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Emotions and the Hips

from the archives // originally written in 2016

When I started practicing yoga I felt pretty out of place in any studio I went to and I was always comparing myself to other practitioners in the room, yet I didn’t have enough knowledge or determination to create my own home practice to take away that judgement. I unconsciously chose to compare myself to others and used that judgment as a way to distract myself from being present. Coming to this realization was really uncomfortable for me because I had always been a very outgoing person.  I liked to be able to be able to say I was “good” at something, but in this situation, I felt powerless. As I kept going to the yoga classes and found teachers who I connected with, something changed.

I learned that yoga is not a competition or something to stress over. Yoga is a practice of letting go and allowing emotions to arise in the physical body, so that there is space for growth. This was an idea that I immediately connected with even though as a young teen. As I kept practicing I understood that I needed to be able to create a space where others could experience what I felt in yoga classes so I decided to sign up for a yoga teacher training. At the time it was hard for me to define what it was I experienced in yoga classes that created the space for personal growth, yet after an experience I had this winter I was able to better understand what I was encountering. 

I was at All Souls Interfaith Gathering, in Shelburne Vermont, for the day with and one of my teachers from my yoga teacher training led a truly transformative yoga class. I had been looking out over the snow-covered fields towards the frozen lake, when I observed that through the shapes I was putting my body in, I was thawing the parts of my physical body that were as frozen as the outer world .

I was in a lunge position with the back knee on the floor and my spine curved so that my forehead could touch a block and be grounded when tears began to form in the corner of my eyes. We were told at the beginning of the class that due to holding deep hip opening poses for extended amounts of time, something like that could happen, but no matter the preparation, I was taken aback. At first, I was ashamed that I was crying in a yoga class, because yoga was supposed to put me together, not break me apart. And then I was embarrassed that others might see me when I was not composed and happy. But what I came to understand was, those were my fears arising. I was fearing not being whole or seen as less than my usual seemingly happy self. (I discovered that those were some of the expectations I had put myself, had be given to me by friends or family and that they were the emotions that I had been hiding, until reflecting upon that moment when I began to cry).  

My own hip opening experience inspired me to explore the scientific and more spiritual reasons for what causes such releases happen.  One of the most important things that I found was that the hips have many deep layers of strong muscles and because there are so many layers of muscle the hips and pelvis are an area where tension builds easily. This tension in the hips can be caused by physical tightness from lifestyle, age, genetics, physical accidents, as well as traumas one experienced as a child--leading to some of the deepest emotions being stored within the depths of the hips. 

In yoga it is said that different parts of the body store different emotions. As Sarah Powers points out in her book Insight Yoga, “We may experience disappointment in a tight hip or fear as we settle into a long-held backbend. The longer we practice, the more we notice how varied our feelings are, how we can feel agitation one minute and elation the next, exuberance followed by despair.”  Our hips are where we store many of our most hidden and deep emotions relating to anger, anxiety, sadness and frustration. In asana practice, working with deep in hip opening poses can release both physical and emotional tension.

As a yoga teacher I have learned that a sudden onset of emotions during a routine session is very natural and even healthy for growth, but it often takes many practitioners by surprise.  While it may seem embarrassing to cry in class or to feel these very profound sensations, it’s an important part of the practice as it allows us to develop a sense of letting go. 

Knowing that the hips are a place where we often hold tension and stagnant energy from emotions there are some poses and techniques we can practice to release some of the things that are no longer serving us. 

Prana, breath, or the body’s life force, needs to flow freely in the hips in order to release any blockages. Before doing any deep hip opening poses it is extremely helpful to do some breathing exercises as well as warm up the body to begin to move the prana around the body. 

Lizard Pose: This pose is a lot like a luge, but the back leg rests on the ground and the knee that is bent in front can safely fall out to the side. There will be a significant stretch in the hip flexor of the leg on the mat and a groin stretch in leg that is forward. 

Pigeon Pose: I find it best to get into this pose from table top. From there, bring one knee to the same wrist and then extend the opposite leg out as you fold onto a bolster.

Pyramid Pose: In this forward fold you will feel most of the stretch in the hamstrings, but the challenge that benefits the hips is to keep the hips square and level. One thing that can be very helpful is to put a block on the sacrum in order to feel what is truly level and square. 

Wide legged forward fold: This pose is done just as it sounds. The legs come to about under the wrists if your arms were outstretched and then the toes can turn in slightly as you bend from the hip creases. Bending the toes in slightly allows the low back and sacrum to remain in neutral alignment so that the stretching can be directed towards the hips. 

The sequence opens the hips as well as helps the lower back to prepare for standing poses in any practice. Between each of these hip openers it can be nice to go to down dog for a few breaths. Coming back to down dog allows you to pedal out the legs and reset for the next pose in order to reap the full benefits.

Never force an opening as these things take time.  Even if your hips seem completely immobile or very open, keeping your awareness on the breath while working to soften is crucial. Direct the power of your awareness toward change and in doing so you will begin to observe progress mentally and physically.

My experience of a deep hip release has taught to tune in to my emotions and be much more present with my physical experiences because we can learn a lot from them.  From the time we are born we have both physical and emotional experiences that shape who we are in the world.  I encourage you to acknowledge both the good and the bad in whatever those experiences may have been for you as you explore what’s hiding in your hips. Know that any release is a good one and the most important thing is to be present to the sensation. 

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