William Broad had done it again. He sounded an alarm last year about the potential risks of the yoga practice and caused some heated discussions in the yoga community. This time he turns his attention to an issue that many yoga practitioners have hard time understanding: is it a problem to be too flexible?
In his latest article Women’s Flexibility is a Liability Broad explores the injuries that stem from being too flexible, especially when it comes to the hips: “Women’s hips showed particular vulnerability. By nature, their pelvic regions support an unusually wide range of joint play that can increase not only their proficiency in yoga but, it turned out, their health risks. The investigators found that extreme leg motions could cause the hip bones to repeatedly strike each other, leading over time to damaged cartilage, inflammation, pain and crippling arthritis.” What are those “extreme leg motions” that he is talking about? Well, we all know that in yoga there are many. But one type that stands out to me the most is so-called “hip openers”.
Every yoga class I’ve gone to recently seems to focus on either “heart opening” or “hip opening” moves. “Heart opening” I understand – in our sedentary hunched-over lives the upper backs get weak, chests get tight (literally and symbolically), so breathing deep and focusing on the backbends can be very useful. You still have to do it mindfully, of course.
Now “hip opening” is a different story. When we talk about hip opening we usually refer to external hip rotation, pigeon pose and the like. Many students have a love-hate relationship with this pose; it’s the kind that “hurts good”. And after few breaths there, it can facilitate a welcomed release. The question is: how important is that particular pose to the health of your hips?
The main purpose of the pigeon pose is to stretch your piriformis muscle and other external hip rotators. Doug Keller in his article Primer on the Piriformis gives this beautiful analogy: “The piriformis muscles are two fans of ropes that blend into a fascial hammock that hangs between the two trees [your legs]. The sacrum sits and rocks in the hammock, adjusting itself as the trees sway and move. This fascial hammock is the piriformis’s secret to regulating movement and stability in the sacroiliac (SI) joints.”
Needless to say, this is a quite delicate relationship and can be easily thrown out of balance if the piriformis gets too tight or too loose. You can end up with sciatica, SI pain and other discomforts and imbalances. Why does the piriformis get too tight? Often from underuse (we sit A LOT and in funny positions) or overuse (Ex: too much running). Why does it get too loose? It happens if sacral ligaments are hypermobile, either from birth and/or from OVERSTRETCHING. If the ligaments are too loose, it makes it much harder for the piriformis to stabilize the SI joints.
So what do we end up with then? Either a piriformis that’s locked in a shortened, contracted state or in a lengthened weakened state. Either way, stretching it is the last thing you would want to do! As we’ve already covered in an earlier blog post [A smart way to relieve muscle tension], trying to stretch a locked-short muscle is like trying to pry open a clenched fist – it won’t give much and then will snap right back into place. Trying to stretch a locked-long muscle is like pulling on a leather belt, how far will that get you? It is already stretched out and you can actually cause more damage by pulling it further.
What’s the solution then? Contract it! The only way to produce a lasting change is to contract your rotators, to make them work. Contracting the muscle increases circulation to the area, brings nourishment and develops muscle tone and strength. You contract the piriformis by turning your leg outward against gravity. And remember that piriformis doesn’t just rotate the hip, it also abducts the hip when the hip is flexed. So your hip strengthening routine needs to include the abducting moves.
Our insistence on constantly stretching the hips is a reflection of a bigger issue – too much stretching and not enough strengthening. We place much more emphasis on flexibility at the expense of stability. Yet it is balance that we strive for. The ligaments that are too loose cannot hold the structure together, which means that somebody else has to step up to the plate and your muscles will do it. But the primary job of your muscles is to MOVE the body, so they end up doing double duty and that’s a lot of work, especially as we get older.
If we are really interested in keeping our hips healthy, extreme external rotation is not the answer. I am not saying that you should stop doing Pigeon altogether. I am saying that a balanced hip practice needs to include both strengthening and stretching poses for the full range of motion in your hip: flexion, extension, adduction, abduction and rotation. And none of them need to be extreme. After all, for most of us the goal is not to audition for Cirque du Soleil, but to live a full life free of pain, doing things that we enjoy. Yoga practice should support us in that quest, not to hinder it.