Once you’ve spent enough time studying the body and movement, you begin to develop refined anatomical eyes that can see patterns in the way people move that they can’t sense in themselves. One of these patterns that I see is that yogis tend to move where it’s already easy for their bodies to move while avoiding the work required where true positive change is needed. This is a complex issue that has partly to do with the alignment we choose for our poses. But another factor is a surprising sensory disconnect between what we feel is happening in our body and what is actually happening (also known as poor proprioception), combined with a widespread notion that going “deeper” into our poses is better or more “advanced”.
In our continuing effort to update our beloved yoga practice with modern-day biomechanics knowledge (the science of how the body moves), let’s examine how we can improve one specific body awareness issue that applies to many different yoga poses.
MOVING FROM THE HIPS VS. THE SPINE
Due to our sitting-based lifestyles, the overwhelming majority of us have tight, locked up hips. (Update February 2016: Although it's commonly believed that sitting makes our hips tight, I realize today that "tight" is a very subjective term that does not have an objective, scientific meaning. Many of use the term "tight" to imply "short", though, as in "sitting shortens the muscles of your hips", but truthfully, we don't actually have evidence to support this claim.) As I’ve written about before, when we don’t move well at one area of our body, we will compensate for that lack of mobility by moving more than we should at an adjacent area of the body, thereby creating too much mobility (a.k.a. hypermobility) in that spot. In the example of our tight hips, the neighboring area that we tend to overuse is our lumbar spine (low back). Hypermobile areas are the sites of pain and injury in many people - is it any wonder that so many of us experience low back pain in our lives?
We spend a lot of time in yoga trying to open our hips, but because it’s so much easier to move from our bendy lumbar spines than our stiff, unyielding hips - and also because of the belief that going “deeper” into our poses is better - we all-too-often bypass the very hip opening we seek by moving from our spine instead. Here’s an easy-to-remember rule: if we want to open our hips when we stretch, we need to move from our hips (the stuck place that needs mobility) and not from our spine (the hypermobile place that needs stability.)
This simple rule can be a challenging one to apply to our practice, though. Most yogis (even very experienced ones) haven’t developed the proprioception necessary to feel the difference between moving from their hips vs. moving from their spine, beyond an obvious example like swan diving forward into uttanasana (forward fold) from standing. Even yogis who consider themselves as having “open hips” because they can put their leg behind their head, drop into full hanumanasana (forward splits), or fold forward into pigeon pose are usually unaware that they’re not actually achieving these shapes by moving primarily at their hips. Instead, they’re moving more from (you guessed it) their lumbar spine, and also quite often at their knee joint (hello knee pain in hip openers!)
SUPTA PADANGUSTHASANA AND MOVEMENT INTEGRITY
But before we worry too much about complex shapes like leg behind the head and hanumanasana, let’s take a look at a relatively simpler shape: supta padangusthasana, or reclined big toe pose. The traditional version of this asana has the yogi hook their big toe with their fingers. Although this is how the pose is commonly taught, in reality if we bind this way, we’ll tuck our pelvis under, which flexes our lumbar spine and turns what we think of as a hamstring-opener into a low back-opener instead. It’s fine to do the pose this way (really, it is!) if your goal is to open your low back, but if you’re interested in stretching your hamstrings (and therefore your hips), you’ll need to ditch the big toe bind and opt for a yoga strap or belt instead.
Many informed yogis already practice this pose with a strap (great job, you!), but even with the help of an excellent prop, most of us still fail to find our optimal hamstring stretch. Remember our foundational rule that we must move from our hips in order to stretch our hips. It sounds like such common sense, but when we’re talking about bodies with ingrained non-optimal movement patterns, our brain doesn’t see things so clearly (poor proprioception). In order to move solely from our hip joint in supta padangusthasana, we simply need to pull our stretching leg in without also moving our pelvis. If the pelvis moved, the spine moved, which means you’re stretching your low back. Make sense?
But how do we know if we’re doing it right? There’s a perfect alignment marker designed just for this purpose that is extremely helpful, yet not well-known in the yoga world. You’ll know that you’ve moved your stretching leg solely at your hip joint if the hamstrings of your opposite leg are on the floor. This is because if you pull your lifted leg past the true edge of your hamstrings’ length, those hamstrings will pull the pelvis into a tuck, which will cause the other leg’s thighbone to lift away from the floor. (Can you picture that?) If a little Hot Wheels car can drive itself underneath your bottom leg’s hamstrings, then you know you need to lower your raised leg down - sometimes a LOT - until those hammies are back on the floor. Don’t be surprised if this means that the new alignment for your pose has your lifted leg only about 45 degrees (or less!) from the floor. Although it might be tough to accept this newly-defined edge for a pose you’ve done so many times before (believe me, I know from personal experience!), learning to reign your poses in to the actual, biomechanical stretch edge of the tissues you’re trying to mobilize is a huge first step toward improving your mind-body connection and therefore your proprioception.
Supta padangusthasana is a great pose to examine in learning to refine hip vs. spinal movement. As poses become more complex like the super bendy ones on display in YouTube clips and Instagram photos these days, the emphasis on “deeper” shapes and how a pose looks takes priority over which tissues in the body we’re mobilizing and for what reasons. Although poses like these are fun, creative, and artful, if our goal in practicing yoga is to cultivate long-term balance and health in the body, the science of biomechanics would tell us that the pursuit of deep, bendy shapes is not the correct means to that goal. In my practice and teaching, yoga is about a focused and humble encounter with one’s own limitations. Once we learn to see and accept our body with clarity and accurate perception, we can begin our path toward movement integrity and wellness.
Related Post: Let's Forget About Hip-Openers
Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop