While I don’t buy into the idea that all of our emotional baggage is stored in our hips, nor that greater and greater mobility increases our chances of achieving enlightenment, I do know that tight-feeling hips and thighs can be a source of discomfort. My students and yoga therapy clients frequently ask me how to alleviate that discomfort without aggravating knee issues.
Knee pain—whether from surgery, injury, or just sensitivity—can be an obstacle to “hip openers” like pigeon and bound angle and poses that involve lunge-type movements. However (and happily) you can indeed still achieve a pain-free hip stretch when your knees won’t (or shouldn’t) flex as deeply as these poses generally require.
1. Seated Goddess Pose
Sit on a chair so that your legs are bent in front of you and your knees are directly over your ankles and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your knees. Now move your legs away from each other into a straddle position (knees still bent and over the ankles, toes turned out, feet still flat on the floor). Adjust your seat either forward or back, if necessary, so you feel well supported by the chair. Lean forward by hinging at your hips to find a mild inner-thigh stretch; then hold the pose, taking five full, even breaths.
Or, if it’s comfortable for you, lean your upper body to the left until you feel the stretch in your right hip, and then circle forward to the right, and back to the center five times. Pause, then lean to the right and make these spinal spirals to the left five times.
This chair-supported lunge places no pressure on the knees and stretches the psoas, which is essential to the overall flexibility and strength of the back, pelvis, legs, and hips.
Sit in a chair as you did for the previous pose, with your knees over your ankles. Then, turn your whole body to the right so that only your right leg is on the chair and your right knee is directly over your ankle. Stretch your left leg back until you feel a stretch across your hip crease as you press your weight into the ball of your left foot. If this is too intense, slide your left foot forward until the stretch is comfortable. Take five full, even breaths and then switch sides.
3. Pelvic “Pigeon Tilts”
Flip it! This reclined pigeon variation opens the hips further without placing any pressure on the knees.
Lie down on your back with legs extended; place your hands behind your right knee, and hug it toward the left side of your chest. Synchronizing with the rhythm of your breath, try doing a few pelvic tilts here, deepening the curve in your lumbar spine on the inhale and releasing it toward the floor on the exhale.
Reclining rock the baby can also feel good if the external rotation doesn’t hurt your knees (your bottom leg can be bent if that’s more comfortable). Open your right hip so that your right shin is as close to parallel with your chest as possible. Then take hold of the ankle and knee with your hands and rock the leg gently side to side. Switch sides.
4. Anti-Gravity Method
Sitting in baddha konasana(bound angle pose) or sukhasana(easy pose) without blocks can cause knee discomfort for some people. Supporting the pelvis with a bolster or folded blanket(s), and supporting the legs with a wall, decreases the tug on the hamstrings and therefore stress on the knees.
To move into the pose, sit with your side close to the wall and roll onto your back, bringing your legs up the wall. Once you’re there, bend your knees and press your feet into the wall in order to lift your pelvis away from the floor so that you can slide your desired support prop under your hips. Lower your hips and sacrum to rest on the support and then slide your feet down the wall, bringing your knees wide and the soles of your feet together (like baddha konasana).
Tip: If your inner thighs feel tight, rather than pushing your knees toward the wall, rest your hands on your knees and push your knees toward your hands (this will often allow the thighs to relax a bit when you release the muscle contraction).
For a deeper inner-thigh stretch, you can also try a straddle with the legs against the wall.
5. Churning the Mill (Chakki Chalanasana)
Chakki chalanasanais a kriya (cleansing action) that provides both a nice inner-thigh stretch and a bit of abdominal strengthening. Begin by sitting on the floor with your legs extended and separated into a V, as they would be for upavistha konasana (seated wide-angle forward bend). Interlace your fingers and stretch your arms straight out from your chest, knuckles pointing forward. Perform five to ten churning movements in each direction, circling the upper body forward—right, back, left, center front, and then switching directions. Inhale as you reach forward and to the side and center (back), exhale as you lean back and to the other side and center. Imagine that you’re stirring a big pot of something thick.
When you finish, sit quietly for a few breaths to feel the impact of this kriya on your hips.
The important thing to remember in practicing all of these variations is to work without forcing joints beyond their comfort range. Notice where the stretch feels good and enjoy the sensation. More isn’t necessarily better, and a moderate stretching sequence can go a long way toward keeping us from having pain the next day.
Photography: Andrea Killam