Most people these days struggle with tight hips. We spend so much time sitting at desks with our knees pointy directly forward – almost no rotation of the hip joint. In an ideal world we would spend most of the day moving in one way or another, and, when we did have to be in one place for an extended time, we would be on the floor – so that, with nothing to hold us up, we are forced to engage the muscles and to change positions frequently to avoid discomfort. In other words, getting back to how we used to move/be as a baby and child. Unfortunately most of us don’t have this luxury – we need to make money and therefore accept certain jobs where movement is not possible – but this is where yoga comes in!Adding daily yoga into your life will make a huge difference in trying to counter the effects of spending too much time sitting down. I hate to tell you, but studies show that even if you spend all weekend working out at the gym, it doesn’t balance out all that time spent sitting Monday to Friday! So the key is frequent, DAILY movement, even if it’s only for 20-30 minutes. This is far better for our health in the long run, and if we are looking to improve our flexibility in particular, then consistency is key.
The following is a short, 20 minute sequence for opening the hips, but you can also do the poses individually if you can’t spare 20 minutes – so there really are no excuses for not incorporating daily movement and stretching into your routine! It’s cold and miserable outside? No problem, you can do this sequence in the comfort of your own home, you don’t even have to get dressed – you can do it in your Pj’s/whatever comfy clothes you have on (or even in the buff if that’s what you prefer!). You don’t have to pay for an expensive gym membership or yoga studio pass. You don’t even need a yoga mat! A block or bolster might be helpful but you can equally use a cushion… or some thick books stacked on top of each other will do the same job! And for those who think they can’t even spare 20 minutes, you can do other things during the hold times, like reading, listening to music or podcasts, watching YouTube videos or even watching TV! Obviously it’s better if you can try to not go to ‘default’ distraction mode, and instead maybe just breathe deeply for those 3 minutes, practice meditation, and/or stay with the sensations in the body – use that time to really get to know your body, your thoughts, yourself. In addition, it’s much safer to stay aware of the body during this time – ‘switching off’ can lead to injury if you’re not paying attention to how the pose feels. But, if you’re determined to multitask then just make sure you immediately back out of any pose if you start to feel pain or tingling.
On a similar note, please bear in mind that this sequence is not intended for anyone with injuries, a medical condition, or pregnant women. If you have any of these conditions please check with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise regime.
This is a really nice pose to begin with, as it’s fairly gentle and should feel comforting/relaxing.
From a seated position bring the soles of the feet together and extend them out in front of you, to create an open diamond shape. Slowly roll forward, trying to bring the head as close to the feet as possible (you can place a block or bolster under the head or chest if it doesn’t meet the ground, in order to be as relaxed in the pose as possible). Place the hands on the floor out in front of you, or relax the arms by the body, whatever you prefer. If the knees are super high up, try placing blocks or bolsters under the knees, to help you relax. Hold for 3-5 minutes. As with all yin poses you are trying to relax, so check that you’re not tensing the muscles in the legs, allow the knees to fall to the sides, being pulled down by gravity. Unlike yang yoga (Ashtanga, Vinyasa, etc.) you can round the spine here, you don’t have to keep the spine straight. If you have sciatica you might want to avoid this pose, or try sitting on a block, cushion or bolster, in order to elevate the hips. If this is too much for the back, keep the feet where they are but lie back on the floor.
If you prefer to do this pose yang style – ‘Bound angle pose’ – then try to bring the feet as close to the groin as possible, allow the feet to turn out, like a book, and keep the spine straight as you fold forward. You would also be actively engaging the muscles in the inner thighs – the adductors – in order to bring the knees as close to the ground as possible, and maybe placing the elbows on to the thighs (NOT the knees!) to help this. We don’t hold yang poses for as long as yin poses, since we are actively working, so 5-10 slow deep breaths would be enough. Doing the pose yang-style is still a good hip-opener, preparing for more advanced positions like lotus pose or middle splits.
Come out of the pose gently, placing the hands either side of the knees and guiding them back up to centre.
For most people, this is quite a challenging pose, where we don’t often see rapid improvement. For that reason, I thoroughly recommend the wall variation if that’s available to you (it can be on a soft surface like your bed, as long as you can get your sit bones right against the wall and have space to drop the legs wide) – it’s something you can easily incorporate into your life and you will see faster improvements.
From a seated position extend the legs out wide, as wide as possible. Ideally the legs are straight, not bent, but if you feel any pain in the knees then bend the knees a little and place the feet on the floor or bring the legs slightly closer together. Try to tilt the pelvis forward (as if you’re sticking the butt out) rather than rounding through the tailbone or leaning back. If this is too difficult then place a block or bolster under the sit bones- try to sit in the front half of the block/bolster in order to tilt the pelvis forward and to not round the lower back (this is also a good option for those with sciatica). If you can, fold forward, placing the forearms on to the ground in front of you (maybe on top of a block or bolster if they don’t quite reach the ground). If you’re more flexible you can try to bring the forehead down to the ground (again, maybe on top of a block or cushion if it doesn’t quite reach, or for comfort), arms outstretched in front of you. Stay here for 3-5 minutes (you can also fold over the right leg for one minute, over the left leg for one minute, and then one minute straight out in front if you wish. This might help distract you from how uncomfortable you are – although we want to try to stay with this discomfort in yin yoga, rather than running away from it! Try to be present, and just notice how the body feels. Notice the discomfort but try not to label it ‘discomfort’ or as something negative. Instead try to notice it just as a sensation, without judgment.).
You can also do this pose against a wall – wall dragonfly – which is a great option if it’s available to you because you really don’t have to work at all, you just let gravity do the work! You can then stay for up to 10 minutes, and read/listen to music – I like to watch YouTube videos! Just make sure your sit bones are as close to the wall as possible and allow the legs to hang out wide.
Come out of the pose gently, leaning back, slowly bending the knees, drawing them closer. Take a few ‘windshield wipers’ with the legs. If you’re against the wall – slowly walk the legs up the wall until they are straight up, bend the knees, and roll on to one side.
From all fours position or Downward facing dog, bring the right knee forward to meet the right wrist. Drop the back knee down and try to shuffle the left leg back as much as possible so you feel a stretch in the left hip. Check that the left toes are pointing straight, not turning in or out. Either keep the right leg at a 45 degree angle to the top of the mat (where the right foot is under or close to the left hip), or, try to bring the right shin as parallel to the top of the mat as possible for a deeper stretch. Make sure the right foot is flexed to protect the right knee. Either stay up on the fingertips, or walk the hands out in front of you, folding the torso on to the ground (maybe placing a block or bolster under the forearms, chest or head if they don’t meet the ground). Try to ensure that the hips are even and level – i.e. that you’re not leaning over to one side. Stay for 3 minutes (or one minute on the fingertips and 2 minutes folding forward). Again, try to relax here – notice if you are clenching the muscles in the legs or hips and try to let go, imagine yourself melting down into the mat. You know your body, so you know if you have reached your limit – where any more would be actual pain (discomfort is ok but NEVER acute pain) – or whether, actually, you could challenge yourself to go a little deeper.
To come out of the pose, press the hands into the ground, step the right foot back and send the hips up to the sky, coming into downward facing dog (which should feel really good! Feel free to ‘walk the dog’ – bending one knee at a time, pressing the opposite heel into ground – to gently release the pressure in the legs/hips, if that feels good). Then do the left side.
From a seated position, cross the left leg over the right. Keeping the legs as they are, come forward on to the hands, and try to stack the knees directly on top of each other. Try to bring the feet forward as much as possible to create space behind you where you will sit. (The further forward the feet are, the more intense the pose is.) Sit back, in between the feet (maybe on top of a block or bolster if it’s too intense or if you have sciatica). Try to sit evenly through both sit bones. If this is already way too intense for you, or there is pain in the right (lower) knee, extend the right leg out long, and just do half shoelaces. If the top knee – the left knee – is uncomfortable you can place a cushion or block between the knees. Either stay upright, or fold forward, extending the arms out in front, placing a block or bolster under the head if it doesn’t reach the ground. Stay here for 3 minutes. You can also stay one minute here, and then one minute upright with the arms in eagle pose (left under right), and one minute with the arms in cowface position (right elbow pointing to the sky). This also helps to distract you from the discomfort in the legs! But remember to listen to the body – if the discomfort turns to pain, then come out of the pose. Also, if you feel tingling at all in the legs (as if they are going to sleep) then come out of the pose (this is an indication that you are pinching a nerve somewhere and can be serious if left too long). Another option, if this pose is too intense, is just to have the legs in ‘square pose’ – from a seated, crossed leg position, move the shins forward until they are parallel with the top of the mat. Try to move your knees towards each other, while keeping the feet where they are, for a deeper stretch.
To come out of the pose, either lean back and release the legs, or come forward on to the hands and release the legs from under you. Take downward facing dog or maybe come into swan pose on the right side. Either way, make sure you eventually do shoelaces on the other side – with the right leg crossed over the left! (And remember to change the arms over – so right under left this time in eagle arms, and left elbow pointing to the sky in cowface arms – if you are doing the arm variation.)
5. Happy baby
If you are practicing somewhere that you can be seen by others, I recommend making sure you are wearing appropriate clothing before doing this pose – i.e. no g-strings, hotpants or loose shorts – unless you are happy with ‘bearing all’!
Lying on your back draw the knees into the chest. Grab hold of the outside edges of the feet if possible (if this is not possible, grab the inner ankles, calves or behind the thighs). The soles of the feet should be pointing straight up, as if you want to walk on the ceiling, and you are pulling the feet down, out and slightly back towards the head (so that the ankles stack above the knees). The knees are being pulled down to the ground on either side of the armpits. Try to keep the tailbone grounded, so the whole of the spine is flat on the floor. Hold for 2 minutes (actively pulling with the arms). If this is easy (!) and the knees are touching the ground, start to bring the feet together and back towards the head (eventually bringing them behind the head!).
Coming out of the pose, release the feet and either extend the legs out long, finishing the sequence in savasana, or continue the practice by coming into a spinal twist, or by rocking back up to seated and doing further asanas.
I hope that’s given you some inspiration for how to improve hip flexibility at home. Remember, 15 minutes every day is better than 1 hour twice a week (if that’s all you could otherwise maintain). Regular movement and stretching is vital for overall good health.
If you have any questions or additional advice please let me know in the comments below!
To juicy stretching,
Photos taken at Apoyo Lodge, Nicaragua