It's All in the Hips, Or Is It?

23-Mar-2018

It’s All in the Hips,
Or Is It?

By Samantha Jacobs

I won’t rehash all the unfortunate phrases said during yoga classes that lend credibility to the troupe of yoga (as practiced in Western countries) as emotionally overwrought and scientifically unsupported; a little too much heart and not enough head (if you want a primer and a laugh, find them here: https://www.doyouyoga.com/8-phrases- that-yoga- teachers-can- stop-using-now- 15627/). Hearing that I was supposed to breathe into the deliciousness of a pose and release my inner toxins kept me from coming back to the mat for what must have amounted to a thousand days. I remember enough from my pre-med undergraduate courses to know that when I go upside-down, I am not “reversing the blood flow” in my body. So, what of this emotional release that is said over and over to come from hip openers? 

Before I get too analytical, a disclaimer: I believe that there are intangible, immeasurable, and simply mystic elements to an honest and authentic yoga practice. Part of yoga is faith. There’s no set of data I need to prove to me the how real it is when my mind becomes still after I’ve spent over an hour paying attention to my breath, trying with my whole heart, and releasing any attachment to the results of my efforts (yes, that’s roughly Sutra 1.12).

Now, back to the hips and that time you found yourself bawling in Sleeping Pigeon Pose after ten minutes. Okay. The hips are home to the largest ball and socket joints in the body which interact with seventeen to twenty-five different muscles depending on who you ask. Sitting for long periods of time (as many of us are want to do these days) shortens the hip-flexor muscles including the psoas, rectus femoris, and sartorius as well as the hip-rotators including the piriformis, and gemellus and obturator muscle groups. Muscles that originate from the hips attach at the pelvis, lumbar spine, sacrum, and all the way down to the femur. Tight or underdeveloped muscles can cause chronic pain, spasms, and knots, and reduce blood flow and oxygenation. Make no mistake, tightness in the hips can destabilize the spine and negatively affect core strength. From a simple mechanical perspective, regularly stretching the hips has indisputable benefits whether you are trying to maintain basic mobility or training as an elite athlete.

Now the emotional release? Western medicine is slowly wising up to the reality that the body and the mind are inextricably linked, and that manifestations in the body correlate to emotional and mental well-being. This makes sense. At their most basic level, emotions are chemical reactions that take place across the entire body, not just in the brain; an emotional experience is followed by an almost-instantaneous physical response. Existing studies on the matter do support that feelings of negativity activate muscles in the jaw and around the eyes, and people who have experienced chronic stress have shortened neck and shoulder muscles.

People also tend to understand their emotions as taking place within the physical body. When asked, research subjects associated the neck and shoulders with pride, anger, and shame. The entire body was linked with happiness and love, but unsurprisingly, the chest area near the heart was considered the most highly activated. The chest was also the repository for anxiety and fear. Like love, depression and sadness were envisioned to spread throughout the entire body, but with emphasis in the arms and legs. And the hips? There is little scientific research that correlates the storage of negative emotions and the hips. See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/urban-survival/201505/5- ways-stress- hurts-your-body-and- what-do- about-it.

Indeed, most of the observations regarding hip openings and emotional release originate from the yoga community. See https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/emotions-in- motion. If you have experienced a breakthrough or particularly charged episode after an extensive session working into the muscles of the hips, no one is here to tell you that you are incorrectly associating the physical and mental release. The hips are large and complicated structures central to how we move. 

Yoga is about the yoke that forms the connection among mind, body, and breath. Once you start diving into yourself, there is no limit to the realizations you might have and the very real emotional responses that occur. The hips as an emotional storage site is a fairly uncontroversial premise within the yoga community, but I wonder how many teachers repeat what they have been told without their own research, and how many students feel pressure to seek emotion in a space in the body where it just might not exist for them. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I try to honor not just my own experiences, but to be as educated as possible about the experiences that may or may not be evoked in others. Not everyone’s experience with hip opening need be deeply emotional. Sometimes, it’s just really, really uncomfortable in the moment, and that perspective also needs to have room in a practice space to be enough.

I get uncomfortable when yoga teachers describe feelings and sensations that stray into the outer stratosphere of the reality of human physiology. I will not breathe through my left pinky toe, thank you. Some students love this approach and many teachers thrive on creative metaphors to make people see and feel themselves with a little more clarity and a little more heart. That’s the beauty of yoga. There is room enough to come at it from as many different angles as there are people who practice it. But the next time you are in a class, teaching or taking, perhaps give a thought to the idea that stretching the muscles of the hips might evoke an emotional response, and it might not. The science is still out. Your experience is your experience. How can you invite exploration without being prescriptive about out ever-evolving understanding of how the mind and the body work together?

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