There is a peculiar maneuver that I often recommend to the students who have restrictions in the movement of their hips; I call it a “salsa move”. I find it very useful in both diagnosing the potential hip imbalances and loosening up the “hip hiker“ muscles that can create all kinds of back and hip issues when tight. Here is how it works.
Quadratus lumborum (QL) muscle is considered a major contributor to the lower back and hip pain. We have a pair of them and they connect the lower rib, the top of the pelvis and four lumbar vertebrae. They are located at the back of the body, underneath the erector spinae muscles. Quadratus lumborum muscles serve a dual function, depending on whether they contract together (bilaterally) or alone (unilaterally).
When they contract together, they assist the erector spinae muscles in extending the spine (back bending). The problem here is that the erector spinae muscles often get weak from us bending forward too much (while sitting, driving, etc.). If they are not strong enough to do their job, QL is left to pick up the slack both in back bending and maintaining the upright position. Which means that the QL muscles have to do double duty and as a result can become chronically tight and painful.
The solution to this problem is to strengthen your erector spinae muscles. That’s why I consider Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) one of my Magic Three yoga poses; when done properly, it takes care of the back strengthening.
When the QL muscle contracts on one side, it laterally flexes the trunk (side bending) and pulls the hip up, and that is why it is known as the “hip hiker”. We create right-to-left asymmetries all the time by sitting with one foot tucked under, driving with a wallet in a back pocket, always favoring one leg while standing, etc. If QL on one side gets tight, it introduces a couple of major issues.
Issue 1. If you end up with one hip higher then the other (“hiked”), the other muscles around the pelvis will have to adjust to support the “new normal” pattern, which will create imbalance in other pairs of muscles (psoas, adductors, abductors, etc. ). This can cause discomfort and pain by itself, but on top of that it can pull the sacrum out of alignment, leading to sacroiliac joint pain (read more about sacroiliac issues).
Issue 2. QL attaches to the lumbar vertebrae, which means that if it gets tight on one side, it can pull on the spine sideways. It’s never a good idea to pull the spine out of alignment; it can lead to all sorts of pain and disk issues.
The solution to this problem is to release the QL tension by doing lateral bending, like we do in a yoga practice, OR by moving the hips up and down, like they do in Latin or belly dancing. Let’s look at those one at a time.
Lateral bending is something that we don’t do much of in our day-to-day life, yet it’s super useful for working with body’s asymmetries. Bending sideways in our yoga practice gives us a chance to alternately contract and stretch the QL muscles and other core musculature, which helps release QL tension. Lateral bending also helps us breathe better by stretching the muscles between the ribs. And, of course, it laterally flexes the spine, which helps to keep it supple and the discs nourished. Unfortunately, sometimes we do lateral bending postures in a way that takes the most important element, lateral bending, out. Case in point – Trikonasana (Triangle pose). If you insist on lengthening the bottom side of the torso, you move most of the action into the hip and out of the spine (read more about different ways of doing Trikonasana). One way to emphasize the lateral stretch in Trikonasana is to keep the feet parallel, which will prevent the pelvis from tilting sideways and will shift the focus to the spine (above).
Another common problem with sidebends is that many of them are quite difficult for the average student and tightness in other areas (hamstrings, adductors, etc.) will prevent many of them from getting the benefit from the postures. By using simpler lateral stretches and modifying the forms of certain poses, we can help our students get the most out of them. On Friday we will feature a sample lateral bending practice that both contracts and stretches the QL muscles and other lateral structures of the torso and is accessible to almost anybody. Tune in!
Another simple way to keep your QLs supple is to use simple hip actions that are common to many dancing traditions. They involve moving the hips up and down one at a time, which helps to release the tension and maintain mobility. I use a very simple variation of the main salsa step to help my students loosen up their hips.
Now let’s be clear – I am not advocating professional or advanced dancing, since that introduces a whole different level of challenges for the hips. I am also NOT suggesting anything like the video below, although that salsa is pretty incredible 🙂
But doing a little salsa while riding in an elevator or waiting in the grocery line can help you keep your hips loose. Try it out and let me know how it feels!