If you’ve ever practiced yoga whether you’re a novice or an advanced practitioner you are aware of the importance of hip flexibility and within that hip stability whether you know it or not. As one of the single most important aspects of a strong asana (hatha) practice the topic is glanced at over and over. The problem isn’t that you aren’t aware of the fact that yoga postures derive from strong hip stability/flexibility, but as a layman practitioner maybe you aren’t aware of the importance to your own body.
First, Id like to address the notion that hip flexibility is the cause of your inability to work into many postures and cautiously advise to look at hip flexibility as rather a result (see hip stability). This is why working into postures with correct alignment and awareness of your anatomical structure is extremely important. And when I say your, I strongly stress the notion of you as every bodies body is different.
So here my objectives are in two fold - how can you improve hip joint mobility itself while lengthening the muscular structure that forms that line of resistance. In a beautifully written article by Tiffany Cruikshank she addresses the importance of not dumping into your flexibility (i.e. hyper mobility) which can be the cause of permanent damage and injury and can found in many practitioners (myself included). http://www.yogajournal.com/article/yoga-101/anatomy-101-understand-your-hips-to-build-stability/
The point here is basically that when we are working with any sort of joint mobility and stability it is of utmost importance to be aware of our limitations. Ultimately this means we must be conscious of what our limitations are produced by, i.e. muscle, ligaments or bony stops. This doesn’t require a high degree of study just some basic mindfulness of your own body. So, yoga.
Overstretching of areas through the ligaments can ultimately cause destabilization. As Tiffany points out, ligaments are not elastic, they do not stretch and bounce back. We must also recognize that our bone structure is part of the plan of our body - our body sets its own limitations for us and it is incredibly important to listen to that.
So what does that mean for people who are building up to a posture or even further for those who are deep into a posture and want more? Focus on the stability of the muscular structure - take a moment to listen to your body and rather than pushing further to feel that stretch take a moment to recognize what other parts of your body are asking for attention. Let’s take myself as an example. For me pigeon has always been pretty easy to pop in out of - so what I take notice of is how my quads and my knee are reacting to the pose. Quite often in pigeon my hips will be perfectly aligned but my knee will feel like somebody is tearing it in opposite directions so rather than dig deeper into that hip stretch I work on strengthening the muscular structure of my knee by doing a pose like supine pigeon and virasana. Poses like pigeon are extremely weight bearing and should be slowly worked up to.
One of my favorite ways to check in with hip stability is to take a pose in Utkatasana (chair/lighting pose).
1. Stand with feet together and sit back as if you are sitting deep into a chair.
2. Slightly notice the firing of your glute muscles and take a moment to check in with your lumbar (lower back) - if you find your self having a banana back slightly tuck your tailbone under by engaging your core (belly button back toward spine) and tilt your tailbone slightly.
3. Making sure the weight is evenly distributed through both feet, begin to send your energy and rooting toward you left foot and without lifting your hips begin to move your right foot away from your midline until you find a nice lateral leg extension (bring it back in and switch sides).
4. Notice how when you are not engaging your standing hip automatically wants to sink down and out of the socket. Keep engaged and stay in correct alignment. Take this with you in your physical postures.
Working on hip openers in inversions is a great way to stay away from weight bearing postures and for the extreme novice I suggest working in a supine position (laying on the back face up).
One of my favorite forward folds to work into hip flexibility is Janu Sirsana (head to knee pose). This is a great pose to stretch the hamstrings while protecting the lower back and working with left/right imbalances as it is an asymmetrical pose.