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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Yoga has made me curious about my body for more than 20 years. When I feel restriction in my outer hips during Pigeon Pose, I wonder what exactly is holding me back—is it my gluteus maximus, my piriformis and external rotators, my posterior capsule… or my questionable karma? Hey, I’m a Virgo, I don’t like surprises, and teaching yoga is my passion, so I like to understand these things. That’s fair, right?
My hips have been a source of constant inquiry. I grew up skateboarding and playing ice hockey, so you can imagine that I’ve had my work cut out for me when it comes to creating more range of movement. For years, my singular focus was to open my hips. Now, a little older and a little wiser, I have a more balanced approach to my hips that also includes plenty of strengthening work.
When I started creating online yoga anatomy course with Paul Roache, MD, I built them for three people: me, myself, and I. I needed to build a program that would help me understand the body in a more refined, yet simplified way.
Now, I’m creating these Illustrated Guides to Yoga and Anatomy for the students in my trainings—and, for you. If you’re interested in understanding your body and creating more sustainability in your practice, then we’re on the same page. And if you want to train with me more formally, you can either join my online anatomy course (details here), or join me for my yoga teacher training in San Francisco. You can take the entire training or come for individual modules. (Details here.)
This Illustrated Guide to Yoga and Your Hips, Part 1 focuses on the joint structure and ligaments. I know it’s not as sexy as the musculature, but the structure tells us a very interesting story if we’re patient enough to listen. It tells us the story of the body’s complementary demands of strength, stability, and flexibility. Unlike the relatively unstable ball and socket joint in your shoulders, the hip-joint is extremely strong due to the nature of the socket and the reinforcement it receives from the ligaments and muscles. Plus, if you understand your hip’s structure, you’ll have a much easier time understanding your muscles.
Now, let’s look at a quick, simple glossary so that you are on point with your terms:
Coxal Joint: This is the anatomical term used to describe the hip joint.
Head of femur: The rounded top of your thighbone that fits into your pelvis. This is the “ball” in the “ball and socket” of your hip.
Acetabulum: The dish-like part of your pelvis that the head of the femur fits into. This is the “socket” in the” ball and socket” of your hip.
Labrum: Fibrocartilaginous tissue that encircles the inside of the acetabulum. The labrum helps the head of your femur sit more deeply into the acetabulum, helps absorb shock, and helps form a seal for the fluid inside the hip joint. It’s made of the same tissue that the meniscus in your knee is made of and provides similar functions.
Ischiofemoral ligament: Located on the back of the hip joint, this ligament connects the ischium to the femur. This ligament helps limit excessive extension and adduction (internal rotation).
Iliofemoral ligament: Running from the front of the pelvis to the femur, this is the strongest ligament in the body. Its’ primary role is to limit excessive extension in your hips.
Pubofemoral ligament: Also running from the front of the pelvis to the femur, this ligament limits excessive extension and abduction (external rotation).
Hip Anatomy Yoga + Understanding the Hip Joint for Yoga
The Front of Your Hips
This simple, clean rendering shows the ball and socket with the ligaments and muscles removed. The head of the femur is colored silver so that you can easily see the nature of the ball and socket joint.
The Back of Your Hips
Another image that shows the ball and socket without the muscles or ligaments. This view is from the back.
The Center of your Hip Joint with the Femur Pulled Away
This illustration shows the interior of the ball and socket. You can see how the head of the femur plugs into the acetabulum and is encircled by the labrum. It reminds us that the hip joint is a full, 360 degree circle and that we want to create strength and flexibility in the entire circumference. This illustration will help you understand how the muscles are laid out in Part 2 of this series!
Your Acetabulum and Labrum
If you’re familiar with what the meniscus looks like, you’ll see that the labrum is almost visually identical. If you’re not, I’ll be creating a guide to yoga and your knees soon! Notice how the labrum is a horseshoe-shaped to cushion the femur and allow it to glide more smoothly in the socket.
Ligaments on the Front of Your Hip
The ligaments on the front of your hip are strong, powerful tissues that limit excessive hip extension and abduction. This means that these ligaments—if excessively tight—may have a limiting effect on hip extension your backbends or anything that requires your legs to be separated far apart, like Baddha Konasana.
Ligament on the Back of Your Hip
The Ischiofemoral ligament, which runs from your ischium to your femur, reinforces the back side of your hip joint. It limits excessive internal rotation.
I hope this illustrated guide gives you insight into your hips and helps you teach your students with greater confidence and clarity. We’ll look at the hip muscles in Part 2 and “best practices” for your hips in Part 3 (coming soon).
There are 3 ways to use this blog:
1. You can simply practice Tittibhasana using the illustration above.
2. You can learn the steps get into the posture in the “How To” section.
3. Or you can geek out on the sequencing and anatomy details for Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose) by skipping down to Part II.
Don’t forget to pass this along to your students and colleagues!
The key to doing Tittibhasana is being light, strong (everywhere), flexible (everywhere), balanced—and, if possible—young (twenties would be nice). If this sounds like you, stop reading and go do the pose, OK?
If, however, you can’t relate to the above characterisitics—and I certainly can’t—the pose is pretty tough. It’s doable, but skillful preparation is paramount. Also, Tittibhasana is a balancing pose and it works a little bit like an old-fashioned scale. You’ll need to let the weight of your pelvis drop down and back behind your elbows to help you lift your feet off the floor. Let’s take a closer look:
It’s a good idea to open the hamstrings, adductors, and outer hips before launching into Tittibhasana. It’s also wise to do a few core strengthening poses to warm-up your hip flexors and abdominals. (Read Part II if you want specific suggestions, otherwise, I’ll leave the preparations to your choosing.)
HOW TO PRACTICE TITTIBHASANA
1. Take your feet a little wider than your hips and rotate your feet slightly outward.
2. Forward bend and tuck your shoulders behind your knees. With you hands, hold the back of your ankles.
3. Take a couple of breaths, folding more deeply and easing your shoulders behind your knees. Be mindful of your lower back and sacrum. If they’re uncomfortable with the forward bend, come out of the pose and work on your hamstrings, inner legs, and outer hips in more accomodating postures.
4, Place your hands behind your heels with your fingers pointing forward. Look at your thumbs and make sure they’re not in a crazy position (you’ll know what I mean when you do it). If your hands don’t come all the way to the floor, they may in the next step. If they don’t come to floor in the next step, you can put a wedge or folded mat under the heel of your palm. If you need something higher, it means that your hips aren’t quite ready for this pose—stick to leg-opening postures for now.
5. With your fingers facing forward, bend your knees and your elbows, sitting back so the weight of your pelvis is on your arms.
6. Squeeze your legs against your arms, lift your feet, and straighten your legs. Focus on reaching your legs straight forward while you squeeze the inner legs toward the midline to minimize how wide your legs go.
7. Now that you’re in the pose, work on the key teaching points in the infographic above!
8. If you’ve crashed and burned, get up and give it another go. If the pose feels impossible, content yourself with a few more weeks or months of preparations.
IF I CAN’T DO TITTIBHASANA YET, WHAT SHOULD I DO INSTEAD?
If you still need to build strength for the pose, practice a combination of core, shoulder, and arm strengtheners. Be consistent with Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat), Ardha Navasana (Half Boat), Plank, Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), and Salabhasana (Locust). If you need more flexibility for Tittibhasana my three favorite preparations are Lizard Lunge, Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) and Upavistha Konasana (Wide-legged Seated Forward Bend). Bakasana (Crane) is also a great pose to practice if you’re unable to do Tittibhasana.
PART II: ANATOMY AND SEQUENCING FOR TITTIBHASANA
WHICH MUSCLES DOES TITTIBHASANA STRENGTHEN?
The short answer is your core, shoulders, and arms. Here’s a more detailed look:
Your abdominals and pelvic floor
All of your abdominal muscles engage to lift your pelvis and support the weight of your center. Most notably, your transverse abdominus draws your navel toward your spine and your rectus abdominus helps to maintain the slight flexion (rounding) of your spine.
Your hip flexors
Your psoas and rectus femoris fire strongly to flex your hips, keep your legs lifted and straighten your legs.
Your inner legs
One of the most challenging components of Tittibhasana is the dynamics of your inner-legs, or adductor muscles: You have to strongly engage the adductors to keep your legs from sliding down your arms. Ath the same time, the pose requires a deep stretch in these muscles.
Tittibhasana works all of your shoulder muscles, specifically:
The rotator cuff muscles which help stabilize your arms.
The anterior deltoids and pectoralis which help you lift your body in the pose.
The scapular muscles (especially the serratus anterior) which help you broaden your upper back in the pose.
Your triceps are working harder than any other muscle group in your arms here. Your forearm muscles also gain strength in this posture.
WHICH MUSCLES DOES TITTIBHASANA STRETCH?
Tittibhasana stretches all three hamstrings—especially the two medial hamstrings, your semitendinosus and semimebranosus.
All of your adductors engage, which enables you to both hug your legs against your arms and straighten your legs. The gracilis and adductor magnus, due to their functional relationship with the hamstrings, get the greatest stretch in this family of muscles.
Your outer hips
You may not feel your outer hips stretching nearly as much as your hamstrings or adductors. However, your gluteus maximus, piriformis, and other external rotators are working eccentrically. This means you engage them and lengthen at the same time! (The way you do when you lower a weight in a biceps curl.)
SEQUENCING FOR TITTIBHASANA (FIREFLY)
You can find a fully-illustrated, 16-pose sequence for Tittibhasana here.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT ANATOMY, SEQUENCING, AND TEACHER TRAINING?
I offer both online trainings and live, in-the-flesh ones around the world. Here are a few of the courses that are currently open. (For a full schedule, go to my Schedule page.):
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!