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Rest your cow to ease tight hips: five-minute yoga challenge

Black and white cow

In general, cows like to be upright. Cow-faced pose, not so much.

Wouldn’t it be great if all of life’s problems could be solved by lying down and taking it easy?

The good news is that some of them can.

Take tight outer hips, for example.

This might be one of your problems if you cycle, run, do weight training, spend a lot of time sitting, or are simply getting older – which covers almost all of us.

Tight outer hips leads to numerous ills, including sore knees, sore backs and sciatica – a bolt of pain running from your buttock down your thigh, which can be caused by the sciatic nerve encountering a tight piriformis muscle.

(To see how the muscles of the outer hip work, and why a tight piriformis can cause sciatica, take a look at this very clear short video.)

Seated cow-face pose is a good way to stretch your hip rotators, including piriformis. That’s why you’ll find it recommended in books such as Mary Pullig Schatz’s excellent Back Care Basics: A Doctor’s Gentle Yoga Program for Back and Neck Pain Relief.

But if your hips are very tight, you’ll have to prop yourself up on a stack of blankets or chip foams to sit in this pretzel pose. Even then, you may not be able to find a comfortable stretch.
Stay in a painful position, and you’ll irritate instead of relaxing your muscles. If you already have sciatic pain, you’ll make it worse.

The solution? This week’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge:

Lie down, cross your legs, and rest a spell.
With no props, except possibly a blanket or chip foam block behind your head, you can get a good stretch in your outer hips, just by changing your relationship to gravity.

It works because when you lie on your back, the weight of your upper body is no longer dropping into your pelvis, as it does when you’re sitting. Because the hips aren’t pinned to the ground, they have more freedom to move.

When you’re lying down, no matter how tight your hips may be, you can stay, breathe, explore, relax and smile. You can find your right, moderate stretch, stay with it long enough to make a difference, and return to it willingly every day.


Why not just do the better known “thread-the-needle”pose?

preparation for outer hip stretch, supine cow pose

Get a strong internal rotation on both upper thighs before you cross your legs.

By crossing your knees, you’ll bring the stretch to the centre of your top-leg buttock, which is a more effective piriformis stretch.
Naturally, you could always do both.

supine outer hip stretch

Hold behind your knees and draw your thighs toward you.

Here’s how to rest your cow:

Lie down on your back, with your knees bent.
Rotate your inner left thigh strongly inward, and lengthen your left leg.
Rotate your right thigh inward, and bring your right thigh over your left thigh.
Then draw both knees toward your chest.
Continue rotating your inner thighs towards each other.
You should feel an intense and yet pleasant stretch, deep inside your right buttock.
(If you feel pinching in your inner groins, undo your legs and rotate your thighs more strongly inward as you come into the pose.)

final stage of supine outer hip stretch

If you can go further, hold the outer edges of your feet and drawn your knees closer.

Draw your knees closer, hands behind the knees, until you find your ideal stretch.
At first your calves will line up beside each other. After a few breaths, bring them out to the sides, as they would be in the seated version of cow-faced pose.

If you can go deeper, reach out to hold your feet, and pull your knees closer to your chest.

Stay for at least 90 seconds, then change the cross of your legs.

 Photo via Flickr, with thanks to Meneer Zjeroen.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Seven strategies to loosen tight hips

Step forward from downward dog, even if you have tight hips

One-legged hamstring stretch: find your working place


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gilian March 19, 2012, 5:14 pm

    There’s nothing better than a good hip opener! Thanks for the link to the basic hip anatomy video – it helped me to visualize the different muscles in the hip as I stretch them and to better understand their individual roles.

    • Eve March 20, 2012, 4:19 pm

      Hey Gil,
      I’ve always found the hip muscles hard to visualize, especially the deeper outer hip muscles. What did we do before YouTube?
      I think the older we get, the better idea hip openers are. . . .