High On Hip Health
Eighteen months ago I couldn't walk for 20 minutes without experiencing pain in my tight hip flexors, the muscles right at the front of the hip, where the femur attaches to the pelvis. I avoided walking even though I know that avoiding the activity that causes pain does not solve the problem, and can often make it worse. Someone with arthritis said to me once, “Move it or lose it!”. But we've all been there before, we know what's good for us, but because it's uncomfortable, we avoid it. And before we know it we're worse off than where we started.
So, how did I get myself moving again? My solution was twofold. First, I adopted a dog with high energy needs =) I knew that I needed to walk to heal, but just couldn't get myself motivated enough to do it for myself. Often when the shift becomes for the good of another, you can find the strength of will to perform. Good thing I wanted to get a working dog anyways! Obviously this isn't an option for everyone so...
Second, I began a regular yin yoga practice (at least three sessions per week) and I reassessed my approach to the yang style yoga (bikram) that I practice regularly. The owner of the bikram studio in Cobargo NSW, Amrei Newcomb (sapphirecoastyoga.com.au) has been a great mentor to me, and she pointed out that I was carrying a lot of tension in my hips in postures that I didn't even need to use them for. For instance, in standing head to knee pose, the hip of the kicking leg can be completely relaxed in the set up, and only once you are kicking do you engage any muscles in the hips. If the hip is tightened before the kick, there is excess tension (no wonder I kept getting a hip cramp in the kicking leg!). In yoga, there is just as much value in finding which muscles to relax as in which muscles to contract. Contraction creates strengthening, and relaxation creates stretching. You can also use your strength to create flexibility, but the area being stretched needs to be relaxed, or else it simply ain't gonna move!
Yin yoga has been such a blessing to me, and a real turning point in my life and in my yoga practice. In day to day modern living, we are inundated with yang activities – fast paced, masculine, dark, active. In order to balance out the energy we need to practice more yin activities – slow, gentle, light, feminine, passive. Yin yoga focuses on stressing the more delicate tissues of the joints as well as the connective tissue of the body, known as fascia. My tight hip flexors were very resistant to opening up, but once I learned to relax, and to enjoy a very slight and gentle sensation of stretching, the results were amazing. In yin, a little can go a long way, but one must be able to relax fully into a posture. Any muscular contraction will cause the tissues to stay exactly where they are, it's like they go on strike.
The hip flexors are particularly tricky because our range of motion forward (flexion) is far greater than backwards (extension). So we have a tendency to avoid stretching it further back than we need to in daily movements such as walking. Not to mention if you spend a lot of time sitting, that's where they like to stay! We also have a built-in impulse to contract the hip flexors to bring us into the foetal position, or just curling into ourselves, when we feel vulnerable or threatened. So in order to successfully relax this muscle into extension, you need to retrain your central nervous system into feeling safe and relaxed even though you are exposed. The only way to do this is to practice. Breathe, relax, and practice, practice, practice, practice...
In yin yoga, it is never necessary, or even recommended to come to your full flexibility, or your edge. It is more than enough to simply stand back a bit, observe your edge, and play with it gently using your breath, in order to become comfortable with discomfort. After 12 months of patient healing and committed daily walking, I can now walk 6km in less than 90 minutes with no pain at all! I'm high on hip health baby, oh yeah!