Myth #3: The hips should be stacked like a plane of glass in triangle pose
In this article I’ll continue my series exploring the intentions behind common cues about alignment in yoga. Let’s take a look at the intention to stack the hips in triangle pose. To get started, let’s review the anatomy of the hip joint.
Anatomy of the hip joint
The hip joint is classified as a ball and socket type of joint. The “ball” part of the joint is the upper, rounded part of the femur (thigh bone) called the “head” of the femur. It fits into a “socket” called the acetabulum on the outside of the pelvis. The acetabulum is lined around the perimeter with a cartilaginous membrane called a labrum, which contributes to the strength and fit of this particular ball and socket joint. The labrum is like the meniscus of the knee. We also have a series of strong ligaments and large, strong muscles that connect the femur to the pelvis across the hip joint to maintain the stability of this joint.
The hip joint and movement
The hip joint is capable of a large range of motion compared to most joints in the body. We can move in essentially any direction from the hip joint because it is a ball and socket type of joint. Dysfunction in the hip range of motion can lead to problems up and down the chain of joints, for example knee pain or dysfunction and/or lower back pain. Mobility around the hip joints, then, is generally an asset with respect to maintaining the health and mobility of all the related joints and tissues. Like any joint though, if we move it in ways that increase the compression on the parts that make up the joint, we can cause additional wear and tear on the joint components.
The hip joints and yoga
In yoga we move the hip joint through a greater range of motion than most daily activities require (Mears et al., 2018). This is not inherently either bad or good. It does mean that if we want to maintain the health of our joints, then we probably want to make those movements in yoga conscious, as much as possible, so we can respond to our body and adjust how we move in the moment based on how things feel. This idea of responding to what we feel in our own body is important to keep in mind whenever we use alignment cues in yoga, but it is especially important if we are moving the body towards its edges of range of motion.
The hip joints and triangle pose
If we look specifically at triangle pose, recent research suggests that in that pose we are moving the hips beyond a typical range of motion for more mundane activities such as walking (Mears et al., 2018). This is not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of. Remember, as I mentioned earlier in this article, the hip joint is held together with muscles and ligaments. We can of course stretch our muscles to a degree, but ligaments don’t lengthen in the same way that muscles do. If we stretch them past their end point, we can potentially over-stretch these ligaments, which can lead to destabilizing the hip joint. This is important, because when the joint is less stable, it moves around more and can create irritation or inflammation, which ultimately can lead to arthritis.
So what about stacking the hips in triangle pose?
The short answer is: it depends. If we try to keep the hips stacked from the beginning as we reach down towards the floor, and we don’t allow the inside hip to drop forward a little bit, then the greater trochanter (the ball of the ball and socket in the hip joint) is going to bump into the pelvis sooner than if we allow the front to drop down and forward a bit. If we continue putting pressure into the hip joint in that way, we will eventually move through the muscular hamstring tension and could potentially start stretching ligamentous tissue.
However, we could allow the front hip to drop down and forward as we reach into triangle pose, and then from there work with the intention to open the hips and bring that top hip in the direction of stacked. That would allow us to work with the intention to stack the hips in triangle, while allowing the hip joint to move in a potentially more functional way.
The SI joint and triangle pose
Another thing to pay attention to as you reach down and consider whether to try to stack the hips in triangle pose, is the effect that trying to keep the pelvis in a single plane as you move could have on the sacroiliac joint (SI joint). If we try to force the pelvis to stay in a single sideways plane and the muscles in our body don’t really allow for that movement, we can potentially transfer that force into the SI joint.
Remember that the SI joint becomes more vulnerable as there is an increase in the forces that pass through it. The increase of force typically comes at the end of range of motion of the spine above and the hip below. Once you have made your way into triangle, by virtue of the shape, you have pretty much maximized the movement of the hip joint. When you correct the upper half of the body by say, trying to align your pelvis or adjust your spine, you are then more likely to maximize the range of motion in that area. It’s that action that can lead to an increase of pressure in the SI joint.
The intention of length
We can probably all agree that the idea behind the cue to stack the hips in triangle pose is related to an intention of creating length along the side of the body facing upward. Whether or not the cue to stack the hips in triangle pose makes sense for an individual practitioner, the overall intention of creating length along the side of the body in triangle pose makes sense to me. Working with the overall intention of creating length in the side body can help make space for breath and can help keep those tissues moving in a healthy way in the body.
So, where does length come from? One way to think about creating length is that we can create it from resistance. So, if we allow the hips to simply do what they do, rather than trying to stack the hips in triangle as we are reaching down, and then we make a connection by either grabbing our toe, our ankle, or placing our hand on a block, we can create length in the tissues by reaching away or resisting the ground. The pull created by resisting the ground creates length.
The yoga part
Whatever our physical intentions in a yoga posture, I think it’s important to consider the alignment cues we use and be clear about the purpose they are serving. In every posture we have an opportunity to explore “being” rather than being overly-focused on “doing”. So whether we choose to stack the hips in triangle from the beginning, work towards creating length from the ground, or use another intention, it’s important to keep coming back to a broader yoga perspective in our practice if we want it to deepen beyond the physical gymnastics of the postures.
We might consider our breathing in triangle. Does the breath feel constricted or held anywhere? If so, maybe that is where we could place our attention. How is the overall feeling in the pose? Do we feel steady and at ease? If not, what needs to change in our body in that moment to create those qualities?
Mears, S.C., M.R. Wilson, E.M. Mannen, S.A. Tackett, C.L. Barnes. 2018. Position of the hip in yoga. The Journal of Arthroplasty. 33:2306-2311.