Hips Don’t Lie:
It’s nice to be able to put our legs behind our head. Is it necessary? Instagram-worthy perhaps but necessary? No. However all of us would like to walk, run, bend, squat and twist with the normal activities of life, and be able to enjoy these actions with as little impediment as possible.
The a-ha moment for me appeared when late last year I became an aunt. As it’s been awhile since we’ve had babies in this family, I was reminded of the physical demands of having to look after a newborn and toddler after a babysitting visit a few months ago. The basic requirements of carrying, lifting a child in and out of a crib, getting up and down on the floor at playtime all became very real by the time we got to the second hour of the babysitting assignment. It then occurred to me – what shape am I going to be in to enjoy my grandchildren when that finally happens one day? With kids only in their teens, It dawned on me that I would have to stay in shape for the next little while if I am to be an able and fit grandmother by the time that does happen. Like your car, a little on-going maintenance can help extend the life of of your vehicle. Imagine if you never took your car for a service? What sort of shape would it be in over time? Our hip-joints and our bodies are no different.
Whether you have grandchildren you need to stay in shape for, enjoy a social game of tennis or soccer, like taking a hike or go on a fishing trip every now and then, your ability to enjoy all the basic pleasures of life is very much restricted by the condition of your physical body. In particular, your hip-flexors play a large role in your sense of well-being, mobility and ability to enjoy an active lifestyle. Unlike a grumpy elbow or shoulder which we can isolate to a certain extent and continue to engage in many activities, unhappy hip flexors can really affect your overall sense of mental and emotional well-being besides, restricting movement. As such, we are dedicating this month’s (August/September ) practice to hip-opening, in yogaspeak, or in layman’s terms, to greater mobility around the hip joints and flexors.
What are the hip-flexors?
So where and what are the hip flexors? Quite simply, your hip flexors are that group of muscles that allow for the flexing of your hip joint; namely the muscles that help you bring your thigh up towards your abdomen and vice versa. From a personal yoga perspective the major muscle groups of the hip flexors that present the most interest include the:
- Iliopsoas which consists of the Iliacus and the Psoas Major
- Rectus Femoris which is the only quadricep muscle that crosses the hip joint
- Tensor Fasciae Latae which is attached to the Iliotibial band
The Psoas is a major player in yoga. It’s the larger of the two muscles in the Iliopsoas and is attached to the top of the lumbar spine on one end and the femur bone at the other end. From a yoga asana perspective, it’s the activating muscle that helps you come into a forward fold. If you enjoy arm – balances which comprises mainly of a forward-folding action, a strong psoas muscle is that part of your deep core that will help keep your legs off the floor. In Shirsasana (Headstand) the ability to gracefully straight – leg raise into the full expression of the headstand originates from the psoas. Conversely, a psoas that is tight will restrict your movement in any posture that involves back-bending such as Dhanurasana or Bow Pose and Urdhva Dhanurasana or Upward Facing Bow Pose. All these yoga postures aside, the psoas just plays a key role as a spinal stabiliser and regulates balance for basic movements such as walking and standing. Dysfunction occurs when the psoas shortens as a result of sedentary lifestyles. Every time we sit the psoas contracts and shortens. It may continue to stay in this shortened disposition even when standing which then induces an opposing pull from the paraspinal muscles of the lower back, resulting in….you guessed it, lower back pain. Are you one of those people who likes sleeping in embryo position? May want to reconsider changing your sleeping disposition as you’re probably not doing your psoas or your King Pigeon any favours.
This is an interesting muscle due to its biaxial characteristic – this means that it crosses two joints; the hip and the knee joint. It is the only one of the four quadricep muscles that does that. We know that this muscle can be problematic for atheletes who engage in forceful movements or explosive actions such as kicking, running and jumping. However the exposure to strain in this muscle is even higher for the “casual” or “social” club player for opposite reasons. Typically this is a person who may not have an active lifestyle but is co-opted through the office to play a social game. Or someone who has been sedentary and not maintained any activity but decides to suddenly pick up a new sport and then voila…at the first tennis social, on an attempt to push-off to take a volley, the muscle reacts badly. In the first case with the athlete, strain can occur due to over-exertion, RSI or excessive impact and in the latter, due to shortened muscles that have to suddenly extend and compensate for new activity. As such whether you are an elite athlete or not, the reasons for maintaining these hip flexors supple and healthy are obvious.
Tensor Fasciae Latae:
Well, it’s hard to get into a discussion about the TFL, the little muscle that lies just in front of the hip joint without also talking about the ilotibial band ( ITB ) – the thick dense tissue that runs down the side of the thigh. Tightness in the ITB and TFL often expresses itself as knee pain, especially on the outer side of the thigh. In yoga, often those with tight ITB externally rotate their feet when stepping up into forward fold from their downdog. If you attempt a scorpion in an inversion such as a handstand or in a forearm stand and find your knees and feet pull apart excessively and you are unable to bring your legs together, a tight ITB most likely has something to do with that. If you attempt Padmasana (Lotus Pose) and experience pain on the outer side of the knee, most likely a tight ITB has something to do with that also. Incidentally, bow – leggedness has been linked with tightness in the ITB. This seems consistent with the runner’s syndrome where the feet start to pronate and roll inwards when fatigue sets in, causing the ITB to tense up in order to maintain alignment.
In the Yoga Fundamentals Course which I run twice yearly, we dedicate a session to foam rolling and it is usually one of the most dreaded sessions as most students invariably suffer from tightness in these two areas. Tightness in this muscle and tissue is very common indeed and it seems to strike people of all age groups. As the TFL is attached to the ITB, it is important to keep this muscle nice and soft as a tight TFL pulls on the ITB ( as does the gluteus maximus ) and causes it to tighten. A combination of stretching the TFL and foam rolling of the ITB is the best solution as the ITB is basically connective tissue and cannot be stretched but rather needs breaking down.
Final thoughts: Shakira was right
Returning to my original thread, some of us aspire to bring our legs behind our heads, whilst others simply just want to be able to bend down and pick up a toddler without pain. Whatever our aspirations, the importance of actively stretching and mobilising the muscles that surround our hip joints cannot be overstated. There have been many articles dedicated towards the more esoteric reasons for releasing these muscles. In particular the psoas has been described as the receptacle for undigested emotions, trauma and memories which I have not explored here. Shakira was right! The hips really don’t lie. If the gut is the second brain then the psoas is the muscle of the soul. It is here that our flight or fight response is triggered. In Liz Koch’s seminal exploration of The Psoas, she states that the psoas “literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish”.
With so much at stake, it’s worth a few extra stretches no?
In the months of August and September at the Bodyneed Sports Clinic, Ewa’s classes on Fridays at 10:30am and Sundays at 9:30am will be dedicated to hip-flexors and hip-opening.