This article is specifically directed toward those of us who practice – and especially teach – yoga asana. So much is written about how to “open the hips”. Is that really what we want to be doing? The balance of stability and mobility is different for every person, and since “support” needs to precede any kind of action or opening, perhaps we need to be looking at integrity in the hip joints. Using a paradigm that is based not on increasing flexibility, but instead on increasing ease and comfort, needs to be looked at more carefully by all of us in the yoga community. What is flexibility anyway? What is tightness, for that matter?
This post is not an essay, but notes that I have prepared for a workshop I am teaching on the hip joints. I hope they might be interesting or even helpful for you. I do not include specific asana techniques in this post, but rather the philosophy of how we might move differently move. Being old school, I still think that asana should be taught in person…
Anatomy of the Hip Joints
- Head of the femur
- Articular cartilage
- Synovial membranes
- Synovial fluid
- Joint capsule
Stability and Range of Motion—Support Precedes Action
The direction movements of the hip joints are usually very specifically delineated. They are: flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, internal rotation, and external rotation. But rarely, in life are any of those individual movements made without at least traces of some of the others. The hip is a ball and socket joint with the possibility of a great range of motion. Movement doesn’t actually ascribe to the linear think of our anatomical analysis. Really, the joint moves pretty much any direction it wants, within its specific range of motion, which is highly variable from individual to individual. Most healthy motion in the joint needs to involve both bones – the ball and the socket – so that they are working in harmony to create the desired movement expression. As with any other movement, support needs to precede action at the joint. Support is a process that involves both bones working together to give the joint the stability that it needs to move with health.
Healthy Movement in the Hip Joints—at Level of Bone
- Weight and forces are transferred through the bones and joints (and the neighboring bones and joints) – without shearing forces across the joints and/or off the body.
- Each joint has its specific balance of stability and mobility and articulates appropriately along the movement continuum with the neighboring joints.
- The ball and socket do not touch because the forces flowing in and around the hip joints do not compress at the joint.
- The acetabulum and the femur head are suspended in relationship and away from one another by the fascial network surrounding them
- In any movement of the hip joint and the head of the femur need to be working in harmony.
Terms to know:
- The femur “rotates” in the hip socket.
- The pelvic half “excursions” around the top of the femur.
Examples of Pelvic Half and Femur Moving in Supportive Ways to Keep Undue Pressure out of the Hip joints:
- If the femur is flexing (forward bending) on the pelvic half – the pelvic half curls slightly to cup and stabilizes the head of the femur in the direction that the femur is moving. (Buttock bone toward the second toe ball).
- If the femur is extending (back bending) on the pelvic half – the pelvic half opens with it slightly to stabilize in the direction of the moving femur (buttock bone toward (tethered to) the second toe ball).
- If the pelvic half is flexing on the femur head – the femur head stabilizes in the direction of the moving pelvic half (toward flexion).
- If the pelvic half is extending on the femur head – the femur head stabilizes in the direction of the moving pelvic half (toward extension).
What Goes Wrong in the Hips
- Torquing at the joint
- Hinging motions at the joint
- Over lengthening of the ligaments – laxness and collapse due to excessive stretching
- Hardening and/or restriction of the ligaments
- Compression of bone’s articular surfaces on one another due to muscular and ligamentous restriction or laxness and collapse around the joint
- Repetitive movement that cause the bone to come into contact with its partner bone, wearing away the articular cartilage, creating bone spurs, and eventually leading to bone on bone.
- Acute injury or trauma
Images Above: Healthy Hip / Damaged Hip Joint / Example Unhealthy Flow of Force in a Joint
Most of the common problems listed above result primarily from improper weight bearing and transference of forces through and around the joints…and the into the whole body. Taking all of the weight and force of lower body movement in the joints is always going to be a problem.
It cannot be over emphasized that joint safety and comfort is the result of healthy prana flow. This is especially evident in the major joints, like shoulders, hips, SI, and spine. The main pathways of prana in the body are through the fascial system. Fascia is distributing weight and force through its entire thick three-dimensional web all the time. That includes the hip region and its joints, the entire leg and torso…everything, all the way through the whole body. Fascia is not discrete to the joint. In fact, in health, it supports and integrates joint structure and function by distributing forces through and away from them. Turning our awareness to the fascial web will help us to relieve a great deal of the pressure we have been needlessly applying to our hip structures in our yoga practice.
Fascial Support of Hip Movement
The term anatomy may not any longer be the most useful way to look at the structural aspect of the human body. Anatomy derives from the Greek: “ana”–up and “tomia”–cutting. In fact, anatomy in the western world has been primarily based on cutting things up. In the Newtonian mechanistic age this made good sense. Our cutting up of the human body paved the way for a lot of insight into structure. However, it may be time to go deeper.
It may be time to look at function and structure as a single event, rather than two separate entities. Function isn’t exactly a “thing”. It is more like the intelligence of the structure. Through yoga philosophy – and our direct experience – we find awareness and intelligence as the underlying basis of both function and structure. We find we are observing – and embodying – a highly intelligent and creative event: our own bodies. Adding intelligence and unification to the list of qualities that we find in our physical bodies opens the door to an altered perception of movement and support. The new research into the integrating role of fascia in the body is a window into a direct experience of the supportive weave of intelligence, function, and structure that integrates body-mind-spirit.
For the purposes of this workshop let’s consider how much importance we should place on one aspect of our hip structures—our old favorites: bones and muscles. The thought that bones are levers that flex and extend on one another to move us through space is not as accurate at it may seem. There is important ongoing study now into the nature of the fascial weave of human structure and how bones behave more like spacers and struts within the fascial weave than they do as levers for transmitting force. Read “Embodied Tensegrity, Fascia, and Yoga” on the Embodyoga® Blog.
Just the term “lever” is disruptive to natural human movement. What we believe has a lot to do with how we move. Believing that our bones and muscles create a lever system that moves us through space, profoundly limits how we actually move, and how we experience ourselves in movement. A lever is a simple machine. It’s “a rigid bar resting on a pivot point (a fulcrum), used to help move a heavy or firmly fixed load with one end when pressure is applied to the other”.
Movement in the human body is not based on levers. It is based on a much more inclusive and all-encompassing weave of structure and support. The weave is primarily composed of connective tissue, and for our purposes in movement, is mainly fascia. Fascia is a multidirectional weave of varying densities of connective tissues that is continuous throughout the whole body. It is our primary structural support, is highly intelligent, and communicates with the entire body at once, nearly immediately.
In terms of yoga asana, it is important that we turn our gaze to how fascia integrates movement through the major joints in the body. Although, many reliable and intelligent people are proposing particular musculoskeletal actions to maintain space and keep the health of our major joints, unfortunately it isn’t working as well as we may have hoped. Part of alignment is designed to keep space in the joints. However, it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to actually keep space in the joints in an active and moving asana practice by attending primarily to the bones and muscles. Your mind isn’t fast enough. Your body needs to find a way to do this more or less spontaneously based on the experience of life force flow – in the fluids – in the fascial body.
One of the major problems in our thinking has been perceiving the body to be in some way mechanistic. Our joints are not hinges. Even the so called “hinge joints” are not hinges. If we can use our imagination to alter the erroneous preconceptions that we have made about movement we can alter and repair our perceptions rather quickly.
See the continuity of the structural weave of the sea sponge? Imagine a brighter and lighter weave. That is something like the fascia that integrates all the way through the pelvic half, hip joint region, and through the leg. The image next to the seas sponge is endomysium – the fascia within muscle. The third picture shows the moistness and connectivity of alive fascia.
The concept of flexibility definitely comes into play here. Perhaps our definition of flexibility needs to change. Does being flexible mean that by hook or by crook you can put yourself into progressively more challenging yoga posture shapes? Are we perhaps calling something “flexible” that may detrimental to organic prana flow and joint health? Maybe a new definition of flexibility could have more to do with resilience mixed with soft, responsive strength. Maybe flexibility is a unified state of body, mind, and consciousness that fully penetrates every aspect of who you are at all times, making asana practice a celebration of that. Maybe flexibility even involves giving up the desire for more and more range of motion.
Many yoga teachers and serious practitioners have approached this way of thinking about yoga asana, but few have been willing to really give up the ill-advised search for increasing flexibility. Flexibility—as it is commonly perceived—is so far overrated as to be detrimental to our health and vitality. The just right range of motion for your body and your life is important.
Excessive restriction and rigidity is not the answer. Plenty of people need more range of motion in certain areas. But even in those cases, the goal might better be perceived as increasing resilience, suppleness, and responsiveness. Serious attention needs to be paid to avoiding putting the onus of the releasing of restriction too close to the joint itself. The complex of all the tissues surrounding the hip need to addressed every time. Muscle is important, but muscle is really just a tool of the fascia. We are actually looking for the integration of movement and life force through the whole body. If a movement in and around a single joint, cuts off the connection and flow of life force to the rest of the body, it very likely isn’t helpful. Focusing on “hip opening” for example may be helpful. But it also may do nothing to promote over all integration and in the worst cases—which unfortunately are way too common—it may encourage the very kinds of movement that eventually seriously damage the hip joints.
These are some of the principles that need to be explored when we address our hips in our yoga practice. Joint problems are common obstacles to the flow of forces, but they also became the problem in the first place because movement and the flow of prana were fragmented and out of balance. It really isn’t enough to simply “not go too far” in a yoga posture. How you go matters. Yoga is deep work…and that’s the good news.