Focus on Hip Flexors
It’s well known that the typically sedentary lifestyle of the west is a contributing factor to an epidemic of lower back problems. Too much sitting – whether it is at a desk, in a car or in front of the TV – can result in poor posture, the knock-on effect of which I can testify can be completely debilitating. I too have suffered the odd twinge and ignored it only to find myself immobilised on the floor, taking painkillers and wondering whether I will ever be able to walk, let along practice yoga, again.
So if more than two hours a day of sitting is classed by health professionals as “excessive”, can we do anything to counteract this? The answer, thanks to yoga, is an emphatic yes – but don’t think that just because you practise yoga you are automatically given a get out of jail free card.
The key here is the hip flexors, which are a group of muscles in the front of the hip that act to lift the knee and bring the thigh towards the abdomen. The most important muscles making up the hip flexors are the iliacus and the psoas (or iliopsoas).
Most problems with the hip flexors don’t originate in a lack of strength but in a lack of flexibility. If the hips are constantly kept in a fixed position (such as sitting for hours day-in, day-out, punctuated only by a short trip to the water cooler and back) your hip flexors will shorten, limiting your ability to fully extend the hip. Subsequently, if they are short they are tight and pull down on the pelvis, tilting it forward and compressing the lower back.
We yogis often work hard to improve their hamstring flexibility (it feels so good to touch those toes!) but spend less time stretching our hip flexors thus exacerbating the issue. The hamstrings lengthen significantly while the hip flexors improve only slightly. This unequal pull tilts the pelvis further and can cause compression in the lower back. Which is why it’s so important to include hip flexor stretches in your practice, especially if you have a desk-bound job.
This really short sequence can be squeezed into that ten minute window between brushing your teeth and waiting for your other half to finally come to bed (or is that just me?). It will enable you to enjoy a new sense of space in your pelvis and help protect you from compression and pain in your lower back. Stop when you feel the stretch in all of these poses and hold for a few breaths on each side. Don’t force things; you don’t want to overstretch.
Hip Flexor Sequence
- Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Hug your right leg into your chest and stretch your left out along the floor. Swap.
- Bring your feet close to your body and come into bridge for a few breaths (see illustration).
- Roll over onto your front and stretch your quads by bending first your right knee towards your buttocks and taking your right ankle with your right hand. Swap to your left.
- Come up onto all fours and do a few rounds of cat pose, inhaling as you gently arch your back towards the ceiling and exhaling as you arch your back the other way, moving your belly towards the floor.
- Put your right leg in between your hands and come up into a low lunge (Anjaneyansana), being careful your front knee does not overshoot the foot. Lifting your right arm towards the ceiling will increase the stretch on your hip flexors. Repeat on the other side.
- Lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, place your right ankle on the left leg above the knee. Interlace both hands behind your left leg and draw towards your chest until you feel the stretch. Repeat on the other side.
Sometimes a little of what you need is better than a lot of what you don’t.
With thanks to the lovely Tara Fraser for demonstrating Bridge Pose, taken from The Easy Yoga Workbook.