Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hips might cry but sure won’t die: 20 minute practice sequence

Here's a little sequence to get your hips to shed tears of joy...
If you didn’t get the chance to make it to the hips don’t die class, don’t worry.   Here I share with you the crux of the sequence.  We started with some interesting hip-opening vinyasas to warm up before slowing down the pace and it is these ‘slow-down’ postures that I have reproduced here. 
Some of the usual suspects are there (gomukhasana) but have been befriended by some members of the hip opening gang that generally lurk in the background (utthan pristhasana).  And if all of this talk about gangs and suspects and lurking has you worried, there is no need.  These poses are not part of the criminal underworld, they are not part of the cool girls gang or even a gang of super-elite yogis who sit around with their legs behind their head all day.  These poses are part of a gang that we can all belong to—if you just believe in yourself, have patience, and try.
Before you try these poses, it would be a good idea to warm up with a few sun salutations.  Try and hold each of these poses for more than a minute.  Poses like gomukhasana and agnistambhasana or eka pada rajakapotasana could be held for longer (3- 5 minutes).  Remember that your hips will not die although they certainly might cry (tears of joy in their new-found freedom).  Relax the shoulders and your face (it is surprising how they can tense up subconsciously), and connect to your breath. 
Finally, if you weren’t at the hips don’t die class and you have never done these postures before it might be a good idea to talk to your yoga teacher before trying them as they might have some pointers on the each of the postures that can benefit you specifically. I wanted to keep it basic here rather than go into too much detail on ‘how to’ do the pose and there is a lot of fine tuning that can be done.  I tend to do all of the poses on one side first and then the other.  You can see what works best for you.
Utthan pristhasana
You can come into this from kneeling.  Have your knees slightly behind your hips.  Take the left foot around the outside edge of your left hand.  If it does not come in one smooth movement, no worries, just take it as far as it can and then move it with your hands.  It might take three or four little steps to get it there. 
Keep the front foot firmly connected to the earth.  Take your back knee back a bit further if you can.  You are going to feel this on the front of your back thigh a bit (or a lot, depending on how open it is!), but we want to keep the focus in this sequence on the front leg so don’t overdo it. 
Your left shoulder is trying to nuzzle into your left knee, a bit like a dog coming to scratch its ear.  Try and keep the knee moving in towards the shoulder.  From here, see if you can start to lower your body to the ground, imagining that it is your belly button that wants to melt towards the floor rather than your head—it’s relatively easy to just stoop your shoulders and drop your head down but why would you want to turn into a hunchback in the middle of a pose?  There’s no point.  Your elbows may or may not come to the ground, that’s not important at all.  What is important is to try not to stick your butt out to the side, which it might want to do, and, of course, to breathe.   
Eka pada rajakapotasana/Agnistambhasana/Chair variation
I am giving three variations of a similar pose here and you should find one of them works for you.  If your hips are really tight you might need to take the chair variation at first.  Then you could try eka pada rajakapotasana and, finally, agnistambhasana.   Be mindful of the knee in all of these variations, remembering you are stretching your hips and there should be no strain on the knee.
                Chair variation
This is something you can even do at work so it’s a good thing to learn even if you can do the other variations.  You need to sit on the very edge of the chair.  Your ankles should be underneath the knees and feet firmly on the ground.

Take the left leg up, keeping the foot and ankle in a shape as though it is still on the floor.  Bring your left ankle across the right knee.  Press your sitting bones evenly into the chair and shift your weight so you are sitting above them or in front of them but definitely not behind them.  Take a firm hold of your left thigh bone and turn the whole thigh out and away from you.  This might have two consequences: first, you will feel a more intense stretch in the outer left hip; second, your knee might come down a bit.  From there you can sit tall and start to fold forward, imagining you are bringing your belly-button to your shin (not the head, never the head!) to keep your spine long.
                Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
From kneeling, take the left knee towards the left hand so it points roughly straight ahead or a little bit out to the side.  Keep the left ankle firm.  Slowly start to take the right leg back so the thigh bone comes closer to the floor.  As you do this, your whole pelvis might start to lower towards the floor.  It is not important if your pelvis gets to the floor or not, it is important that you keep your pelvis level.  You really have to watch this as one side of the pelvis has a tendency to tip to the side in order to escape the stretch!  You can remain upright here or you can drape your body forwards towards the floor and make a little pillow with your hands as you relax here.
If you do not feel any intensity in your outer left hip then you should take your left foot out a little bit—as your hips open up you will eventually get your shin parallel to the front of the mat.  Don’t be in a rush though, and be mindful of the knee.
This variation is basically just the chair variation noted above but sitting on the floor, which places increased demand on your hip flexibility.  To come into this posture sit cross-legged on the floor.  Bring the left ankle on the right knee.  You need to be sure to turn from the hip and not the knee.  Some people will really struggle to get their ankle across the knee.  If this is you then please take one of the other variations until your hips are ready.  Some people will get their ankle across their knee but then be slumping in their back.  Again, be honest with yourself, if this is you then please take one of the other variations.  If you can manage to get your ankle across the knee and be sitting above or in front of your sitting bones you might find that your left knee is up high in the air.  As a general rule of thumb, if that knee is higher than your waist, then please take one of the other variations. 
Now, if you have managed to come this far it is time to take the bottom foot out so that the arch of that foot is directly beneath your left knee.  Looking from above your shins are roughly parallel.  Sit up tall and, as for the chair variation, take a firm hold of your left thigh and roll it out.  You will probably find the knee comes down a bit and the feeling in your hip intensifies.  Stay with even weight on your sitting bones and, if possible, start to fold forward and take your belly button towards your shins. 
Gomukhasana or Supta Gomukhasana
I give two variations here.  This is because if your hips are really tight you are going to find gomukhasana quite difficult to get into.  Most people can get into some form of supta gomukhasana, however. 
Supta Gomukhasana
Lie on your back.  Cross your right thigh over your left thigh as much as you can.  You are trying to get the knees on top of one another.  Take a hold of your ankles, heels or shins with your hands.  If you have trouble reaching, use a strap or a towel or something similar that you could lasso around the shins.  Basically you want it long enough so that you can still lie flat on the floor and your shoulders and head are not lifting.  You might even need a pillow or cushion under your head so that it can stay lowered as well. 
From there push your heels out and away from the midline while at the same time bringing them towards your shoulders.  You are basically trying to make an airplane wing with your legs (and I don’t mean a fighter jet with very angled wings, think more along the lines of a jumbo jet or even one of those planes the Wright brothers had where the wings stuck straight out to the side).  Your bottom might lift of the ground and see if you can send the tailbone back down towards the floor.  It probably won’t go all the way. You will feel something deep in your outer hips.
Not everyone will be able to do this, so if you cannot, don’t worry and just stick to the lying version.  For those who can do this sitting variation, alternate so that some days you do this sitting and some days lying. 
From sitting cross the thighs over one another so the right thigh is on top.  You are trying to get the knees to come on top of one another, touching if possible.  The feet are active and just beside the hips.  You can press the outside edges of the feet into the floor to generate more lift in the spine.  Keep moving the thighs into one another.  Make sure you are sitting on top of or in front of your sitting bones.  If you cannot do this then go back to the lying version until you can.  Relax (no gritting your teeth) and breathe.  For those that can bear it, you can start to make those airplane wings with the shins again, bringing the feet away from you so that the shins come closer to being parallel.  Only do this if your knees are stacked right on top of each other though. 
Ardha Matsyendrasana
Finish with this twist.  With your left foot beside your right hips, bring the right thigh over the left thigh so that the right foot is on the floor—flat if possible.  You need to use your feet here.  The more you can press with your feet, the more lift you will generate through your spine.  Again, be above your sitting bones or in front of them—no sinking behind them.  If you find it impossible to sit like this, them straighten the bottom leg and just take the right foot over the top of the straightened left leg. 
Hug yourself close into that left thigh.  Use your arms to gently pull the torso forward.  Really try to shift your weight so it is more in the front foot.  From there, lift the body and turn towards the left inner thigh.  Your right forearm, upper arm, or armpit may be able to move across the left leg to help hug you into the inner thigh.  Your left arm can help with this hugging or it could be on the floor behind you, pressing down and helping to generate lift in the spine. 
Now, it’s time to do it all again on the other side!
Happy, happy, hips.

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