Build hip stability for a sustainable practice
Shift your focus from openness to stability.
IN YOGA, THERE IS A tendency to assume that we can stretch our way through perceived problems. Consider the ever-elusive “hip opening.” We aspire to use this practice as a panacea for all our aches and woes. We imagine that open hips will allow us to wrap our legs into fancy postures like Padmasana (Lotus Pose). But it’s possible that at a certain point, the coveted range of motion begins to work against us.
Enter “hypermobility,” a general term that refers to an excessive range of motion in a joint—with a lack of stability
to support that mobility. It may be something you are born with or something you develop through regular stretching. Hypermobility in the hip joint can also stem from weak hip stabilizers—the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and other muscles—from prolonged sitting or decreased activity. This can happen to anyone, especially in the yoga world where we focus so much on long, deep stretches to get that feel-good release.
Consider a classic hip opener like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose). Some people consider it a resting pose, so they continue to seek a deeper stretch in variations or harder modifications. Yet stretching those areas that are already flexible makes hypermobility more pronounced. This may not initially seem like a problem—deeper stretching feels good, and you get the release you crave—but the surrounding cartilage and ligaments also take on the impact of your movements, which can overtax and reduce their strength and stability, diminishing the support that is so key to the integrity of the hip joint.
Instead of pushing deeper into flexible areas, notice spots where you are
tight or weak. Then, look instead for poses to challenge the strength of your hips, thus shifting your focus from hip opening to hip stability. You don’t need to over-analyze this; the only thing required is mindfulness to honor what you feel.
To comprehend the effects of hypermobility on the hip joint, we need a basic understanding of its five main layers, moving from deep to superficial. First, the bony structure of the joint is found where the ball-shaped femoral head fits into its socket, called the pelvic acetabulum. It is surrounded by articular cartilage and a labrum, or lip, made of fibrocartilage and dense connective tissue to help hold the ball in the socket. The joint capsule is a thin, fluid-filled sac surrounding the joint, held by ligaments—those tough but flexible fibers that connect bone to bone. Finally, atop these structures are the many tendons and muscles that affect movements.
Each of the deeper structures of the hip plays an important role in stability. The labrum deepens the socket and makes it more difficult for the femoral head to slip out. It also plays a vital role in decreasing contact stress on the joint and in ensuring lubrication between the femoral head and its socket.
The joint capsule adds another layer of stability, and it secretes a lubricating substance that reduces friction. Meanwhile, the ligaments that surround the hip limit how much the joint can move, preventing dislocation and wear to the deeper layers of cartilage: The ligaments also hold the bones together. However, ligaments aren’t elastic, so once they have been overstretched, they remain that way, and their ability to support the joint is compromised.
Finally, closest to the surface, the many tendons and muscles control the hips’ motions and stabilize them when they are balanced (in terms of strength and flexibility).
These five layers work together. When any one layer is not functioning, the rest have to work harder to pick up the slack. If your ligaments are overly stretched, your muscles must labor to stabilize the joints. And if your muscles are weak or not firing properly, the deeper layers of your ligaments or labrum must compensate by absorbing the impact of your movements.
The trouble is, you can’t always tell when one layer is falling down on the job. The cartilage and ligaments have less sensation and deteriorate over long periods, meaning you may not feel pain or notice any problems until the damage is done. As you get more flexible or “open” in your hips, it becomes even more important to create strength in your hip muscles to help stabilize that mobility.
A good way to practice is by focusing on your standing leg in balancing poses. Gluteus medius and minimus are critical for hip stability any time you stand upright. These muscles help to position the femoral head in the hip socket—to keep you from sinking into, and wearing down, the labrum, cartilage, and ligaments. A pose like Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) is a challenging opportunity to practice using the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus in order to stabilize the hip of your standing leg and strengthen those muscles so that they support you in all of your standing poses.
Story originally published in August 2015.