Yoga For Dancers: The IT Bands

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 next installment of the Yoga For Dancers series is a pretty big topic – the IT Bands, or iliotibial bands.

The iliotibial band is not a muscle – it is a large band of fascia that originates at your hip (the iliac crest) and runs all the way down the outer side of your buttocks & thigh, and attaches to the top of your lower leg bone (tibia), right behind your knee cap (patella). Since it’s rather large and can affect so many different areas of your body, you can consider this your general introduction to the IT Band. Look for further mentions of this tricky bit of anatomy in subsequent blog posts about glutes, quads & hamstrings, and knee health.

IT Bands

Please Note: This article is meant to address common issues that dancers have with their IT Bands, and is not intended to diagnose or treat major issues that your doctor should examine. We will be discussing the IT Bands in simple, general terms in order to provide a user-friendly guide to safe stretching and body care.

The Anatomy Stuff:

Your IT Bands allow you to extend your leg, rotate your upper thigh & hip, and abduct (move away from the midline of your body) the leg at the hip. When you walk, sit, stand, or practice all those fabulous lower body belly dance movements like shimmies, arabesques, hip drops, etc., your IT Band is an important player.

Fascia is not like muscle, but it is an important part of how our muscles are able to function. Fascia helps to bind and enclose our muscles into smooth, slippery packages that help us contract and release, and perform activities. You could think of it like the mortar between bricks – although healthy fascia should not be thick or stiff like mortar. When fascia is healthy, it is meant to be slippery and elastic. When fascia is unhealthy, it becomes thick, tough, tight, and does not allow that free-sliding movement that our muscles require to operate our joints and provide a wide range of motion.

There are many ways that fascia can become unhealthy – some causes are based in chronic conditions or disease, and others are due to injury. For many dancers, issues with tight or irritating fascia in important areas like hips & thighs are largely due to repetitive motion, and improper or inadequate stretching. One very common chronic condition resulting from tight & irritated fascia is iliotibial syndrome – literally the inflammation of the fascia, particularly at the points of origination and insertion at the hip & knee. Another chronic condition that can result from short, tight fascia and untreated iliotibial syndrome is patella femoral syndrome – this is an issue for many marathon runners, as the repetitive motion from long runs can shorten the fascia so much that it begins to pull on what it is attached to, moving the patella away from where it should be (ie: pulling your kneecap out of place), and causing major issues for knee health & function.

The Dance Stuff:

Much like the hip flexors that we looked at in my previous article (which also mentions fascia, by the way), you will be making use of your IT Bands in pretty much every movement you do in your dance class, from your warm up to your drills. Whether you primarily drive your hip work from your glutes or your thighs, your IT Bands are affected, and without proper attention, you will begin to experience issues with your IT Bands if you aren’t properly stretching.

Here are some things to look for if you’re wondering about the health of your IT bands:

1. An ache in the crest of your hip bone, along the outer side of your hip/glute, or down the outside of your thigh.
2. An ache on the outside of your knee joint that gets worse during dance class, or after doing squats or bent-knee positions.
3. A very sharp sensitivity to pressure on the outside of your thigh (try pushing your thumb into your IT Band area – did it feel extra painful there?)
4. A tight, chronic ache deep in the glute that does not radiate up your back, but rather down the backside and thigh. (note: this feeling is not the same as a sharp, sudden pain when walking, or a sharp pain at your tailbone area – those are different issues like sciatica and sacroiliac joint issues, which I will cover in separate blogs!)

If any of those sound like you during or after a dance class, or even just on a day-to-day basis, it’s time to pay more attention to gently stretching and releasing the iliotibial bands!

The Yoga Stuff:

Fascia needs to be kept soft and supple, so involving a healthy stretch after your dance performance, practice, or workout is very important.

Many folks who have trouble with IT bands swear by the use of a tennis ball or a foam roller along the hips & thighs as a way of “rolling out” that stretchy material, reducing the stress on the joints and the inflammation near the origination and insertion points. Since fascia encases our muscles and allows them to move and slide, muscles that are chronically tight will contribute to tight, short fascia as well. In short – you need to stretch and massage your body if you want it to be healthy!

I won’t focus on “rolling” the IT Bands here – although I do recommend using a tennis ball and getting that hurts-so-good roll done at least once a week for active dancers. Instead, here are the yoga postures you can use to target IT Bands! Please read the “Yoga Stuff” in my previous post to learn more about the reason why yoga is an important part of life for any dancer, and why an experienced teacher is necessary for guidance.

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 – your body will thank you!

1. Leg Cradle Pose (Hindolasana)

Leg Cradle (sometimes called Baby Cradle, or in my dance class, “Butt Massage”) is a great posture for those with very sensitive IT bands, and those who are not yet ready for One Legged Pigeon Pose. The Leg Cradle allows the dancer to remain comfortably seated while pulling the shin, knee, and foot close to the chest, providing only as much stretch to the buttock, hip, and thigh as she wants. In Leg Cradle, you can either hold the posture by cradling the leg like a baby, rock gently in a circle to provide a moving stretch, or even lean all your weight over into the stretching glute to provide a very deep release, not unlike rolling with a foam roller or tennis ball. Ask your yoga teacher to show you the leg cradle, and avoid it if you have serious knee issues (use a foam roller instead). There is a reclining version of Leg Cradle called Eye of the Needle that is wonderful for cooling down as well.

2. One Legged Pigeon (Eka Pada Kapatonasana)

Most people feel pigeon deeply in the bent leg and outer hip, and this is one of the best postures for dancers to use during cool down, as long as they are ok with some downward pressure on the knee joint, and have proper guidance if they are not yet familiar with the pose. 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 glute and IT Band stretch possible in pigeon, send the foot and shin of the leg underneath you more towards the front of your mat, so that rather than the foot being under your pelvis, it’s under the stomach or chest – 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. One Knee Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

One Knee Twist (or even Two-Knee Twist if you have a sensitive back) is a very common final posture in my yoga classes. Not only does it massage your digestive system and help release chest, shoulders, and lower back, but it can provide a much needed stretch to the IT Band area, and I recommend that any active person make use of reclining spinal twists every day if they can. In the One Knee Twist, the stretch is much deeper throughout the body – if it feels tight or uncomfortable, if you can’t breathe easily, or if you can’t keep both shoulders on the ground, either place a folded blanket or pillow under your bent knee and under your raised shoulder, or have both knees bent instead of just one (Two Knee Twist). This is a posture that has made a huge difference in the lives of many of my students, some of whom have used it to help them recover from serious back injuries, knee injuries, and hip surgeries. You can roll the top leg (the one coming across your body) with a tennis ball easily in this posture – bonus!

Yoga can be like medicine if we use it correctly, using the right postures in the right doses for the right issues. These are not the only postures that can be used to stretch and care for IT Bands, but they are a great place to start. Please work with a knowledgeable and trained teacher for guidance.

I hope this has been an enlightening post for anyone who has experienced tight IT Bands, mysterious outer knee pain, or an achey butt! 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 IT Bands!

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.

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