In this post, yoga instructor Sarah Ezrin answers a reader’s questions about hip pain.
Q: When I do child's pose or Bikram's wind removing pose, I get a very uncomfortable, pinching sensation in my hip joints. While my Bikram instructors tell me that it's to be expected, it keeps me from truly being able to relax. Am I doing something wrong? Is this something that will get better over time? Is there anything I can do to reduce or eliminate the sensation? What exactly is causing that sensation, anyway? -Elaine
A: It sounds to me like this is our old "friends" the psoas and iliacus. I use the term "friends" jokingly here, as these are notoriously tight muscles for those of us in the West, as we spend most of our days sitting, whether at desks or in the car commuting. The psoas and iliacus are the primary hip flexors and their function is to lift your leg in toward your chest. They are sometimes collectively referred to as the iliopsoas.
The first thing I want you to become aware of is your natural standing posture. Do you tend to arch your low back, allowing your low belly to (for lack of a better word!) pooch out a bit? By engaging your abdominals while releasing your tailbone towards the floor, you will help take pressure off these already overworked muscles. Next, in the two specific poses you mentioned, I recommend taking a rolled-up hand towel and placing it in the hip joint to create more space when you fold forward. You can use a rolled up blanket if a towel is not big enough.
A great pose to stretch the back leg muscles is Lizard Pose, or Utthan Pristhasana. To get into this posture, come into a low lunge, ensuring the front knee is tracking over the front ankle. Bring the heel of the front foot an inch or two to the outside of the mat. Place both hands to the inside of the front leg. Next, slide your back knee behind you so that the knee cap is behind the hip; the thigh bone should be in a diagonal from the hip to the knee. Untuck the back toes so that the top of the foot is down. If it's available, you can come down onto your forearms or a block to deepen the lung; then begin to lengthen the pubic bone toward the navel, extending your heart to the front of the room. Hold for ten deep breaths, switch and repeat.
In yoga, we should be working hard (this is how we build heat and create space), but never pushing so far that we risk injury. We yogis call it "tapas": purification through fire. However, the overarching principle above "tapas" is "ahimsa." Ahimsa means doing no harm. It is a very fine line we straddle, especially those of us who have more rajasic practices such as Ashtanga, Power Yoga, and Bikram. But this is where we refine our yoga: Can we practice strongly, but softly, as well? Can we push ourselves, but not beyond the limit of no return? Can we leave enough space so that we actually have room to grow and go deeper? Backing off is sometimes how one can end up going deeper in the long run. Because our bodies are like everything else, they do not respond to force. Yet if we are patient and loving and compassionate, they open up like a lotus flower and we take our practices to a whole new level.
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga instructor from Santa Monica, California who teaches at Bryan Kest's Power Yoga studio, as well as a few other top studios and gyms around the Los Angeles region. Her daily practice is Ashtanga yoga and she feels strongly that our mats are a microcosm for our greater lives. When we learn how to cope in our practice, we can learn how to better deal with stressors in our lives.