Yoga Anatomy: Understanding the Hip Rotators

Kristin Wilson
Yoga Anatomy: Understanding the Hip Rotators

The muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia of the hip are abundant and complex in their synchronicity. Yoga can work the hip rotation in a number of poses — both standing and seated.

Let's brush up on our yoga anatomy and dive into understanding the hip rotators better.

General Function

The hip is a ball and socket joint, formed by the upper thigh bone (the femur) attaching to the acetabulum (the opening pocket in the lower pelvis). Ball and socket joints typically have full range of motion; forward, backward, sideways, and rotational.

The hip joints function in helping you to bend forward at the waist, pick your legs up to walk and run, and straighten out to lay down — among the myriad of physiological functions your hips have.

Anatomy of the Hip

It is amazing how many muscles come together to function properly for hip movement. Considering that the hip is the meeting point of two of our heaviest bones (the pelvis and the femur) and that our entire upper body’s weight is supported on top of the pelvis and into the legs, it makes sense that a lot of muscle coordination must happen here.

  • Gluteal Muscles — muscles of the buttocks. We have three of them on each side.
  • Adductor Muscles — muscles of the inner thigh. We have five of them on each side.
  • Iliopsoas Muscle — starts at the low back and connects to upper femur. One on each side.
  • Hamstring Muscles — muscles of the back of the upper leg. We have three of them on each side.
  • Quadraceps Muscles — muscles of the front of the upper leg. We have four of them on each side.
  • Lateral Rotator Muscles — muscles lying deep in the hip. We have six of them on each side.

Each of these groups is responsible, usually, for multiple kinds of motion.

Movements of the Hip

  • Adduction — Bringing the thighs closer together. Muscles of the gluteals, lateral rotators and adductors provide this motion. When you have an injury to the inner thigh, it can often be difficult to pinpoint which muscles (or tendon or ligament) may be the problem because there are so many working together. Poses in which you will feel the adductors working: standing poses like Mountain. Poses in which you will feel the adductors stretching: Butterfly, Head to Knee Pose.
  • Abduction — Separation of the thighs or movement away from the midline. Muscles of the gluteals and lateral rotators create this motion. Overworked butt muscles will make it hard to abduct and complete poses that require wide legs, like Warrior II or Wide Legged Forward Fold.
  • Flexion — Bending forward at the hips. A muscle called tensor fasciae latae, the ilopsoas, and some adductors create a forward folding motion. Additionally, the hamstrings need to lengthen (not contract) in order to let the fold happen. Flexion of hip occurs every time we are seated.
  • Extension — Straightening the hips. Muscles involved are the gluteus maximus, and all of the hamstrings. Any time we stand upright we are extending the hip joints, and also when we lay down in Savasana, the hips are extended.
  • Rotation — Both lateral rotation (outer or external spiral of the leg from the hip joint) and medial rotation (inner spiral of the leg from the hip joint). This lateral motion is sometimes called “peeling open the hip”, in poses like Tree, or Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle or Butterfly Pose). Muscles involved in lateral rotation are the deep lateral rotators and adductor muscles releasing, while muscles involved in medial rotation are the glutes.

How to Keep Them Safe in Yoga Practice

  • Strengthen weak muscles with light weight training. — There is a machine at the gym that can work both the adductors (inner thighs) and with a flip of the leg padding, it can also work the abductors (outer thighs and glutes). There are also machines that can work your hamstrings and then switch to the machine right next to it (usually) and work the quadriceps.
  • Props, props, props. — If you are a student who already knows they have a tender muscle or area of the hip, definitely shorten your range of motion by using blocks, bolsters and blankets. I’m thinking, in particular, of using props during hip openers on the floor like Half Pigeon or Lizard Pose.
  • Limit Range of Motion. — We often try to deepen our poses because we want to make progress. If you are prone to hip injuries, currently have one, or have had one in the past, then think about going to only about 80% of the poses in which your particular hip muscles are strained or sprained.

Some (Just Some!) Poses to Release Tight Hip Rotators

  • Mountain — Ever sit for such a long time (at work? Or watching TV?) that your hips get too tight? Stand up! Mountain pose. Extend!
  • Forward Fold or Seated Forward Fold — many of us use this pose to lengthen the hamstrings.
  • Cow Faced Pose — This will release your abductors and teach the hips better medial rotation
  • Half Pigeon — This pose works all kinds of things for the hips. It extends the hip on one side while opening the adductors and abductors of the other, for example.
  • Eye of the Needle Pose — Very similar to Half Pigeon but is gentler on the knees.
  • Tree Pose — Works to rotate the hip for the leg that is open and propped up, and extension and strength for the standing leg.
  • Warrior I — The more you work on rotating the hips to face forward, the greater the stretch you will get in the adductors and hip extenders of the back leg
  • Warrior II — Can really work the hip flexors of the front leg, the hip extenders of the back leg, and opens up the adductors of the back leg.

As you can see, the hip is a complex joint. If you become injured, obviously seek professional help, but also listen to your body. Hip injuries are extremely hard to heal if you fail to give your body proper time to rest.

If your hips are healthy, work them, stretch them, and keep them mobile. Yoga is an amazing exercise that can reach all the hip’s ranges of motion to keep the hips limber and hydrated.

What’s your favorite hip opening pose? Share with us below!