The Hip Joint
The Hip Joint – a Yogi perspective
The hip joint is a complex, intricate and very relevant joint when teaching any movement modality.
In my experience when teaching group Yoga classes, moving through quick transitions, it is not always easy to educate students sufficiently. You will often hear cues like: “lift out of the hip”, “don’t collapse in the lower back”, “tuck your tail bone in”, “draw your belly button to your spine”.
But what does this actually mean? Especially if you are the Yoga teacher. What red flags are you missing and how could you improve your knowledge, verbal cues and physical hands on adjustments?
Let us recap some of the anatomical principles of the hip joint.
The hip bones connect the lower limbs of the axial skeleton to the appendicular skeleton.
The pelvis consists of 4 bones
- The right and left hip bones
- The ilium (upper portion)
- The ischium (back portion)
- The pubis (front portion)
These bones fuse together by adulthood.
The sacrum and coccyx, often referred to as the tail bone, also form part of the pelvis.
Hip Joint Anatomy
What is a joint?
A joint is classified when two or more parts of the skeleton come together. They are designed to allow for different degrees and types of movement.
A joint has two functions: mobility and stability. Joints are then classified according to these components.
The hip joint is freely moveable and is therefore classes as a synovial joint. Further categorised as a ball and socket joint.
Features of synovial joints include
- Articular (hyaline) cartilage covering the ends of the bones that form the joint
- The joint cavity is lubricated by synovial fluid (think of Q20).
- They are strengthened or reinforced by collateral or accessory ligaments.
- A fluid filled sack called a Bursae provides cushioning
- Tendon sheaths provide protection by wrapping themselves around tendons that are exposed to friction.
A ball and socket joint consists of a ‘ball’ formed by the head of one of that bones that rotates within the ‘socket’ of another. These joints have the greatest range of movement allowing flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, circumlocution and rotation. Another example of a ball and socket joint is the shoulder.
Comparatively the shoulder joint is often more mobile and less stable, the hip more stable and less mobile. Joint integrity refers to a balance in both mobility and stability.
Think of the hips as keeping the body stable and balanced.
The Sacroiliac (SI) joint
The Sacroiliac joint is where the sacrum connects with the pelvis (iliac crest).
Characteristics of the SI Joint
- Small and very strong, reinforced by strong surrounding ligaments
- Very little motion
- Transmits force of upper body to the pelvis and legs
- Acts as a shock absorbing structure
The Sacral area of the spine can be easily irritated. Especially in more advanced yoga postures such as intense forward folds, strong twists, wide leg straddles and even backbends.
Low lunge with support of blocks, a familiar hip ‘opener’ in yoga.
Muscles of the Hip
The muscles of the hip pass from the pelvis to the thigh bone (femur) and even past the knee joint. The larger muscles give shape to the thigh (think of well defined quadriceps). Most of the muscles perform more than one action at the hip.
Muscles are group according to the movement at the hip. For example flexors, extensors, adductors etc.
Main hip flexors
Rectus femoris – part of the quadriceps group, used in most standing asanas. Examples of strengthening postures include standing balances, warrior, tree and boat pose. Stretching asanas include bow pose, both legs in backbends and back leg in warrior poses, crescent lunge.
Sartorius – referred to as the longest strap muscle in the body. Also activated in standing postures as for rectus femoris. Because of the length of the muscle and where it inserts at the tibia, it is used in seated postures such as easy pose and lotus. The muscle will be stretched during reclined hero pose.
Iliopsoas – the psoas major, iliacus and psoas minor. A strengthening posture for this group is standing hand to big toe posture. Too stretch this group of muscle try half bridge pose. The psoas muscle is a stabiliser.
Main hip abductors
Tensor fasciae latae – this muscle sits in front of the gluteus maximus on the lateral side of the hip. When practicing any gate pose variations you will strengthen this muscle. It is activated in most standing asanas and wide legged forward folds. The front leg in pigeon pose will stretch the TFL.
Gluteus medius – Often overlooked muscle that is obscured by the gluteus maximus.
Gluteus minimus – Even deeper to Gluteus maximus is gluteus minimus.
Too strengthen glutes practice gate pose and “jane fonda” variations. Too stretch explore sensations in supine spinal twist variations.
Main hip Extensors
Gluteus maximus – One of the heaviest muscles in the body. All the warrior postures, bridge pose, full wheel, camel, locust and cobra will strengthen glute max. Stretching options include supine twists, happy baby and child’s pose.
Hamstrings – often over stretched in Yoga sequencing. Essential muscle group to warm up properly. Bow pose will strengthen hamstrings. Stretching options includes forward folds with knees straight, plough pose and downward facing dog.
Main hip adductors
Adductor magnus, brevis, longus – together these muscles adduct and laterally rotate the hip. Any standing postures that use the adductors as stabilisers will strengthen this group. For example intense side stretch. Bound angle pose and happy baby will facilitate stretching.
Gracilis – a slender muscle running on the inside of the thigh. Postures as above for adductor magnus, brevis and longus will strengthen and stretch.
Pectineus – A small muscle sandwiched between the psoas major and adductor longus. Also strengthened in pyramid pose and any standing pose using the adductors to stabilize. Bound angle pose, happy baby and any wide legged standing or seated poses will stretch the Pectineus.
Deep Hip outward rotator
Piriformis – Largest of the six outward rotators. Can often be responsible for the impingement of the sciatic nerve.
Quadratus femoris – very close to the sit bones.
Asanas that strengthen the deep hip outward rotators include half moon pose, goddess pose, lotus, bound angle pose and tree. Seated twist variations and pigeon pose are ideal to stretch this muscle group.
Hip inward rotator
Gluteus medius & minimus
Tensor fasicae latae
Semitendinosus, semimembranosus – Muscles of the quadriceps
All of these muscles have other primary actions already discussed. Inward rotators can be strengthened in reclined hero pose, standing forward folds. Goddess pose, lotus and bound angle pose can be used for stretching applications.
Bound angle pose – great for hip mobility.
What do we understand energetically about the hip joint?
As Yoga teachers we recognise that the hips store a great deal of emotional tension. The first two chakras are located in the lower hip region. Muladhara or root chakra is located at the base of the spine. If this is in harmony we feel safe, secure and grounded. The second chakra is located in the lower pelvic floor area. Svadhisitana or sacral chakra is linked to sexuality, desire, pleasure and procreation. If you are struggling to let go and let things flow you might have noticed resistance in deep hip opening postures.
Fear of the future, an avoidance of dealing with past issues are said to be stored to the back of the hips. Tight psoas and hip flexors may indicate a hesitancy to face the future. If Glutes won’t release it could reflect past issues still lingering.
No surprise, the hips also relate to romantic relationships.
For women who have recently given birth the hip area can take quite some time to recover. Due to the hormone Relaxin, natural birth or caesarian, all contribute to physical and energetic changes in a women’s body.
The psoas muscle is also directly related to the body’s natural fight or flight response. Any immediate or prolonged trauma causes this muscle to tighten. Which can cause disruptions in both the physical and emotional bodies.
Frog pose – an advanced posture for the hip joint.
Putting it all together
Yoga is often purely a physical practice for many students. Others come to it with the intention and awareness of more energetic principles. Teachers seldom have enough time with their students to identify every alignment issue.
Be mindful of the anatomical principles, which muscles work in which postures. This will help you better understand what you are strengthening and what you are stretching. Remembering that no two bodies are alike, physically or emotionally.
Some days the hips are accommodating and other days reluctant. Whether this is related to other training modalities or a bad day at the office.
Think intelligently about your sequencing of postures, offer modifications and props wherever possible and most of all be gentle if you use hands on adjustments