.
WHERE SHOULD I PUT IT IN A SEQUENCE?
I usually place this pose after Sun Salutations and standing poses. It’s a natural place to pause and give take a breather. As you hang out in the pose for at least 20 breaths, you can remind yourself that this period of focused effort reward you with more playful backbends later.
This is also the perfect “TV watching” or “newspaper reading” pose. Hang out in it while you watch the Bachelorette and your whole family will be impressed!
In my 500-hour Teacher-Training Programs I have my students compare Bakasana and Titthibhasana, or Firefly Pose, with the aim of learning how to create effective sequences for each of these postures.
When the trainees look at the two poses side-by-side, they see something they usually haven’t noticed before: Bakasana and Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose) are nearly the exact same pose. However, the one major difference between the two postures has significant sequencing implications. We’ll get to the yoga sequencing implications in a moment. But first, let’s look at the similarities between the two poses. Take a moment to compare Bakasana and Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose) below.
Bakasana and Titthibhasana share the following similarities:
1. Both poses flex the spine.
2. Both poses broaden the scapulae while strongly engaging the serratus anterior.
3. Both poses require strong core engagement, most significantly the transverse abdominus, the rectus abdominus, and the illio-psoas.
4. The shoulder joint (or gleno-humeral joint for you fact-checkers out there) is at approximately 90 degrees of flexion in both poses.
5. Both poses strongly flex the hip joints and require the adductors (inner thigh muscles) to engage to prevent the legs from sliding down the arms.
In simple terms, the arms, shoulders, shoulder blades, spine, core, and hips are doing the same thing in Bakasana and Tittibhasana.
The one significant difference between the two poses is that the legs are bent in Bakasana and they’re straight in Tittibhasana. That’s all folks.
But—and this is a big BUT—straightening the legs has far-reaching implications that makes sequencing for Tittibhasana different than sequencing for Bakasana. When you straighten your knees in Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose) you:
1.Stretch your hamstrings. The hamstrings are contracting in Bakasana, but they’re stretching in Tittibhasana. This means your students need plenty of hamstring preparations in the sequence that you create.
2.Stretch and contract your adductor muscles. Tittibhasana requires you to stretch the adductors since the legs open at a slight angle when you straighten the knees in this pose. At the same time, the pose requires you to engage your adductors so that your legs don’t slide down your arms. To facilitate this, your sequencing needs to include both adductor opening and strengthening.
3.Engage your core (even more). If your hamstrings and adductors are the least bit tight, they will pull the weight of your body down as soon as you start straightening your legs. To counteract this downward pull, you have to fire up your core and create even greater lift than you do in Bakasana.
4.Engage your quads: Engaging your quads straightens your knees in Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose). Your quads also work with your core to flex your hips and support the weight of your pelvis. Your sequence and your verbal cueing should include postures that help your students tune into these muscles so they know how to engage them once it’s time for Tittibhasana.
Practice the 16-pose sequence above and notice how all of these layers are incorporated. Let me know how it goes in the comment section below!
When you understand the nuances of postures like Bakasana and Tittibhasana, you can help demystify these poses for your students. Even more, you can create logical, effective sequences that keep your classes fresh and help your students do more than they ever thought they could.
Developing effective sequencing for all levels, including more advanced postures like these arm balances is one of the pillars of my Teacher Training Programs. I offer my 500-hour Advanced Certification in San Francisco, London, and Hong Kong. If you want to deepen your practice, advance your teaching, and learn to create more effective sequencing, please join me!