The jury is out whether hips really are the ‘junk drawer’ for negative emotions, as a lot of yogis are known to say, or whether it’s all a load of fluff and actually is just due to physiological tightness.
I imagine that it’s a bit of both.
I come from a family of scientists; we love facts, research, and proof. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of some of the more fluffy stuff that us yogis spout on about (myself definitely included), and the hip issue is one of them that I treat with care for that very reason. I used to have a little internal chuckle when my teachers would warn us that the hip opening class could make us emotional. There are even jokes along the lines of ‘sorry for what I said while I was in pigeon pose’. I found it frustrating that everyone would carry on about these magical, invisible dumping grounds that coexisted with me in my hips, and wanted hard evidence of where all this esoteric stuff was coming from.
Over time, and with softening, and with letting go of the need to have everything scientifically proven (although there is still healthy scepticism that will always be there), and through seeing many students reactions to asana specifically focused on the hips, that there is definitely something way deeper than just the physical going on with people’s reactions to hip work. I’ve long ago ceased to be surprised when people snuffle their way through hip opening classes, or when grown men / women come to me after class to apologise for crying (usually noone even notices except them and me), often looking really bewildered and confused as to what on earth actually happened in there.
Yes, of course, our sedentary lifestyle and the amount of sitting we do for long periods can cause our hip flexors to shorten up and become tight, leading to problems with posture and back pain. The flip side (too much movement, or movement of a certain kind) can also cause pain and tightness – runners frequently suffer from hip soreness and inflammation due to overuse of certain muscles, impaired gait or poor running posture (which is why core strengthening and flexibility can help control posture when running to further reduce the workload of the psoas – but that’s for another post). So it makes sense that there can be a certain level of discomfort when doing hip work.
My conclusion (and I reserve the right to change my mind at any point as I continue on my journey of learning – see, there’s another of those yogi cliches right there!) is that it’s probably a bit of both. Going with the slightly fluffy suggestion that the hips are said to be where we store emotion – often the kind we keep hidden down like anger, anxiety, sadness and frustration, it stands to reason that working on the deep tissues in hip opening asanas can release both physical and emotional tension.
Here’s what makes sense to me, the explanation that I can work with: on a physiological level the muscles of the hips have a relationship with the fight or flight response – we are born with the reflex action of activating the hip flexors to bring us into the fetal position when under threat. One of the hip flexors, the psoas, is connected to the diaphragm so tightness here can lead to restrictions in the breath. So often in hip openers, we feel a sense of discomfort and so we instinctively tighten up – hold our breath, and essentially protect ourselves from this nasty feeling that we don’t like. And this is where the magic of the breath kicks in, and in my humble opinion, this is where the emotional stuff can be triggered, or brought into the light.
As we allow ourselves to surrender – or even start surrendering – letting go little by little, becoming softer, becoming even slightly more open to seeing what it is that we are so fiercely protecting ourselves from, it can be bloody scary, because sometimes we feel unbelievably vulnerable. Often it’s only at this point that we realise how tightly we’ve been holding on, and keeping ourselves safe – from whom or what is largely irrelevant at this point, it’s the fact that once that self-love starts, and you can hold yourself with compassion, you can almost allow yourself to let go. To realise you’re safe. You’re okay. You’ll be caught, even if you fall. The breath keeps us safe.
And here we can take it back to the practice on a psychological level – how we approach hip openers (and other strong poses) can be a mirror for how we approach other challenges in our lives; hip openers require a softening and surrendering into the pose, staying present and staying with the breath. This can be tough but ultimately worth it as our awareness grows.
Many of my students have heard me quote one of my heroes before – Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” So the option is there to view hip work as a chance to observe the stimulus (possible aversion to the pose, possible pain or tenderness, possible resistance) and then expanding the space before you choose your reaction – possibly asking some questions as to why on earth you are holding on so tightly, why you are so scared to let go, and then honouring it with your chosen response – to get out the pose quick smart, or to maybe stay and soften. That’s where the growth and the magic and the healing can happen.