The Cycle of Life
As time passes, bodies deteriorate. It’s a fact common to all living organisms. Me, you, the plants in the garden, and all the animals living in the wild. There comes a point when time gets the upper hand. In humans, our joints are often the first things to go. They get stiff and tired. We gradually lose mobility, and this has repercussions throughout our bodies. We all know the old song “Dem Bones”:
“…the knee bone connected to the thigh bone/the thigh bone connected to the hip bone/the hip bone connected to the back bone…”
Through time or as the result of injury, loss of mobility or decrease in range of motion in our joints creates misalignments, and misalignments create compensation. Think of it this way: a twisted ankle makes us change the way we walk. This in turn affects our knees, our hips, our back, and even our neck, because—well, just sing the song to yourself. If we end up on crutches, things are even worse.
The True Center of Your Body
The goal of physical fitness isn’t just to gain strength and look good. It’s to improve flexibility, mobility, and stability so you can keep your body strong and functioning properly for as long as possible. The goal is to create a solid foundation to support you through both the good times and the bad. Physical fitness propels you toward your successes and protects you during your setbacks.
The real center of your body is not your belly: it’s your hips. More specifically, it’s your pelvis. Your pelvis is your powerhouse. It houses a complex system of bone, muscle, tendon, ligament, and fascia. The pivotal role it plays in all physical activity is commonly undervalued by exercise professionals, and many people aren’t really aware of how much is going on in that one area. Muscles extend down to connect your pelvis to your legs. Muscles extend up to connect your pelvis to your spine. Muscles pass through your pelvic girdle to connect your spine to your thigh bones. Your abdominal muscles begin at your pelvic floor, then crisscross your lower torso in almost all directions. Some wrap around to connect to your spine and some reach up all the way to your chest and ribs—but they’re all either connected to or run through your pelvis.
What this means, physiologically, is that your pelvis stabilizes any movements you do with your legs, arms, and torso—which is just about any movement you do, period. From sitting still to sprinting full speed to doing tai chi, your pelvis is the root of all movement.
The Emotional Storage Closet
The junk drawer, the lock box, the pantry, the storage closet, call it what you like: our pelvis has the unusual tendency of catching and storing our emotions. The stress and trauma of our lives doesn’t simply disappear when it passes. Just like your subconscious mind knows no linear time and keeps everything that happens to you stored away, your pelvis does the same—it’s like body’s subconscious. The residue of tough emotional events times lingers in the hips. This is especially true for women.
The sympathetic nervous system—the part of your nervous system that controls your fight-or-flight reflex—can cause your hip flexors to contract. If you’re in a constant state of low-grade stress due to the pressures of the modern world, your hip flexors might become chronically tight and contracted, which can lead to low back pain, poor posture, inefficient alignment, and—you guessed it—stuck emotions. Therefore, freeing the muscles deep in your hips, pelvis, and abdominals can help alleviate all these negative outcomes. Free and independent hips can eliminate back pain, improve posture, and help you let go of emotional or psychological things you’re holding on to but don’t even know it.
Long, strong, and free hips also contribute to overall joint mobility and optimal blood flow. The iliacus and the psoas major are key players in a number of regular active and passive daily activities. Since those words are kind of a mouthful, from now on we’ll refer to the two together either as the hip flexors or the psoas. Without sustainable and efficient interconnection between the hip flexors and the psoas, flexion in a sitting position is not possible across the horizontal plane. That’s fancy talk for it’s hard to even sit up straight, much less bend forward in a healthy way if these muscles aren’t working correctly.
The Pelvic Tilt
Think of your pelvis as a bowl of that’s almost full of water. When it’s natural and healthy, our pelvis has a slight anterior tilt—meaning it’s tilted forward, but not so much that water starts pouring out of our bowl onto the ground in front of us. A short and/or tight psoas can cause a distinct anterior tilt thus pain in the mid and low back—when we tilt so far forward water ours out of our bowl to the front, we know something is not right. When we stand up, the tight psoas pulls the lower vertebrae forward and down towards the femur. The lumbar spine arches noticeably. The medical term for this is lumbar lordosis. In your body, this anterior tilt—water pouring out of the bowl in front of you—can cause pain in your hip, groin, thigh, knee, sacroiliac joint, or any combination of all of these.
A weak or overstretched psoas can cause a posterior tilt. Following our bowl of water metaphor, a distinct posterior tilt means you’re pouring out water onto the ground behind you. The weak psoas may push the bottom of pelvis forward of the chest and knees. A postural assessment might diagnose a posterior pelvic tilt as a classic flat back. Someone with a posterior pelvic tilt probably has tight hamstrings, and most likely has a weak, compromised low back. At very least a chronic posterior tilt leaves the lower back vulnerable to injury.
Fixing the Hips
Tight hip flexors combined with tight psoas muscles decreased your ability to flex the hip joint, resulting in both limited mobility and range of motion. When the hips are compromised, the risk you run is that everything else eventually get compromised, too—remember the words to the old song. To keep the hips healthy, and the relationship of the hips to the rest of the body positive and sustainable, it takes energy and effort. Yoga offers two asanas (postures) that are incredibly effective in maintaining hip health: Navasana, the boat pose, and Virabhadrasana 1, the warrior pose.
The boat pose is an isometric asana that’s easy to perform. One of the main benefits of the pose is a strong and stable psoas.
The Boat Pose
- From a sitting position on the floor, bend your knees and bring both legs together.
- Holding the back of your legs wherever is comfortable—behind the knee or thigh works—and make your spine nice and long. Your lumbar spine and ab area should be spacious and open.
- Begin to lean back, slightly and without breaking form.
- Engage the abdomen and begin to find the back edge of your sit-bones.
- With your hands still holding your legs, find something to focus your eyes on, at eye level or above. Then inhale, lift your feet off the ground just a couple of inches, and balance on your sit-bones.
- While maintaining a nice long spine, carefully lift your heels until they’re the same height as your knees, so your legs make a 90-degree angle.
- If you can do variation I completely and with no problems—long spine and no complaining from your lower back—let go of your legs and reach your arms away from your torso, holding them alongside your legs without holding on to your legs.
- Engage your deep abdominals and keep your chest open. Be broad and soft across the collarbone area.
Variation III: (*Best variation for psoas isometric strength*)
- If you can do variation II with no problem, then keep going: lift your legs up until you make your body into a V-shape. Keep the low back long and strong—no sinking and no rounding.
- To finish, allow your legs and hands to rest back down on the ground.
Note: we used this page as a guide for our variations on Navasana.
To complement the isometric contraction of Navasana, it’s best to follow it up with an asana that lengthens it: Virabhadrasana 1.
When you practice this posture in a doorway, it does wonders for your psoas. This pose simultaneously opens and lengthens this very hard to reach muscle. They key is getting the correct pelvic tilt. Remember—a tight psoas results in an anterior tilt, so to stretch it we go for the opposite: a posterior tilt.
Virabhadrasana I (veer-ah-bah-DRAHS-anna)
The Warrior Pose.
To practice this lengthening asana variation, find a doorway with no obstructions.
- Position yourself so the right side of your body is a little bit behind the door frame.
- Step through the doorway with your left foot. Reach your right foot well behind you, so your leg is almost straight. Don’t let your heel touch the floor.
- Reach both arms above you and put your hands against the wall.
- Keep a slight bend in your knees, and get your pelvis, belly button, and chest in line with the door frame.
- Move your lower pelvis toward the door frame and your upper pelvis and belly button back from the frame.
- Move your chest toward the frame and lift your ribs up, away from your hips.
- Stay in the posture for about 2 minutes. Keep your breath slow and easy, to encourage your psoas to relax and stretch completely.
- Repeat on the other side.
Note: we used this page as a guide for this awesome variation of Virabhadrasana I.
Stay Hip For Life
The hips, as they say, don’t lie. Our power and stability comes from the hips. We keep our emotions in our hips. The hips join our lower body to our upper body, and for many of us, they’re what joins our emotional life to our physical life. Make it a priority to keep your hips—and by that we mean your hip flexors and your psoas—long, free, open, and strong. If you practice the two poses described above consistently over time, two wonderful things will happen:
- You’ll create a stable and sustainable physical center to support any and all movement for your entire life.
- You’ll clean out that emotional junk drawer on a regular basis to help maintain a healthy, flexible, and resilient emotional center.
It doesn’t get much better than that.