Did you know that an average person spends roughly about six or more hours in a day seated? Factor in four more hours spent seated in the car driving through Metro Manila traffic amounts to an average total of 10 hours sitting on our butts. We spend at least half of our day seated. Think about that for a second. Let it sink in.
Before I digress and talk about sitting and diabetes or heart diseases, based on that statistic alone, we can surely agree on one thing: our legs do not work as much as they should be or were meant to. When we start to limit the amount of activity in the legs, like any muscle, they start to atrophy. They weaken, tighten or both. Now, as far as biomechanics is concerned, this much we know: weak or tight muscles will not be in a good position to provide support for the bones and joints in the body. So when you hear someone complain about hip and knee pains or even lower back pain (you may be this certain someone too), weak and non-functioning hip and leg muscles will most likely be the main culprit.
Now, while the ultimate goal really is to STRENGTHEN the hip and leg muscles (more on that later, in a different article), there are benefits still to be harvested simply by doing RELEASE WORK on those tightening muscles. Muscles that are supple, after all, will be in a much better position when the time comes you need to activate and recruit them.
Let us also take away the excuse that you do not have time to go to the studio or the gym to do the release work by keeping things accessible. Do these five poses anywhere (name it, at the office, in the dining room, etc.)! As long as you have access to a stable chair (NOT a chair with wheels, please!) that can support your weight, you can begin the practice. It is about time you put that chair that has been keeping your hip and leg muscles tight to good use.
(WORD OF CAUTION: if you are doing this in the office and in your office clothes, just make sure your pants have enough room to accommodate a fairly wide range of motion, lest you become the object of office gossip or ‘fail’ stories for the week.)
Releases: Deep External Rotators of the Hip, Inner Thighs, Buttocks
Start in a seated position on the chair. Bring your right foot on top of your left thigh to create a figure-four with your legs. You want to keep your right ankle flexed to keep the knee protected. Allow the right knee to reach towards the floor so you can keep your right ankle and knee in one line. The effort of keeping them in one line will require you to roll the right outer thigh down and under that will initiate the stretch of the deep external rotators of the hips. Take a deep inhale here to keep your spine upright. Then on your exhale, begin to fold over the thighs while keep the spine long. This will intensify the release work. Aim to stay for five breaths on each side. If the left side (or the right side) feels relatively tighter, feel free to stay there longer or do another round on that side.
TWISTED CHAIR VARIATION.
Releases: Buttocks – Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minimus
Start in a seated position on the chair. Cross your right leg on top of the left leg, so that your right knee rests on top of your left knee. Flex your right ankle to keep the leg active then work at pressing the right shin against your left shin. If you feel that your right hip has jutted forward as a result of those muscular efforts, work at plugging the thighbone back to it’s socket; there will be a pulling effort of the right leg in. Inhale here to lengthen the spine up, then slowly as you exhale start to twist towards the right. You can place your right hand behind the chair’s back rest and the left hand at the top of the chair handle. This way you can use your hands on the chair as a lever to turn the chest open. Stay here for a good three to five breaths. You might feel the stretching sensations at the side of the buttocks. When you are ready, get deeper into the twist by hinging your spine over your right thigh, folding forward in a twist, and maybe even hook the left elbow outside of the right thigh. In a folded forward position, you get to stretch majority of the muscles surrounding your buttocks. Stay for another three-five breaths before taking it on the other side.
INTENSE SIDE STRETCH POSE.
Releases: Hamstrings, muscles at the back of the thighs, and sides of the buttocks (if the option of a twist is taken)
Start out in a standing position. Depending on how tight the backs of the thighs are, you can either face the seat of the chair or the back of the chair. Facing the back of the chair will be a slightly easier option, especially those with tighter hamstrings. With your spine upright, step your left foot back (about a good three to four feet distance) then turn the back heel in slightly towards the center line. Make sure you can keep your hips facing the chair. If you are having a hard time squaring the hips, step the left foot out slightly to the left. Reach the arms up as you take a deep inhale, then fold over the hips as you exhale.
The hands can lower on the chair’s back rest or seat of the chair depending on how you started out. Now there will be a tendency here to round at the lower back; it’s the body’s way of taking the path of least resistance. Avoid that so you can really release the hamstrings. Press the root of your thighbones back strongly, most especially the right thighbone, then pull the chest strongly forward so you can keep the spine long. You should feel at this point your hamstrings lengthening, stretching out to release. Stay here for five to eight breaths.
Additional Work: you can take an option to twist the spine by opening the chest out to the right. Take this option only if (1) you can keep the spine long when you fold forward and (2) you can keep the hips square and leveled. This additional option stretches the sides of the hips even more.
GODDESS POSE to WARRIOR II POSE.
Releases: same muscles as Thread-the-Needle for the bent leg, targets the Illiopsoas, Tensor Fascia Latae and Adductor muscles for the straight leg
Start in a seated position on the chair. Open your legs out wide so that you bring the knees apart. Make sure that your feet and toes are point out the same direction as your knees so that you don’t torque the knees. To find a deeper stretch in the inner thighs, place your hands on your inner thighs and gently push them further away from each other as you are trying the roll the outer thighs down towards the floor. This is a seated variation of Goddess Pose. Stay here for a couple of breaths until you feel the inner thighs start to release.
From Goddess, keep your right knee bent then straighten your left leg out. As you straighten the left leg, make sure that your right knee is now pointed straight out towards the right side of the chair. The hips will be in a diagonal position, facing outwards, but keep your chest facing towards the center. Then work on really straightening the left leg while keeping your spine upright. You should feel the left front hip muscles beginning to lengthen and release. Stay here for a good five to eight breaths for each side.
HIGH LUNGE (with option of Crippled Crab).
Releases: (like the straight back leg in Warrior II pose) Illiopsoas, Tensor Fascia Latae, Adductor muscles, (if option of crippled crab is taken, mainly the Quadriceps, muscles at the front of the thighs)
Start out in a standing position. Face the back of the chair then slowly step the right leg back. Start out in a shorter stance and work towards a longer stance once you feel the muscles are ready to release a little bit more. Instead of grounding the back heel down, keep you back heel lifted. You are now in a High Lunge position. Now the work begins. First, square your hips towards the chair. There is an effort of plugging the left thighbone back to the socket as you try to pull the right hip forward. This is what we call a scissoring effect of the thighs.
Second, work at really straightening the back leg. With the back heel lifted, imagine it really press back to an imaginary wall behind you. As the heel presses back, activate the front thighs by lifting your knee caps up. This happens as you work towards straightening the left knee. Third, draw your tailbone down to keep the spine in neutral and upright. If you are unsure what ‘draw your tailbone down’ means, check this article out. Those three efforts combined together in your high lunge really work at releasing the front of your hips. Stay here for five to eight breaths on each side and keep working on lengthening the stance to release the muscles deeper.
Additional Work: you can take an option to come into Crippled Crab by (1) lowering the back knee down (flip the chair so that your hands can rest on the seat of the chair), (2) twisting your spine to the right, (3) bending your left knee to get the left heel to you left butt cheek, then (4) grabbing hold of the left ankle with your right hand. It is important that you are able to grab hold of the ankle so you can pull it closer to the butt cheek. If grabbing your ankle is not accessible, you can use a belt to loop around the left ankle and grab hold of the belt to pull the heel closer.
Give these five poses a go! Anytime and anywhere you find yourself seated on a chair for far too long, make the chair useful. Give your hips and legs a little bit of love and release!
Ron currently teaches FNR, Vinyasa Flow, partner yoga in Urban Ashram Manila. He recently finished another course in acro yoga and leads asana workshops that help new to yoga members build strength.