Your hips work overtime, day in and day out, to stabilize you as you walk, exercise and even sit at your desk or in your car. Meanwhile, your knees — the largest joints in your body — support one and a half times your body weight with walking alone. (See Reference 1) Both areas require special attention in a yoga class so you get the greatest benefits from various exercises while preventing injury.
Your hips may store unpleasant emotions such as sadness and depression. (See Reference 2) Hip-opening exercises can encourage the release of these feelings while giving you a deep, satisfying stretch. One advanced hip opener is Half Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana).
Start in Downward Facing Dog, with your palms and feet hip-width apart on the mat and your tailbone lifted high. Inhale as you lift your right leg, and exhale as you place your right knee behind your right wrist. Work toward aligning your right shin so it is parallel to the top of your yoga mat. Flex your right foot to protect your knee. Untuck your back toes, or keep them flexed if you prefer. Align the hips so you are not shifting weight to the side. Inhale and sit tall; then exhale as you bow down and place your forehead on the mat, or on your forearms. Hold the pose for up to a minute; repeat on the left.
Protecting the Knee
If a hip opening exercise feels difficult, you might inadvertently put pressure on your knee joints. If you have especially tight hip flexors, you will tend to have limited rotation in your hips. As a result, you might transfer the motion to your knee joints, which are not designed to rotate, causing pain. (See Reference 3)
If you feel knee pain during a hip opener like Half Pigeon, take a more restorative pose instead. Floor Figure Four, aka Eye of the Needle, offers the benefits of hip opening without the pressure on the knees. Lie on the ground with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Lift your right foot and place the right ankle on top of the left knee. Flex your right foot. Draw your knees toward your chest, and thread your right arm between your legs. Clasp both hands together behind the left hamstring, and gently pull the left leg closer to your body. Hold the pose for up to a minute; repeat on the left.
You can further protect your knees and hips by focusing on proper alignment throughout your practice. Particularly in standing poses such as Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), you can check your knee alignment by noting the positions of your feet and kneecaps. Point them in the same direction to prevent any twisting motions of the knee to either side. Activate your core and quadriceps muscles to keep the hips aligned and to avoid shifting any pressure onto the knees. (See Reference 4)
Strengthening the Quadriceps
You also can strengthen the muscles around the knees, namely the quadriceps, to better support the knee joints. With strong quadriceps, you will stabilize the femur and shin bone to maintain alignment. In addition, the deep hip opening of Half Pigeon will become more accessible if you can engage your quadriceps to lift your kneecap on the extended leg.
For a simple quadriceps-strengthening exercise, lean back against a wall, with your feet about a foot away from the wall. Slide down the wall, as though you are going to sit in a chair. Point the kneecaps straight out over the center of your feet, and keep your knees behind your toes. Hold the position for 15 seconds, working your way up to a full minute at a time. (See Reference 4)
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