Preventing hip replacements and sacral injuries starts for many people with their yoga or fitness practice.
Last year, approximately 400,000 people had their hips replaced in the United States—and most of them were women.
Why do women’s hips wear out more than men?
Excessive flexibility and weak stabilizing muscles are often the key factors leading to hip joint deterioration.
Women have looser ligaments to allow the pelvis to open for the act of childbirth. Beyond birthing, flexibility can be a liability because the lumbar and hip joints must have strong and tight ligaments to keep the parts stable for proper joint function, and shock absorption during movement.
All women should consider practicing strengthening exercises to stabilize the hip, and be cautious when doing hip ‘opener’ poses practiced in yoga and stretching classes that may be giving you more flexibility than you need, compromising the longevity of your joints.
Longer is not better for your ligaments.
Many people stretch their ligaments too much, unaware that it can take years for pathology in the hip joints to show up.
Every time you sit poorly in a chair, do a five minute child’s pose, or engage in an intense straight-knee forward bend, consider how these positions globally affect the entire body and in particular your spinal column. You are flattening the sacral platform, and over-stretching the ligaments that attach your sacrum to the pelvis and femur (thigh bone). It is similar to taking a garment like your favorite pair of pants and tugging on a seam and stretching out the threads (your ligaments) that hold everything together.
Long ligaments can destabilize the dynamics of our pelvis to spine and pelvis to leg attachments leading to SI (sacral/hip) joint or groin pain.
Many people who do yoga and stretching exercises have chronic SI joint pain but keep bending forward to stop the pain unaware that the forward bending pose itself is causing a shortening of the front and excessive strain and over stretching to the back extensors. Most of us are pulled forward and shortened in our front body from excessive time spent in right-angled chairs; hence our back body is strained and over-stretched. It needs to be tightened and strengthened, not stretched.
There are no straight lines in nature.
If you think about it, does leaning over, reversing the natural lumbar curve in your back in a quest to touch the toes, while keeping the knees straight, honor the integrity of our human spinal design? We used to think the world was flat. Why do we say straighten the spine or tighten your abs to make a flat back? Our world is made of curves and so is our spinal column. There are no straight lines in organic nature.
These positions put a lot of torque on the natural sacral angle, and also undermine the curving forces in the spine and hip joint needed for shock absorption and hip stabilization. Without the lower back curve, you end up with a flat looking posterior or butt and oftentimes-chronic low back, knee and neck pain too.
Your spine does not need to be stretched.
Our vertebral column is strung together with posterior and anterior longitudinal ligaments that get over-stretched when we slouch, or do yoga or fitness positions that engage the forces of spinal flexion over extension and stabilization.
Years of tugging on your ligaments can weaken the forces in your body that hold you together. As ligaments become lax, it can lead to serious postural issues such as forward head carriage, chronic hip, back and knee pain, slowed digestion and elimination, and even a weakened immune system.
If you find yourself feeling tenderness when you walk, sharp pain when doing a pose like revolved triangle or a deep warrior lunge, you may want to back off. This is the beginning of the tragic hip destabilizations and replacements that are rocking the yoga world.
Lady Gaga, a yoga enthusiast, just cancelled her tour with serious hip pain that required surgical repair and sidelined her for months. Was it her intense daily Bikram practice? There are many factors, but yoga certainly did not prevent it from happening.
There are many other famous and not famous yoga teachers and practitioners who have had one or both hips replaced and sadly the numbers are adding up. It just makes sense to ask if yoga pose biomechanics might have contributed to these joint destabilizations. Are we paying attention and learning from this?
Touch your toes like a toddler.
Watch how any toddler bends over and you will see hips back, knees bent deeply, butt muscles engaged, and a curving spine when they reach for a ball on the ground. When we keep the knees straight in yoga, and instead ask the spine to flex and bend as in forward bends, we are overriding our natural design forces.
To experience this in motion, keep both knees from bending and walk across the room. Does it feel like driving with a parking brake on? What would your life be like if you could not bend your knees? How could you run, ski, dance, or even move? What is the anatomical advantage of stretching with both knees straight? Does it contribute to the longevity of your joints? Does it have a correlation to how you engage your body in real life function?
Next bend your knees deeply while standing and begin to take your hips back while leaning forward until your head is pointing towards the floor. Slowly begin to straighten your knees and notice where you feel the pull or stretch in your body. It is the sacral/hip joint! Does it make anatomical sense to stretch out the ligament stabilizing forces in your spine and hip?
It’s not too late—strengthen your hip and butt muscles.
Active and dynamic movements require effort from the deep hip flexor and gluteus muscles that attach the femur (thigh bone) to your pelvis. So working any yoga pose with strength and motion—instead of relaxing into a static pose—will benefit your hip/femur joint.
For people who are already experiencing hip joint problems or sciatic pain, strengthening your postural muscles using deep breathing while in natural spine positions can activate dormant extension and expansion forces that allow your bones to ‘float.’ Keeping your knees bent when bending over enlists your gluteus or butt muscles to create strong muscular actions to help to stabilize your pelvis and contribute to functional biomechanics and strong stabilization forces.
Once your body experiences working in a healthy, connected fashion, your ligaments can regain their natural length, protecting your hip joint and sciatic nerve from wear and tear.
Focusing on an overall balance of strength and flexibility needed for daily movements ensures the integrity of our natural infrastructure is preserved, and also allows for the deep diaphragm movements that are the cornerstone of a yoga practice.
The key to healthy alignment is accommodating your breathing process.
Breathing dynamics provide the best tool for checking if a pose contributes towards natural alignment.
When doing any yoga poses, see if you can take a full breath that allows your diaphragm to contract downwards and your rib cage to expand. If you cannot take a deep breath, then the pose is activating externalized forces in your body that override the body’s natural and essential core movements and infrastructures.
The core of your core is your psoas muscle group.
Breathing deeply engages the psoas muscle that connects your diaphragm to the lumbar spine to the upper inner thighbone or femur. Sitting in chairs or doing forward bends with straight knees shortens the psoas, which can lead to bulging or herniated discs. The psoas is the only muscle group in the human body that is attached to the discs of the spine. In many people the inner groin and psoas is short and tight although the ligaments in the pelvis may be too loose. A shortened psoas can affect the delicate balance of the hip joint possibly leading to compression in the hip socket and deterioration of the joint.
Learning to activate the psoas as a stabilizer and not just a flexor can be done through breathing techniques and specialized exercises. In a new style of yoga called YogAlign, a pose called the core connector activates the psoas/diaphragm connection quickly restoring equilibrium to the psoas. Balancing the actions of the psoas can stop chronic back pain, stabilize the spine and create a fluid balance of the whole body.
Natural flexibility honors spinal integrity.
The truth is, that over a period of time, yoga practitioners—like any discipline that has habitual positions or compartmentalized static poses—will often suffer from injuries in the long and short term.
When posture is naturally aligned, the human body stays flexible without the need to do dozens of intense stretches to relieve tension of the parts.
The ligaments that string our vertebral column are getting stretched beyond their anatomical functions when we do poses that take our spine into the C shape; which is the bane of aging.
Remember, like all of nature, the human body is made of curves and spirals. What has the most value is to remember our innate postural patterns, and preserve the natural integrity of our spine and joints.
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Assistant Ed: Linda Jockers/Ed: Bryonie Wise