What is it about Pigeon Pose that can make a grown man cry in yoga class? Why is it that we dread Frog Pose or Spread Leg Forward Bend so much? I remember hearing the instructor say to focus on your breath, but it is impossible to breathe when the pain and tension coming from your hips is excruciating and all I want to do is scream bloody blue murder.
I remember looking at this girl in class years ago as she was lying with her belly on the floor in Spread Leg Forward Bend with a small smile on her face – she looked so content. I was in awe, and my first thought was to wonder how the hell she could do that! I would never get my belly on the floor, let alone look happy doing it. But, now I can. It took me 12 years to be able to put my belly on the floor and it was a long, painful process. I was 28 when I seriously started practicing yoga and I couldn’t touch my toes. Hell, I was lucky if I could touch my shins. There were no classes in Whistler in 1998, so I practiced at home to my Bryan Kest videos, and in every one, we had to do Pigeon. I remember I dreaded this posture and the discomfort that would come with it. Then, a few years later, I attended a Bryan Kest workshop and on the first day, we spent over 20 minutes in Pigeon ON EACH SIDE! To this day I remember my breakthrough point, when the posture actually became a meditation. I stopped fighting the resistance and actually let go, and with that I started sobbing. But, I was not the only one there, and among 150 people in the workshop, most of us were crying. This is when my self, and my yoga practices, totally shifted. It wasn’t just about the physical practice any more or the “workout.” What I realized was, it was about everything in my life. Everything that had ever happened to me, and all the crap I was holding on to, was stored in my body, and 90 per cent of it was stored in my hips. So, I went on a quest to clear out the crap . . . I went on a hippoway!
A hippoway is the part of your yoga path that you might not even know you are on – it’s when you become obsessed with hip openers. Yup, you become that crazy yoga student who asks for them at the beginning of class and all the other students roll their eyes and think: Did she just ask for hip openers? When I started my hippoway, I did some research on the physical body because I wanted to know why it was killing me to do these postures and what the actual physical benefits of open hips were, other than the fluff, fluff stuff I had heard in yoga class (yup, there is a lot of fluff in yoga). I wanted the facts, so I researched the hips. Here is what I found, in a nutshell.
The hips are the largest joint in the body. Go figure, they connect your upper and lower body. They also contain the largest muscle in the body, the gluteus maximus, yup your ass. And other than looking good in a pair of jeans, your butt actually does have a very important role in how your body functions, as it connects everything to your back! Yup, way more important than just looking good in your jeans. The hips are also the connectors to the largest bones in your body, your femurs, as the head of each femur fits into each hip socket.
So, if you like to run, ski, or do any high impact sports, the years of repeated pounding of the femur in the hip socket can cause some trauma. Think about this one! Osteoarthritis is the disorder in which the cartilage in the joints of the body gradually breaks down, allowing the surfaces of the bones to rub directly and wear against each other. This causes swelling, pain, inflammation, and increasing loss of mobility. In the US only, there are between 200,000 and 300,000 hip replacement operations performed each year, and they are usually on patients over the age of 60. However, in the past five years, the increase in hip replacements for people under the age of 50 has jumped. So, great, you wear out your hip and get a new one! Cool, right? Wrong, the hip replacement only lasts about ten years before you have to get it done again. And, you can only have two replacements in your lifetime. So, the bottom line is, if you have one at 50 and then another at 60, by the time you’re 70, you are basically screwed and in a lot of pain! Not to mention that hip replacements don’t actually work as well as your original hip and the amount of pain and discomfort that comes prior to the operation and after is pretty intense and seriously affects the quality of your life!
My Top Five Hip Openers
Pigeon: From down dog, sweep right shin toward the front of the mat, right knee toward right wrist and right ankle toward left wrist. (If right hip is elevated, set a rolled blanket or firm pillow underneath it). Crawl hands forward, bring your chest forward and lengthen your upper body. When you have reached your edge, place your head on the ground (or prop head up with soft blocks or blankets), and breathe here for 30 deep breaths. Repeat on left side.
Frog: Double fold the edges of your matt in towards the centre and then come to all fours. Place each knee on the double fold, keeping your knees and ankles in alignment, feet flexed upwards (like a frog) Slowly allow knees to slide, or wiggle them away from your body, as you lower hips and then chest towards the mat. Make a pillow with hands for head (or use a block). Allow hips to sink to wherever is still comfortable and breathe there for 30 deep breaths.
Reclined Cow Face Pose: ** I love this one! It gets missed a lot in classes, but it is killer** Lie on back and cross right knee over left, winging feet out to the sides slightly. Take hold of right foot with left hand and left foot with right hand. Keeping knees stacked, direct feet with hands, moving in the direction of getting shins into one long line. Bend elbows and flex feet, pulling your feet towards the floor. Keep your chin tucked in and the back of your neck flat on the floor. Breathe here for 30 breaths, then repeat on other side.
Lizard: From down dog, lift right leg high to down dog split, open hip, bend knee, and step right foot outside of right hand. Tap left knee to the ground and, if it feels good, gently lower forearms to the ground. Breathe here for 15 deep breaths, then repeat on left side.
Seated Wide-Legged Forward Bend: Sit up tall and open legs wide to sides until there’s a little tension, but not so much that it is uncomfortable. If you’re just beginning, you might need to use a block/towel under your butt so that you are sitting up straight. Walk hands forward between legs, keeping torso straight and upright, and bringing your chest forward (don’t round your back) . Stay here for 30 long, deep breaths.
What is super cool about the hip joint is that it’s totally unique, not only in size, but in function as well. Did you know that our beloved hips can move in six different ways to provide movement, strength and stability? They also contain over 20 muscles, plus all the ligaments and connective tissue. The best part is that they are huge protectors. Just like our rib cage protects our heart, the hip joints protect delicate internal organs in the pelvic area, such as the intestines, bladder, and uterus. So, based on the fact that our hips are the biggest and most badass parts of our body, logic would dictate that we should take care of them. The physical benefits of having flexible hips are basically this: if all those muscles are longer when you strengthen them, you have more overall strength to do all the crazy, fun things you want to do. Plus, if you have more range of motion in the centre of your body, it will make everything, from picking something up off the floor to doing Wheel Pose, so much easier. The added bonus is that your hips will take the load off of your back and spine and then guess what, no more back pain!
Now, there is all the other stuff that goes with the hips. Yup, the emotional crap. Believe it or not, any emotional or spiritual trauma gets stored in our physical body, so the hips are a huge storage ground for negative feelings related to control in our lives. They are the biggest and most badass place to hold stress and tension. Of course they are! They protect our most sacred pelvic organs, especially for women, with our reproductive organs. So any sexual violation, frustration or inadequacies will be stored in the hips. There can be years and years of emotional crap stockpiled here, that is why when you hold hip openers for a long period of time you can be overwhelmed with feelings of rage, anger, grief, panic and sadness. That is also why so many people end up in tears during pigeon pose. And, that is the point of the hippoway . . . get it out! When you release all the pent up emotions, tension and frustration in this area you give the body the freedom to express it in a different way. You not only physically move differently, your energy changes. Because you are not using all of your energy to protect and store the negative things that don’t serve you. You have all this new and free energy to express yourself more uniquely in creative, physical, sexual and spiritual ways.
In North America, we are so worried about getting cancer or having a heart attack. Yes, it is true that if our heart does not pump, we die. Well the truth is, if we don’t look after our hips, we don’t move, and in truth, if you speak with anyone who has experienced hip or lower back pain, they will tell you that they had wished they were dead at times. The hippoway is part of any person’s yoga journey, just as hip openers are a part of every yoga class. The hippoway is impossible to avoid. The key is in the choice; you can either dread the hip openers or embrace them. The journey is intense, but with patience and persistence, I can guarantee you that someday you will smile when your belly lies on the floor in Spread Leg Forward Bend. I can also say that you will live a long life with your body, hips and back free of discomfort. But, there is an extra, hidden bonus in having open hips . . . great sex! So, if that doesn’t motivate you . . . nothing will!