Hip Openers: The What, Where, Why, and How

Hip Openers: The What, Where, Why, and How

In the yoga asana practice we often talk about a category of stretching poses called “Hip Openers.” They don’t refer to the area where you “put your hands on your hips,” but target the groups of muscles surrounding the hip joints. 

The Hips include the Gluteal muscles (Gluteus maximus, Gluteus medius, and Gluteus minimus), the Piriformis and deeper hip muscles, and the Hip Flexors (psoas, tensor fascia latae, and rectus femoris). The top of the IT band can also sometimes be considered part of the Hips. Hip muscles (depending on which they are) Extend the hips (bring the thigh behind the pelvis), Flex the hips (bring the thigh in front of the pelvis), Rotate the thigh, and Abduct the thigh (move the thigh away from your midline). Notice the opposite of these actions in the photos below; we stretch by moving the muscle in the opposite direction of its action. For example, muscles that flex the hip will stretch when put into extension.

Common Hip Opener Yoga Poses:

Pigeon Pose (variation)
Pigeon Pose (variation)
Half-Seated Spinal Twist
Ankle to Knee Pose
Standing Figure Four
Cow Face Pose
Low Lunge

Bound Angle (variation)

Each of these poses addresses a different aspect of the hips, creating ease in the muscles, and less restriction in the joint. This often creates less discomfort as well.

When the Hips Feel Tight

Tension in the muscles that make up the “Hips” can be caused by many things: sitting for too long, driving, walking, running, biking, golf, many types of sports, especially when you don’t stretch after your activity. Over time, these muscles are constantly contracted (when they are used) and not moving in the opposite direction. Stretching creates an oppositional movement to the contraction to extend the muscle and return it back to its relaxed state.

Poses that Target the Hip Extenders

The first 5 photos and the last photo above target different aspects of the Hip Extenders (Glutes, Piriformis, etc). By creating flexion in the hip joint (hinging forward, thigh in front of the pelvis), you are stretching the muscles that create hip extension (thigh moving backward). Because the Hip Extenders also have secondary actions (ab/adduction, rotation) each pose will target a different muscle. For example, adding adduction to hip flexion (hinging forward while moving the thigh toward the midline) like in Cow Face pose, you target the Gluteal muscles as well as the Piriformis, because these muscles extend and abduct the hip joint.

Poses that Target the Hip Flexors

The 6th pose above, Low Lunge, targets the Hip Flexors, because the hip of the back leg is in extension. This pose targets the Iliopsoas group (Iliacus and Psoas). Hip flexion is the action of bringing the thigh forward or toward the chest; prolonged sitting or driving causes these muscles to contract, although passively. When you try to stand up again (extending the hip), you feel the tension in this muscle group from it being contracted/flexed for so long. Regular stretching of these muscles will help you feel better after you’ve been sitting or driving for long periods of time.

Things to think about with hip openers

When stretching the various hip muscles, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

  • Never stretch when your body is cold. Always move your body first. Imagine a rubber band that has been in the freezer. If you try to stretch it, it will break. A rubber band stretches much better warm or at room temperature. The same goes for your muscles. Go for a walk to do some gentle yoga before you stretch to warm up the body. Even walking up and down the stairs a few times will warm up the muscles.
  • You want to feel a diffuse, pleasant sensation when stretching. As you breathe and the muscle relaxes, the intensity of the sensation will lessen.
  • If you feel a sharp sensation, your body is telling you to back off of the stretch, and either come into it more gently, or adjust your position. Sharp pain = don’t do what you are doing.
  • Hip Extenders stretch by hinging at the hips, so working with a flat back (straight spine) will target your hips. Once you start rounding the spine, you are now getting into more of a lower back stretch. You can do these two actions simultaneously, but hinge first, then round.
  • Never force a stretch. The body is like a rebellious teenager, if you force it, it will push back (and often end in injury). Instead, move your body to the edge of discomfort (that pleasant, vague sensation) and breathe. As the sensation lessens over time, you can then relax deeper into the pose. 
  • Breath is your friend when you are stretching. Relaxation is the physiological response to an exhale. The longer you exhale, the more time you have for your body to relax into the stretch. Try to inhale and exhale through the nose.
  • Rather than holding your stretch for a certain number of seconds, try holding it for a certain number of breaths (5-10 is plenty). Focusing on your breathing keeps you connected to what is happening in your body, tuning into the sensations. Your body will know when you have hit your limit; listen to it.

Click here to watch my video guiding you through some basic hip opening poses.

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