If you sit a lot, and most of us do, your front hips probably feel tight, if not hurt. Discomfort might spread to the sides of your hips, and your lower back might ache.
Tight hip flexors are no fun. They throw off your pelvis, tilting the top of it forward (anterior tilt), which messes with your posture (part of the reason your lower back might hurt). Hip flexion happens any time your front thighs and front torso move toward each other. The smaller the angle, the more intense.
One way to outsmart hip flexor tension is to stand more than you sit, making sure your pelvis is neutral—no anterior or posterior tilt (also, your lower back will be happier if you alternately prop a foot on a low stool).
Or you can open your hip flexors with yoga. After all, it's near impossible to avoid sitting altogether.
A quick primer, so you know what you're dealing with: Hip flexor muscles include the iliacus, psoas major, rectus femoris and sartorius. You can also throw in the pectineus and tensor fascia lata because they work with those muscles to flex the hips and often cry for release too.
It's easy to know when you're using some of these muscles: The rectus femoris, for example, is a long muscle that's part of the quadriceps muscle group (your front thigh, from hip to knee). You can generally see it. But the psoas and iliacus, usually referred to as the iliopsoas, sit deep in you and are far tougher to pinpoint when they do their thing.
Whether or not you know the details of these muscles and their actions, tight hip flexors are undeniably uncomfortable. Here are three relatively easy and safe go-tos that help. Take moderate, smooth breaths, expanding your rib cage as you inhale and letting it release as you exhale.
1. Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
How to: Come to hands and knees, and then place the sole of your right foot inside your right hand. Place yoga blocks or other props under your hands to lift your torso, and move your legs away from each other enough to create a stretching sensation along the front of your left upper thigh (you might also feel opening in the back of your right thigh). Keep your right knee behind your right toes. Stay for up to several minutes then switch sides.
Tip: Intensify the stretch on your hip flexors by lifting your torso higher and, from there, leaning back. Also, note that hip flexors on the forward leg are tightening; the angle between your front thigh and torso is a lot smaller than the angle between your back thigh and torso, where you're stretching. No way to avoid this, but that's okay because you'll open that area when you switch legs.
2. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
How to: Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, your knees bent and your feet aligned with your hips. Lift your hips as high as you comfortably can, keeping your shins perpendicular to the floor (adjust your feet accordingly). Hold for as long as feels appropriate then lower and repeat.
Tip: If your glutes or hamstrings are weak, strengthen them by isometrically drawing your heels back. These muscles “balance” your hip flexors, so to speak, so it helps if they are strong. Alternatively, you can make this pose passive by placing a block or other prop under your sacrum, the flattish bone at the top of your buttocks.
3. Savasana, variation (Corpse Pose, variation)
How to: From Bridge, place a yoga block under your sacrum on its lowest setting, long sides perpendicular to your spine (or use a low cushion or rolled blanket). Slowly straighten one leg at a time. You are essentially draping yourself over the block at your hips. If your lower back feels strained, place a cushion or rolled blanket under it. As long as your legs and chest angle down from your hips, your hip flexors are opening. Stay for up to several minutes.
Tip: Intensify the stretch on the hip flexors by reaching your arms to the sides, perhaps eventually taking them overhead and cupping your elbows. Don't do this at the expense of your lower back though.
To further alleviate potential discomfort from sitting for long periods of time, check out these 5 Exercises for an At-Work Workout.
Mitra Malek was a Yoga Journal editor and has taught yoga regularly since 2006. A former full-time reporter, she often covered news standing at press conferences or walking through neighborhoods. As a freelance writer, she sits far more than she'd like and her hip flexors pay for it. Connect with her at mitramalek.com.