Friday, July 1, 2011

Hip Opening, Part I: Standing Postures

A few days ago, I promised a couple of people in the cybershala (you know who you are :-)) that I will write a post on how to open the hips in order to help get into the Marichyasanas (specifically, Mari B and D). Well, it's easy enough to make promises; keeping them is another matter altogether! As I started to think about how to write this post over the last couple of days, I realized that there is so much that can be said about hip-opening, I had a hard time even deciding how to get started! (Moral of the story: Thou shalt not make promises lightly.) But since I said I was going to write such a post, I will write it to the best of my ability. Even though I am not a medical professional or body worker or authorized Ashtanga teacher, I will do my best here to share whatever I know and have experienced with hip-opening with you. If any of you out there have more things to share and contribute, please chime in. 

Generally, the things that one can do to promote hip-opening can be broadly divided into three categories: (1) Specific postures within the practice, (2) Things you can do outside the practice, and (3) Things to be aware of while you are practicing.

In this post, I will only talk about (1). In a subsequent post, I will go on to talk about (2) and (3).

1. Specific Postures within the practice

1.1. Standing Postures

You might be thinking: Hey! I asked you about how to get into the Marichyasanas. What do standing postures have to do with this? But everything is connected in Ashtanga. What comes earlier opens the way for what comes later. David Williams once said that the Ashtanga Primary Series is like a combination lock: You need to work through and gain a certain level of proficiency in the postures that come earlier in the sequence in order to "unlock" or open up your body for the subsequent postures. Nowhere is this more true than in the standing postures. There are good reasons why the standing postures come first in Ashtanga. They give us a safe and effective way to warm up and open the body for the postures of the primary series. This is especially so because in standing postures like standing forward bends, gravity is on our side: We can use gravity to give us the additional impetus to get a bit deeper into the posture. In addition, because one has to do these postures while maintaining balance, there are natural limits to how far one can push oneself. In this way, the necessity of maintaining balance serves as a safeguard and protects one from the temptation of excessive pushing that often occurs with seated postures, leading to injury.

For these reasons, the standing postures present great opportunities to open the hips safely and effectively. The following postures are particularly useful for hip-opening, in my opinion:

1.1.1. Utthita Trikonasana

[Image taken from]
This is a good hip-opener. It is particularly useful for getting into those deep hip muscles (I don't know what they are called; my anatomy is not so good :-)) that are located near the hamstring attachments. If you have ever had an audible and pleasant "pop" sensation while going into Trikonasana, you'll know what I'm talking about.

Among beginners, there is sometimes a tendency to allow the hip of the back leg to collapse inwards while getting into the posture. To resist this tendency, think about drawing the back hip towards the back of the room as you extend your arm forward. Notice that I said "forward", not "down". If you are too preoccupied with reaching down and grabbing that big toe at any cost, you end up collapsing the back hip, which means that you will not get the optimal hip-opening that you can otherwise get out of this pose. Try as far as possible to reach the arm forward, not down: It will go down and find the toe on its own when it can't go forward anymore :-)

If the hand is unable to reach the big toe with the front knee extended, it is okay to bend that knee a little.

It is also worth noting that the Iyengar tradition has a slightly different Trikonasana from Ashtanga. Consider the following picture of Mr. Iyengar in Trikonasana:
[Image taken from here]

Notice that Mr. Iyengar's feet are further apart than Arjuna's above. His hand is also on the ground rather than gripping his toes. In my experience, when one's feet are further apart, the posture works the hamstrings more. When the feet are closer together, the deep hip muscles tend to be worked more exclusively. At least, this is my experience. If anybody out there has a different experience, please feel free to share. Although it is more common for Ashtanga practitioners to adopt the feet-closer-together version that Arjuna demonstrates, I personally do not think that one is better or "superior" to the other; they are just different, and fulfill different functions. 

1.1.2 Utthita Parsvokonasana

Nicki Doane in Utthita Parsvakonasana
[Image taken from here]

Utthita Parsvakonasana is quite possibly the single most powerful hip-opener in the standing sequence. It's all about external rotation and grounding through the feet, especially the foot of the extended leg. A few things to take note of here:

(1) Avoid collapsing the knee of the bent leg. Keep the knee in line with the second toe, and directly over the heel.

(2) Try not to let the hip of the extended leg collapse inwards. To prevent this, consciously externally rotate the thigh of the extended leg; in other words, rotate the thigh away from the ground. Resist the pull of gravity, which acts to pull the thigh towards the ground.

(3) Plant the foot of the extended leg (especially the outer edge of the foot) firmly into the ground. The tension generated by this action and (2) will externally rotate your hip, giving you a nice hip opening.

(4) Do not let your upper body simply sag and collapse onto your legs. Consciously extend your upper body, forming a straight line all the way from your left heel to the finger-tips of your left hand.

1.1.3 Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana

[Image taken from]

This is a very good hip-opening posture. Because you are getting into half-lotus from standing, you have gravity to help you; which serves as a good preparation for the seated half-lotus postures in the Primary Series.

In my experience, the safest way to get into half-lotus in this posture is to first close the knee joint. Here's how. Suppose you are doing the first side, and you are trying to get into a right half-lotus. Bend your right knee, lift the right foot off the ground. Then bring the right heel to touch the bottom of the right thigh (it's as if you are going into Marichyasana A, except you're standing). Now slowly bring the right foot into the left hip crease. This should bring you into the half-lotus. Depending on how open your hips presently are, you may or may not be able to bring your right foot fully into the left hip crease. It's okay one way or the other: Do not push or try to "yank" your foot into the hip crease. This is too early in the game to be blowing your knees out. Your knee is the boss here. Sometimes, if you just bring your foot to the maximum place where it can rest on the hip crease without pain or discomfort, and stay there and breath for a few breaths, you will find that your hip will actually open up a bit more, which will allow you to naturally get deeper into the posture. Moral of the story: Breath, don't force.

Once your foot is as deep in the hip crease as it can be, you can then try to grab your right big toe with your right hand, and go into the forward bend. If you can't grab your right big toe, it is also okay to simply bring both hands to the ground as you fold forward. 

If all this sounds like a very slow and painstaking way to get into Ardha Baddha Padmottosana, it is. But better painstaking than painful, wouldn't you say? :-)

1.1.4 Virabhadrasana I and II

[Image taken from]

[Image taken from]

Although these are two different postures, I believe that there are enough similarities between them to talk about them together.Here are a couple of useful things:

(1) As with Utthita Parsvakonasana, avoid collapsing the knee of the bent leg. Keep the knee in line with the second toe, and directly over the heel.

(2) Fully extend the extended leg, and firmly plant the foot of the extended leg (especially the outer edge of the foot) into the ground.  

Gosh, I've written so much, and I'm not even done with (1): I've only covered the standing postures so far! Well, I think I'm going to take a break here: The seated postures will have to wait for Part II. Stay tuned. Again, I should remind you that all this is just my very non-expert opinion, gathered from my years of practice. If you have anything you'll like to add or share, I'll love to hear from you.


  1. I *live* for the hip pop in Trikonasana, it's so satisfying! :D For Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana I like to stand with my foot in half lotus for a breath or two, pressing on the bent knee to stretch out the hip before folding forward. Not that it helps or anything I just like the sensation of stretching it out :)

    I personally find Warrior II to be a deeper hip opener than Warrior I, possibly because the body is in a similar position as Utthita Parsvokonasana. Looking forward to Part II!

  2. thank you Nobel, superstar you are - very kind of you. but also very helpful.
    i now have to work hard on getting my practice up to mari B as good as possible and work on the hip opening to be able to move forward. my knees are a tiny bit painful and as you said, it is not worth blowing them this early in the practice (if ever ;-)) and i want to make sure i am playing safe. again, thank you for your help - much appreciated and i am looking forward to part 2 & 3 ;-) ~ivana~

  3. Thanks for the excellent post. Some advice I obtained from Gregor Maehle's book is that one is ready to bend forward in Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana when they're able to perform the bind; i.e. comfortably grasp the big toe of the bound foot. I have a tendency to introduce new strains in my body even when I'm trying to be conservative, and I've found this advice helpful for maintaining joint stability and counteracting the tendency to overexert. To initially close the knee joint---as if taking a kind of standing Marichyasana A---is, I think, also great advice.

  4. Thank you so much for this post! I needed some good advice on opening the hips safely as I have some lcl damage on my left knee from judo. I am very much looking forward to you're next posts in this series!
    Thank you so much for this post! I needed some good advice on opening the hips safely as I have some lcl damage on my left knee from judo. I am very much looking forward to you're next posts in this series!

  5. oh, and i forgot to say, you write very clearly. i would pick you as my teacher any day ;-) ivana

  6. savasanaaddict, yes, that popping sensation in Trikonasana is indeed wonderful; a yoga teacher friend once described it as "music to her ears." :-) It seems that you like the sensation of your hips slowly opening in the various postures; I do too :-)

    Thanks, Ivana. It is very flattering and humbling of you to call me a superstar :-) There is something about having gone through a PhD program that drills into me the practice of taking great pains to write as clearly as possible all the time; you can almost say that I'm compulsive about it :-) Thank you for thinking I'm a great teacher too :-)

  7. Thanks for your input, John. Different teachers seem to have different opinions about whether one should fold forward if one is unable to bind. Gregor Maehle (and a number of other teachers) seem to belong to the "No bind, no fold" school of thought. But others (including David Williams, if I remember correctly) seem to think that it is okay to fold forward even if one is as yet unable to bind. Don't be too hard on yourself about your tendency to overexert; I think that recognizing this tendency is in itself a big step to working productively with it :-) (I have this tendency too)

  8. Thanks Davidn1978! I am also a former martial artist: I practiced Tae-Kwon-Do when I was younger (i.e. teens to early twenties), and I think that at least some of the instability in my knees can be attributed to some reckless things I did back in my TKD days. But I really believe that if we work gradually and steadily with the mind and body, we will heal.

  9. Thanks dude :) my hips are way too stiff at the mo, so this comes in handy!

  10. Thanks yoginicory :-) May your hips open most powerfully with your practice (do your practice, and all is coming...).