Yoga for Tight Hip Flexors: Stretch Safely, Stay Healthy

This Article first appeared on Aletha Health

Yoga is a great way to stay in shape, but like any exercise, it comes with its own set of dangers. If you’ve got hip pain, it’s important to make sure the yoga you’re doing is compatible with your hip flexors.

Don’t worry: you probably won’t have to overhaul your yoga routine, but you might be able to solve a lot of your hip pain by identifying the root cause and figuring out solutions to solve it.

Read on to learn a little bit more about why yoga might be causing your hip pain, and what you can do about it.

Why yoga for hip flexors can be more damaging than you think

First, let’s establish what your hip flexors actually are. The hip flexors are a group of muscles on the front of your hips that help move your leg forward; the two major hip flexor muscles that are often the culprits of pain are the iliacus and the psoas (known as the iliopsoas), and that’s what I’ll be focusing on here.

iliacus and psoas locations

In yoga, hip flexor stretches are commonly overdone. Yoga “hip openers” are the norm and everyone feels like their hips are so tight because they experience the sensation of stretching when they stretch their hips in poses like pigeon, forward folds, and butterfly. The problem is that the hip joint is designed to be mobile and stable and having somewhat less flexibility around the hip can actually stabilize the joint. Continuing to build flexibility in this area can be too much of a good thing.

You may feel like your hip flexors are good because you can go deep into a lunge pose and barely feel a thing. Muscles can hold tension and still allow for stretching. Once the joint becomes unstable with more and more stretching, paradoxically the iliacus and psoas begin to hold tension and develop knots in an effort to stabilize the hip joint. These knots do not necessarily limit your range of motion. You can notice this when your hip flexor muscle is holding tension even at rest. This is one indication that this muscle is trying to hold you together.

open hips stretch

This tension not only causes pain and discomfort around the hip, tailbone, and spine, but it can affect the entire leg and even work it’s way up the spine to the shoulder and neck. In addition, overstretching of the hip can end up putting strain on the joint capsule that holds the joint together and deep poses can put awkward and unnatural stresses on the joint, resulting in more instability and joint related pain and wear.

a tight hip flexor causes rotation

Additionally, many yoga poses require an abundance of strength and endurance of the iliacus and psoas. When a muscle is holding excess tension all day long in an effort to stabilize the joint, it is not happy when it is additionally asked to work. It’s already exhausted. Take these yoga poses, for example:

  • Staff pose
  • Boat pose
  • Extended hand to big toe pose

boat pose

All of these poses have one thing in common: they put excessive stress on the iliopsoas, because they rely on it for strength. This can aggravate the muscle and cause pain. If there is underlying tension, then these poses will contribute to increasing the pull of these muscles and contribute to pelvic rotations and alignment of the entire body.

There is one more major piece to the puzzle. Any activity where you have one leg going forward and the other going back increases the chance your iliopsoas will tighten up; this is because this type of stance can pull your pelvis out of alignment, especially if you are starting with tension in the iliacus or psoas to begin with. The problem typically gets worse as you push deeper into the pose – but that doesn’t mean you have to stop your yoga exercises entirely. Keep reading to learn how to avoid hip injuries while doing yoga for tight hip flexors.

What other complications can a tight iliopsoas cause?

If you’ve got problems with your hip flexors, you might experience a few other issues when doing yoga. A tight iliopsoas affects the alignment of your hip and SI (sacroiliac) joint, causing the hip to awkwardly shift in the socket, which can sometimes make a strange clunking noise.  You might notice this noise during yoga, particularly during poses like the triangle pose, leg lowering poses, or the extended hand to big toe pose.

Hamstring tendonitis is another unindented – and quite painful – side effect of tight hip flexors. If you’re during yoga poses that stretch your hamstring while the hip flexor is also pulling you forward due to its tightness, you might create a tug of war scenario, putting undue stress on the hamstring and causing tendonitis.

What can you do to stay safe?

Even though yoga can increase the chances of a tight iliopsoas, that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing yoga entirely. There are plenty of ways to practice yoga in a safe and healthy way that prioritizes strengthening your hip flexors rather than overstretching them.

One of the best ways to prevent hip injury during yoga is to shorten your stance, and avoid pushing deep into the pose. The Warrior II pose is a perfect example: instead of going deep into the pose, try grounding by pushing down into the ground and pulling your legs towards each other to engage the deep hip stabilizing muscles.

warrior pose regression shortened

Another thing you can do as a preventative measure is to focus on strengthening your core and your hips – this will allow you to do more yoga poses as you get stronger. In my book about this tight hip phenomenon, I recommend Barre classes and core stability exercises to help stabilize your hips.

The bottom line? Yoga for tight hip flexors can be done in a way that’s safe and healthy for your hips, but you may have to modify some poses to make sure you’re giving your iliopsoas some rest.

leg raise exercise

Instead of implementing a drastic change to your routine, make simple changes along the way. Focus on posture and breathing instead of going into a deeper pose. Do the pigeon pose on your back instead of the full pigeon pose. Avoid exercises that involve one leg going forward while the other is going back. These are just a few of the many ways you can improve your hip flexor stretches and set yourself on a path for pain-free hips.

figure four vs pigeon pose

If hip pain isn’t the only problem you’re having, check out my article on the most common yoga injuries – and how to prevent them. And, if you’re interested in learning more about how you can solve your hip issues, that’s what my book, tight hip twisted core is all about!


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