Yoga For Dancers will be an ongoing topic on our blog! Please always consult your doctor when your body hurts, and practice yoga under the watch of a certified and professionally trained teacher.
The first instalment of our Yoga for Dancers series is about one of the most common areas that dance teachers and yoga teachers are asked about – hip flexors!
Pain or soreness of the hips can be caused by many things, and since the hips have so many moving parts and important areas, we will focus on hips more than once. For the purpose of this particular post, we are putting the spotlight on an area commonly called the iliopsoas, or “hip flexors”.
Please Note: This article is meant to address common issues that dancers have with hip flexors, and is not intended to diagnose or treat major issues that your doctor should examine. We will be discussing the hip flexors in simple, general terms in order to provide a user-friendly guide to safe stretching and body care.
The Anatomy Stuff:
The iliopsoas is not a single muscle, it is a common term for 2 muscles that work together to help you achieve several actions such as lifting your leg, sitting, or bending forward at the hips – psoas major and iliacus.
Both of these muscles are attached to the top of your femur or thigh bone – this means that when they contract, the iliopsoas helps lift your leg towards your body. Iliacus is also attached to the top of the big hip/pelvic bones known as the iliac crest, and psoas major is attached to your lumbar spine, or the curvy part of your lower back. This means that when you sit down or bend over at the hips, your hip flexors are contracting.
For many people who sit at a desk all day, or have a long commute sitting in a car or on the bus, the iliospas group are very short, tight muscles that can cause pain in the areas where they are attached. In my yoga classes, I meet many people with desk jobs who suffer a chronic ache in their lower back and hips/pelvis due to the shortness of these muscles. But why do short muscles cause pain?
When muscles stay contracted for a long time, or when muscles that are repeatedly contracted are never relaxed and lengthened back out again, they develop a very short “resting rate”. That means that the muscles remain like a tightly closed fist all the time, and everything they are attached to experiences a “pull” that may cause joints to ache, or even for our naturally healthy alignment to be pulled out of place when we try to extend those muscles back out again – think of clenching your fist for a long time and then trying to open it again – it hurts! Now imagine that you sit all day long with contracted hip flexors, and then suddenly stand back up causing a quick extension of those muscles. Ouch!
Besides all of that, our muscles are surrounded by and interwoven with a substance called fascia, or connective tissue. Fascia and muscle have different jobs during movement, but often develop parallel issues when muscular release is needed. When the body doesn’t get to experience the massaging motion of regular activity, or when we aren’t able to stretch and pull that fascia around like a chef working pizza dough, the fascia can become tough and rough, causing pain when we try to move and slide our muscles around during activity. Basically, in order for muscles and fascia to stay healthy, we need to move around, and we need to stretch things out afterwards!
The Dance Stuff:
So what does all that mean for you in a dance class? Well, if your teacher has given you a safe dance posture, if you work with movement that requires a bend in the knees and a very slight “tuck” in the pelvis, you are contracting your hip flexors (among other things). If you pick up your legs and feet to travel, if you do level changes, if you involve any kind of floor work at all, you will be contracting your hip flexors. I could continue to list the “ifs”, but I think I’ll just cut to the chase and say that no matter what you do, you will be either contracting or extending your hip flexors at some point in time, and that can cause fatigue and soreness after moving around. How long that takes and how sore you get is really up to the person’s body – we are all different, and the length of our muscles can change depending on how often we use or release them.
So here are a few things you can check on yourself that will indicate whether you should be stretching out your hip flexors more often than you already are (and if you take dance classes, I hope you are!):
1. Ache in the curvy part of your lower back when standing or laying down in bed.
2. Ache in “hip bones”.
3. Tight or sore feeling in the front crease of your hips (think bikini line)
4. Tight or achey feeling deep in the hip joint – not on the outsides, but closer to the place where you’d feel low belly cramps.
5. Sore response in hips, pelvis, or lower back when you try to stand up from a chair, or in the process of sitting down.
If any of those sound like you after an intense dance class, or even just on a day-to-day basis, it’s time to pay more attention to gently stretching and releasing the iliopsoas!
The Yoga Stuff:
Yoga and dance are beautiful partners, and go together like day & night! Any sort of activity will demand muscular contraction, and at the heart of yoga is the principle of Ha and Tha in juxtaposition – that is, two opposites (Ha/Sun and Tha/Moon) that exist in the same space and enhance each others presence. The more you dance, the more you need to stretch and release.
Yoga isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for dancers who spend time with the powerful Ha energy of music, movement, and intense training, a little Tha from a meditative, reflective yoga practice can not only soothe the muscles, but replenish that creative, vital energy. In future posts, we will discuss this as a topic on it’s own. For now, I’ll list some postures that you should ask a well-trained yoga teacher (not an enthusiastic classmate or experienced fan of yoga, please) to take you through in class or one-on-one:
1. Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
A low lunge with the back knee resting on the floor, the front knee squarely over your ankle (not your toes), and pelvis sinking forward is a wonderful, deep, and often intense release for both iliacus and psoas. Many of my students prefer to keep their hands on the floor, on a set of blocks, or on a supportive bolster in order to respect a tight feeling lower back, while others deepen their release by lifting arms, torso, and head towards the ceiling. It is important to remember that yoga is not about posing, it’s about creating a feeling, so please work with a deep release like this in class, or with an experienced teacher.
2. One Legged Pigeon (Eka Pada Kapotanasana)
Most people feel pigeon deeply in the bent leg and outer hip, but that straight leg that is extended out on the mat behind you is providing a lengthening stretch to your hip flexor too. Pigeon can be done laying forward across the bent leg (my teacher calls this “Resting Pigeon”) or propped up on the hands to lift the chest up & forward (classic pigeon). For the deepest quadricep and iliopsoas stretch possible in pigeon, the straight leg is bent and pulled towards the torso – it’s intense! Ask your yoga teacher to help you understand the nuances and safety considerations for this asana, as it is not for everyone.
3. Spinal Lift (sometimes called Bridge or Setu Bandha Sarvanghasana)
This is a familiar posture to anyone who has taken a Hatha yoga class. Bridge massages kidneys, opens heart & chest, and stretches abdominal, pelvic, and hip muscles. Every yoga posture has multiple benefits and considerations, but Bridge is a great place to start building strength in the back of your body while stretching and opening the front. Again, a yoga teacher will help you find exactly the right place to gain the most benefit from this asana.
4. Dancer’s Pose (Natarajasana)
What dancer wouldn’t want to incorporate Dancer’s Pose into their practice? The yogi stands on one leg, pulling the other up and back behind them with one hand, while the other hand reaches up and the chest is lifted and open. This beautiful posture will help you gain balance, coordination, back/glute strength, and when fully extended can provide much needed length and release to the iliopsoas. You can work slowly with balancing postures to not only receive the physical benefits, but improve your focus and concentration. Avoid one-legged balances if you have knee or ankle injuries – ask your yoga teacher what you can do to work up to it first!
These aren’t the only postures that yoga teachers use in class to release the iliopsoas, but they are a great place for dancers to start. Another note – and another reason to practice these postures with a teacher in class – in many cases, stretching the iliopsoas involves curving or arching the lower back. In a safe and effective yoga practice, arching the spine is immediately followed by rounding it – remember those opposites! – so if you are practicing these at home, please relax in a Child’s Pose between the above postures, and do not immediately follow even a gentle back bend with another.
And why haven’t I included handy pictures of each of these postures in this post? Simply because many of you will attempt to recreate those images right here & now with a cold body and no supervision! I’ve been there! I recommend that you bring this list to an experienced yoga teacher, and go through each posture safely. Remember, you’re not just posing!
I hope this has been an enlightening post for anyone who has experienced tight hips, achey lower back, or tight hip flexors either day-to-day or after a dance class! I’m happy to answer any further questions you may have, so please feel free to contact me either through the website’s contact form, or through Facebook!
Here’s to your happy hips!
Angelina Thorne is a full-time yoga teacher, dance teacher, and producer of yoga videos, with over a decade of experience teaching literally thousands of hours of classes to hundreds of happy students. She received her certification and powerful mentorship from Prana Yoga College, and currently offers classes and teacher mentorship in the Vancouver, BC area.