Open and Closed hips
The concept of Open and Closed hip foundations may be the most important and perhaps understood alignment principle of asana practice. As with all alignment principles, it is the intention to set the correct foundation and not the pose’s final appearance that matters!
Every yoga pose will adopt one of two possible hip orientations. All yoga postures, whether standing, sitting, or inverted, utilize either an Open-hip or a Closed-hip foundation. And importantly, the direction that the legs and feet open into follows the orientation of the hips.
The Open-hip position is performed as if the two hips can fit between two panes of glass, occupying only the two dimensions of horizontal and vertical. The primary direction that the body moves in these poses is lateral flexion (side-to-side). The legs open side-to-side along the frontal plane, forming a straight line from the front of the heel bone (or the ankles) to the center of the hip sockets. Open-hip poses usually set up along the long side of the mat. Not all yogis can perfectly open their hips and maintain these perimeters exactly but this is the clear intention in Open-hip post.
In Open-hip poses, the legs widen laterally to a distance between the feet where each ankle is vertically below the wrist of each outstretched arm. The rear foot aligns parallel with the back of the mat. It does not turned inward, which is often taught. Turning the rear foot inward will undesirably roll the rear hip and thigh anterior to the ankle. Closed-hip poses align front-to-back, or anterior-to-posterior along the sagittal plane. The hips, legs, and feet attempt to still face fully forward. This is challenging and generally not attainable, especially as the distance between the front and back legs lengthens. Intention is what makes alignment successful.
The front-to-back distance between the legs in Closed-hip postures is shorter than that for Open-hip postures, reducing the distance by 75-85%, or approximately one-to-two-foot lengths shorter.
Closed-hip poses most often internally rotates in order to properly release the hip ligaments and allow the rear leg to extend to its maximum degree. Internal rotation also assists the back foot to more effectively face forward and flatten to the mat.
“There can only be one… hip orientation”
Each yoga posture is assigned to only one of these two foundations. Yogis find themselves in trouble when, at the initiation of the posture, they do not establish its foundation based on the correct hip orientation.
Despite some yoga postures being linked together in an asana series or sharing similar names, they often do not have the same hip orientation. For example, Warrior One is a Closed-hip pose and Warrior Two is Open-hipped and require opposite foundations. Triangle is Open-hipped and Revolved Triangle is a Closed-hip posture. Transitioning from one posture to the other without re-adjusting the alignment of the feet, legs and hips can cause significant strain and trauma. This is a very common oversight that occurs in asana practices frequently and a cause of yoga-induced injury.
Begin each asana by setting the correct foundation with the feet and legs placed according to the hip orientation of the pose - Open or Closed. Often the hips do not have adequate flexibility to square fully forward and will benefit from internal rotation of the hip joints to increase flexibility. Other essential alignment steps to be included for hip flexibility are presented in Chapter 13.
Postures are not forced but remain within comfortable limits. In Warrior One, the hips rarely attain the full forward-facing orientation, especially as the front knee bends and approaches 90° of flexion. The more precise alignment is engaged, the more attainable is the posture.
Standing postures are powerful hip openers. For some yogi’s aligning the legs in Open Hip poses is challenging. To alleviate, instead of forcing the front heel to align by bisecting the sole of the rear foot, the rear foot can set up more posterior so that the front heel aligns with the ball of the rear foot.
Examples of postures with each type of hip orientation
· Triangle Utthita Trikonasana
· Warrior 2 Virabhadrasana II
· Extended Side Angle Utthita Parsvakonasana
· Half Moon Ardha Chandrasana
· Wide-angle forward fold Prasarita Padottanasana
· Revolved Triangle Parivrtta Trikonasana
· Warrior 1 Virabhadrasana I
· Pyramid Pose Parsvottanasana
· Warrior 3 Virabhadrasana III
· Lunge Anjaneyasana
Exceptions to the rule
Some yoga traditions teach a few of their poses with a foundation that is in between the two orientations. For example, the position of the hips in Janu Sirsasana, Knee Head Pose, may be taught with a foundation that is diagonal between the open and closed orientations. Other exceptions to the only-one hip orientation rule are very rare and would be unique only to a particular style of yoga.
Often when there is an exception, one direction of hip orientation is still predominant over the other. For example, Humble Warrior Pose usually is aligned on an Open hip foundation, although it is not always obvious.
Linking poses into a flow
Most asana practices move through a flow or sequencing of yoga postures, often called a vinyasa. Surya Namaskar, the Sun Salutation, is the most well known vinyasa. Virtually any group of postures can be linked together; however, it is necessary to properly establish the correct hip orientations for each posture and adhere to all other principles of alignment. The more a vinyasa shifts from Open to Closed hip foundations, the more challenging it becomes to set clear and definite foundations for every individual pose. The foundations are never to be abandoned, regardless of the speed of the flow. Less experienced students become disorientated by rapid changes in hip position and unable to negotiate the abrupt changes in leg and foot positions that are required. They are often caught with an improper or lack of foundation and likely to become injured. If a yoga teacher chooses to create complex asana sequences, it is a primary responsibility to guide students skillfully and precisely to safely establish their foundations. It is best to design vinyasas in sets of postures that use the same hip orientation. The closer the outer form matches the inner function, the safer and more therapeutic are the asana.