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The Hip Joint in Yoga Asanas–How Individual Differences Affect Your Practice
In this interview, renowned yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater reflects on important anatomical differences of the hip joint and how they affect our yoga practice. It’s important to stop thinking that hip-opening is somehow the Mecca of deepening yoga postures, Judith notes. She introduces a new approach to working with the hip joint, focusing more broadly on balancing rather than just stretching and opening.
YogaUOnline: Hip-opening yoga poses are usually poses that people either love, or, love to hate—there’s rarely something in the middle! What is it about this group of yoga postures that make them either uniquely soothing—or incredibly frustrating?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Well, I actually prefer to not name these poses hip-openers. I refer to them as hip-balancers, because some people’s hips are very open in one direction, but not in other direction. You want to create balance, rather than just focusing on opening.
This is important, because we often think that going deep in a pose is a matter of the muscles and soft tissues stretching. However, there are dynamics inside the joints that have to happen as well. It’s actually what’s going on inside the joint itself that it important.
The hip joint is the major weight-bearing joint of the body. It’s the place that transfers the movement of the legs up into the trunk. The shape of that joint—its depth, size, and the direction in which it points—is very, very different from person to person. There are obvious differences between the male and female hip joint, but also within each gender.
So not everybody, no matter how diligently they practice, will be able to sit on the floor, put the soles of their feet together and open their legs out to the sides in Badhakonasana and eventually, with practice, have the knees go down to the floor.
YogaUOnline: So ultimately, the structure of the hip joint determines its function in terms of its range of motion in different postures?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Yes. Structure shapes function very strongly. Of course, the way we function changes our structure to a degree, it’s a dance. It’s a universal eternal infinite dance between function and structure. And we want the perfect balance between those two things. What is the body structure telling me about how to function in that body? What is my body’s function telling me about what might be going on with my structure? These are great questions to explore.
But it’s important to stop thinking that hip-opening is somehow the Mecca of deepening yoga postures. If you develop too much opening, too much mobility in your hip joint or surrounding tissues, that is not good. More movement is not always the answer. Sometimes we need stability, we need to strengthen the muscles around the hip joint, or we need to focus not just on external rotation, for example, but on strengthening the abductors because they hold the pelvis level in walking.
It’s like an orchestra. If you want to play a beautiful piece of music with an orchestra, you can’t have the violins dominating. They need to be just in harmony with the cellos and the violas in the string section.
YogaUOnline: So, that makes it very difficult to understand what is the normal range of motion of the hip joint and how that might be manifested in yoga asanas.
Judith Hanson Lasater: Yes, there are large individual differences. And in the yoga community, there are instances where we might have misunderstood those normal ranges of movement, where we may have been unaware of how our instruction and teaching or positioning and poses might be going against that normal.
I like to say that there are only two sins in yoga asana practice: Too much and too little. So, I don’t like the word hip-openers, because it makes it sound as if opening is the only strategy for wholeness. What we’re really trying to do is bring awareness and choice to opening. And so, that’s why I prefer the idea of hip-balancing.
YogaUOnline: And of course, the way we practice poses for balancing or opening the hip also influences the other parts of the pelvis?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Yes, everything in our body is interconnected, so the balance of the hip joint also influences the sacroiliac joint and the lumbar spine as well as the knee joint.
As teachers, we need to do two contradictory things. We need to go deeply into the detail of what’s going on in the hip joint, but we also need to step back and look at the whole of it. If you have a knee problem with a lot of pain or a cartilage issue in your knee, chances are this is affecting the way the hip moves and the sacroiliac and the lumbar spine.
You cannot ever just pull out one piece, one joint, and one thing and say that’s the cause. It’s like everything is connected, which is also an absolute truth of the universe. It is one emotional, psychological, immunological, neurological, musculoskeletal, intellectual location that is moving through space against the force of gravity and it is deliciously and annoyingly complex.
YogaUOnline: When practiced without pushing too hard, yoga asanas that engage the hip joint are very satisfying to practice. What is it about this group of yoga postures that make them so uniquely soothing?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Every pose is an expression; it’s like an archetypal expression. It may be because, in for example, Pigeon Pose, you really need to be grounded through the heads of the femurs downward. So you have that rooting which we all need in our crazy deranged society of constant movement. And then you combine that with the lifting and the freedom of the chest and the opening of the heart, and with throwing the head back, which is the opening of the throat. So we open our throat, we open our heart, we open our belly. It’s a surrendering receptive movement, which is balanced with this deeply grounding movement. And maybe it’s just the perfect combination of taste like sweet and sour, something that is sweet and sour or salty and sweet. Maybe it fulfills a lot of our taste.
Eva Norlyk Smith: Interesting. Now Judith, you have a course on Yoga U called “Freedom of the Hip Joint: Asana, Anatomy and Therapeutics.” Could you tell us what you will be covering in that course?
Judith Hanson Lasater: Well, first, I’d like to renew our anatomical understanding of the structure of the hip joint in relation to its function and what is considered normal range of motion of that joint, as well as how anatomical variations affect the range of motion. This is important for teachers to know, because they will encounter these differences among their students.
And then we want to talk about some specific poses, and how they might be useful balancing the hips. We will also talk a bit about labral tears and hip replacement. And I certainly want to take specific questions about the particular challenges course participants experience with the hip and challenges they find in teaching a variety of students. Questions, I find, are always important to address some of the common issues teachers experience that are relevant to everyone listening in.
Judith Hanson Lasater is one of the most experienced and well loved yoga teachers in the US. She’s been a yoga teacher in the Iyengar yoga tradition for more than forty years. She is also a physical therapist, and holds a PhD in East West Psychology. Judith is the author of eight books in yoga, including “Yogabody: Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Asana” as well as “Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.”