The hips are made up of many intricate muscles, each with their own functions and actions, but working together in harmony, as a community. Well, that is the ideal scenario! The fact is though, many of us are living with muscular or structural imbalance in at least one area of our hips, which will sooner or later manifest itself as pain, injury or dysfunction.
The hips have a lot of work to do! They support all the weight of the torso and upper body, as well as control movement of the legs. Some parts get sat on and lazy, whilst other parts get left to do the hard work.
Let’s have a look at a few key areas that are commonly tight and weak, with a brief overview on how yoga can help. To learn more, come along to the Healthy Hips workshop on 11th June.
Commonly Tight Areas:
Iliopsoas – The psoas and iliacus are two muscles that work closely together in their role as primary hip flexors and stabilisers. They contract as you lift your knee, so over doing this repetitively can create an excess of tension. Even sitting for long periods of time will build tightness here.
What to do: low lunge to relengthen.
Piriformis – A small, deep external hip rotator, that supports and stabilises, amongst other functions. Located in the centre of your bum, if this gets tight it can restrict your range of movement and potentially compress the sciatic nerve (piriformis syndrome), causing nerve pain.
What to do: figure 4 stretch to ease out tension.
Commonly Weak Areas:
Gluteous medius – these muscles stabilise our pelvis from either side and unfortunately can often be weak and tight! If balancing on one leg, whilst keep your hips level, is difficult this could be an indication of weakness.
What to do: side lying lifts, tree pose
(Lower) Gluteous Maximus – Our largest muscles! We all sit too much, which means our poor lower gluteous maximus bum muscle gets bored and lazy, then forgets how to do it’s job when it’s actually required! This means that the upper part of the glut max has to work twice as hard to compensate. So, whilst LGM gets lazy and weak, UGM gets over-worked and tight – not ideal for optimal healthy hip balance and function.
What to do: hip lifts – watch here!
Reserve your place on the Healthy Hips workshop here.**
**Please note, this 3 hour workshop is not suitable for someone with a current injury, a one to one session is recommended instead. Ask for details or if you are unsure.
1. Strengthens muscles around joints – reducing risk of injury.
The standing and balancing poses within your yoga practice are fantastic at safely and naturally building strength around the structure of the joints of the ankles, knees and hips. Running itself may be building strength in the legs but if you’re running with bad habits you could be increasing misalignment, muscle imbalance and inflicting repetitive impact, resulting in injury or chronic pain! Yoga is a weight bearing exercise, without the impact, that allows you to identify your imbalances. Strengthening the feet properly (finally released from the confines of shoes!), and evenly strengthening both legs and hips. Doing poses on each side really gets you noticing those imbalances and learning how to correct them!
2. Increases flexibility – lengthening muscles, reducing risk of injury.
Yoga is all about creating balance – a balance of strength throughout the body, plus a balance of strength and flexibility – this equals power. The more you run, the more tension is built up in certain areas and the more tension that builds up, the more likely an injury to the muscles is to occur. Yoga carefully re-lengthens the muscles through mindful stretching, gradually releasing the muscular tension. Longer, more elastic muscles have a greater range of motion, whereas tight muscles are much more restricted and can easily be injured. Moving with complete awareness in yoga allows you to identify the depth to which you should be going into a stretch at any particular time.
3. Strengthens your core – improving alignment and posture.
Many runners suffer with less than optimally strengthened core muscles – yet, these are the muscles (including transverse abdominus, obliques, quadratus lumborum and rectus abdominus) that hold you upright! As soon as a runner begins to bend at the waist due to a lack of core strength all alignment is lost, severely negatively impacting running form, efficiency and pace. There are many hugely effective core strengthening postures that we can include within a yoga practice. You will start to feel the difference almost immediately in moving from the strength of your core centre and in the ease of standing and sitting tall – no sit ups required!
4. Improves your posture – and works the whole body.
Not only will stronger core muscles enable you to maintain proper alignment whilst running, but the range of yoga poses you move through will reverse the negative effects of the forward motion of running: hunched shoulders, rounded back, tight neck and shoulders. A common mistake amongst runners is that, if they stretch, they only stretch their legs. A good yoga practice should work on all areas of the body, from your feet to your head. Our fascia links everything together, therefore each part is just as important as the rest. The forward bending poses are amazing for re-lengthening the hamstrings but the backward bending poses as equally as amazing at drawing back the shoulders to release tension in the pectorals and lengthening the spine to relieve common lower back ache.
5. Enhances lung capacity – enabling you to take in more oxygen and run for longer more easily.
Breathing should be a large focus of practising yoga, both as you move between the poses and whilst you remain in them. This focus on conscious breathing will naturally begin to expand your lung capacity, as when we take our awareness to our breath, it naturally becomes longer and deeper. An experienced yoga teacher will also be able to guide you through breathing techniques that will further enhance your lung capacity. Eventually, you may be able to run by only breathing through your nose, as your breathing rate remains slow and calm and your oxygen and energy levels remain high, enabling you to keep going for longer and faster.
Helen Clare is a yoga teacher based in Cornwall, where she loves to run the coastal paths. Helen leads regular classes, attended by many local runners but also offers several Yoga Flow Running weekend retreats throughout the year. Yoga Flow Running is a concept designed by Helen, applying the principles that she has taken from her yoga practice into her running: promoting running more naturally, with proper alignment, using core strength, enabling efficient and injury free, fun running.
I’m just home from an incredible trip to India, where I spent a month practising with and learning from a new favourite teacher of mine, Matthew Sweeney. His teaching consolidated my belief that, although led classes are fun, inspiring and motivating, everyone needs an individual practice that really suits them, to focus on their real areas of need. Matthew highlighted the importance of a self-practice, in addition to led classes, as the time when you really get to work on what you personally need to improve on physically/ mentally.
Beginning a self-practice takes dedication and guidance from a teacher, you need to be given a sequence that is appropriate for you and regularly checked. But there are a few things that we can all do to kick-start our mornings and begin to develop a morning practice, which can then be built upon with the help of a good teacher.
5 tips to help a morning self-practice
1. Get up early, at the same time each day! Set your alarm early enough to give yourself enough time before your working day begins, and look forward to getting up! Get into the habit of rising at the same time each day, for enhanced energy.
2. Start with silence. Once you’re up and re-hydrated, just sit. Your mind will not have fully woken up yet so it is the easiest time to feel calm. Enjoy being awake but not rushing and set yourself up for a positive day… take 12 breathes, on each exhalation think of something you are grateful for.
3. Consider your breathing, learn 1 – 3 simple pranayama techniques from your teacher. The best thing you can do in the beginning is just to watch each breath come in and out. Notice how it feels, sounds and what moves, allowing it to deepen and lengthen comfortably.
4. Warm up and protect your core, using the most suitable techniques for you. My students regularly practise a variety of core strengthening exercises in class – many of which you can find on my social media feeds. Not only does this warm you up, it helps to protect against back pain and injury.
5. Learn and practice a sequence that is suitable for you and the time you have. It can be anything from 20 minutes to 90 minutes. This is where one to one sessions are so useful, as a good teacher will set you a sequence with the poses and modifications that will benefit you the most.
There are so many benefits to a morning routine – from increased energy, motivation, physical health and mental clarity, plus more time in your day. See if you can make a start on your self-practice morning routine. If you are joining me on retreat this year or if I see you privately, I will be giving you plenty of help!
There is more to be being strong than appearance. There is more to building strength than achieving a desired look. Strength goes much deeper and serves us so much more. It is about providing support for your body; when we are supported we are protected; when we are protected we are safe; when we are safe we are confident and empowered.
Our Yang yoga practice brings us strength. The dynamic, repetitive movements of a Vinyasa Yoga practice warms and works the muscles, building strength. The muscles are stretched within the poses of the sequences as well, giving us this empowering combination of strength and flexibility. As we say in the Yoga Medicine community: Strength plus flexibility equals power.
This highlights the importance of having both a Yin and a Yang practice (see previous blogpost for more on Yin!).
Many of us begin a yoga practice for the flexibility enhancing side of it, which is exactly what so many of us need as we get older and stiffer! However, we cannot neglect to strengthen the important areas of our abdomen, sides and lower back – collectively termed our core. In addition the hip muscles, particularly psoas, which offers so much in regard to supporting the spine from the front. Our core muscles are there to hold us up and support and protect our spine, which otherwise suffers 🙁
Join me for the Yoga for Core Strength Workshop this Sunday, 10am-1pm, in St Agnes, where we will look at how we can strengthen all areas of our ‘core’, front, back and sides, through yoga.
Why should I slow down?
Like many other active people I know, I was resistant to a slow, easy yoga practice. But when I first came to Yin yoga, I realised just how good it feels to stop and stay in a pose – and that it wasn’t easy at all! This year I have really embraced the practice of Yin and used it to complement my ashtanga vinyasa practice. Having a daily Ashtanga/ Vinyasa Flow practice is fantastic but to complement it with a few evening yin poses and a longer weekly session adds so much.
Slowing down and relaxing into poses allows us to access and learn how to be in the parasympathetic nervous system. We should spend most of our time here, yet too many folk are so used to being in their sympathetic ‘flight or flight’ mode, that they forget what it is to relax. Our regular Vinyasa practice does give us the chance to move in the sympathetic, in order to realise the relaxed state of the parasympathetic – probably the best way to begin a yoga practice. But then we can take things further and learn how to really slow things down… and that’s when the magic happens…
In a dynamic practice we only get to stretch and lengthen the superficial muscles. Great, but not enough to make real lasting and obvious change. By staying in a pose for longer, we can find the time to relax into a pose, allowing the superficial muscles to release and then are able to access the deeper musculature. Lengthening muscles and releasing tension from these deeper muscles, gives them the chance to re-set – improving our overall posture and emotional wellbeing.
This relaxing into a pose sounds lovely doesn’t it? But it’s not as easy as it sounds! Especially for those of us with lots of accumulated tension, it can feel darn uncomfortable – but this is where the mental aspect enters. Learn to overcome the discomfort and your mind learns to overcome any challenge.
Learn more about a Yin Practice with me on 4th December at the Yin Yoga New Moon Winter workshop in St Agnes
And the result?
A greater chance of finding real postural change and improvement as well as significant muscle lengthening and range of movement. Try this pose last thing at night and also get a amazing night’s sleep. With continued practice you’ll gain real advancement in all yoga asana and find ease in the more advanced postures.
I hope to see you at the workshop – find out more and book here: Yin Yoga New Moon Winter workshop, Sunday 4th December, St Agnes.