From an anatomical standpoint, there are certain asanas that belong together and certain ones that don’t. Understanding how certain poses work various joints can help one to understand how many yoga classes are structured, and to organize one’s home practice for optimal benefit. The standing poses can be divided into two general groups, the open hip and closed hip poses.
The hip joint enjoys a “ball and socket” construction. In other words, it’s possible to move the hip in a number of directions, and to transition from one of these to another very quickly. Possibility doesn’t necessarily mean advantage, however. Surrounding this joint are a number of structures that are worked in different ways, depending on how the body is positioned. Movement often puts stress on these structures, and it’s possible to create wear and tear on cartilage. This area is considered “avascular”, which means that there’s not a lot of blood flow to these structures. This makes injuries doubly problematic, as it takes longer for the body to heal because the area is for the most part “on its own.”
Tadasana, or Mountain Pose, is practiced standing with the hip socket in a “closed position”; in other words, one’s pelvis is rotated in the same direction as the rest of the body. Other asanas that use a closed hip include Parsvottanasana, or Intense Side Stretch, Virabhadrasana, or Warrior Poses I and III, Anjaneyasana, or Low Lunge, and Parivrtta Trikonasana, or Revolved Triangle. When one moves into Virabhadrasana, or Warrior II, the hip is twisted into a different position. The joint is rotated externally, which is to say that the torso is turned at an angle to the legs. Other open hip poses include Trikonasana, or Triangle Pose, Ardha Chandrasana, or Half-Moon Pose, and Utthita Parsvakonasana, or Extended Side Angle Pose.
Moving from an open hip position to a closed hip position, and vice versa, involves rubbing on the cartilage and stretching the ligaments the hip joint. Repeating this transition can lead to wear and tear, which translates into such afflictions as repetitive use injuries, tendonitis, and osteoarthritis. For this reason, it is important to sequence one’s practice intelligently. Simply put, this means that the open hip poses are generally practiced together, separately from the closed hip asanas. Often, a vinyasa class will move through the open hip postures, starting and ending with Virabhadrasana II before moving back into a flow series. When practiced in this way, the hip joint is opened at the beginning of that part of the series and kept open through several poses, closing finally when one is finished with that part of the class. Similarly, the closed hip poses are practiced together.
When taking a class that doesn’t follow this kind of structure (for example, a class that moves from Virabhadrasana I to II and back again), it’s important to lift the hip up when transitioning to mimimize damage to the joint. To do this, straighten the front leg in order to move the hip joint out of the closed position before opening. This will help to keep the joint safe. It’s also appropriate to ask the teacher why the poses are taught together, as there may be a rationale that supersedes the need to minimize movement in the hip. Of course, if the student has issues in that area, he or she should let the teacher know before class so that the teacher can modify the class to help avoid further damage.
Practice safely at home by grouping open hip asanas together, usually before the closed hip asanas. Understanding why is helpful in creating a practice that respects the needs of one’s individual body and keeps one healthy. Yoga is generally safe, but intense movement must always be pursued cautiously – with the surge of interest in yoga, injuries are unfortunately becoming more and more common. Knowledge is power; be careful and be safe!