In a previous article, we explored the essence of the knees. In this issue we move into the pelvis and hips. This is a simple movement upward, but even though it is upward, it has a distinct downward connection to the knee. In fact, when the connection between the pelvis and hips lacks stability or mobility, the possibility for trouble or injury will increase further down in the knees, ankles and/or feet. Likewise poor stability or mobility will affect functioning further up in the spine and shoulder girdle.
How the pelvic girdle works: Joint Structure and Function
The pelvic girdle consists of two large pelvic bones attached at the sacrum in the back and at the pubic symphysis in the front. On the lateral side of each pelvic bone is an acetabulum. The acetabulum connects with the femur to create the hip joint.
Let’s take a further look at the pelvic bone. The pelvic bone has a very distinct shape. It is somewhat round, somewhat flat and definitely irregular in shape. Upon closer examination, your eye will probably notice that it is not just one bone: it is three bones fused together. These three bones are the ilium, the pubis and the ischium.
To feel the ilium, begin in a seated position with your hands on your hips. You will feel the top of your hip bones as a ridge under your fingers. This is the iliac crest. As you move forward along the crest, it will feel as if you are walking along the ridge of a mountain, with your fingers sliding side to side. As you move along the ridge, you will reach a distinctive edge. It will feel like a “sticky outy.” This “sticky outy” protrudes forward and is called the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS). Let your fingers slip medially over the edge and plunge into the muscles and tissue that rest in the bowl of your pelvis. Take your thumbs and rest them on the lateral side of the ASIS. You are now holding onto the hip bone. This is the ilium.
If you follow your hands around to the back of the ilium toward the sacrum, you will come in contact with the sacroiliac (SI) joint. This is the joint that joins the ilium to the sacrum.
Now place one hand on your lower belly, with the heel of your hand at your navel and your fingers pointing downward. Press gently and deeply with your middle finger. You will either be on or very near the pubic symphysis. This is the joint that connects the body of the pubis to each pelvic bone. If you palpate firmly and deeply, you will feel how from the pubic symphysis, the pubis moves posteriorly, laterally and inferiorly to join with the ilium and ischium to form the acetabulum.
The ischium is the base of the pelvis. When sitting, place your hands under your bum and rest all of your weight in your hands. The bone you feel in each of your hands is your ischium. Keep pressing into those muscles to feel how the ischium creates the lower part of the pelvis. In many practices, yogis push the flesh of the glutes aside in order to sit directly on the ischial tuberosities of the ischium, hence the name sitting bones, the common term used to describe this area.
Connecting the Spine, Pelvic Girdle, and Leg: Stability, Mobility and Strength
Since the purpose of the pelvic girdle is to transfer weight and energy from the spine to the legs, its role is like that of a bridge. The role of the muscles then is to help maintain the stability of the bridge function while also affording the femur mobility, stability, strength and power.
Stability of the pelvis comes from several directions. One is from the backside in the form of external rotators, another is from the inside in the form of hip adductors, and the other is in the form of hip abductors. Together these muscles work as a functional synergy to bridge the connection of the spine, through the pelvis and onto the femur.
The external rotators consist of the:
• Gemelles superior
• Gemelles inferior
• Obturator internus
• Obturator externus
• quadratus femoris
Collectively, they externally rotate the femur at the pelvis and stabilize the pelvis on the femur by keeping the femur head in the acetabulum.
The abductors consist of the:
• gluteus maximus
• gluteus medius
• gluteus minimus
• tensor fasciae latae
Together, these muscles create a connection of support by steadying the pelvis when we are standing on one or two legs. As well, when we are in positions like Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1), these muscles contract to keep the knee over the ankle.
The adductors consist of:
• adductor brevis
• adductor longus
• adductor magnus
These muscles make up the inner thigh and contribute to pelvic stability by acting as a core-stabilizing group of muscles.
Two other structures, a muscle called the tensor fasciae latae and a band of connective tissue called the iliotibial band also help keep the pelvis stable, working closely in opposition to the adductors and in support of the abductors. The iliotibial band lies between the gluteus maximus and the tensor fasciae latae and spans down the outside of the leg, crossing the knee on its lateral side.
So how do these pelvic stabilizing muscles relate to our practice of yoga?
Let’s consider two examples, Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1) and Uttanasan
Hip Abductors and Virabhadrasana 1
The abductors assist in completing Virabhadrasana 1 (warrior pose) by helping to align the front knee so that it doesn’t fall inward. If the abductors don’t do their job, the iliotibial band can become overworked or damaged.
Let’s explore Virabhadrasana/Warrior 1
Preparation – to feel the abductors working in synergy with the adductors
Come into standing. Take a look at the picture of the abductors as you follow along. Spread your legs wide. Toes out slightly, so that the right foot angles toward 2:00 and the left foot angles toward 10:00. Place your hands on the outside of your thighs, near your hips. With your feet solidly on the floor, press your legs into your hands. You will feel the abductors (outside of your hips) contracting, and your adductors (inside of your thighs) releasing.
Let’s look further – Moving into the asana
Now move into your version of Virabhadrasana or Warrior 1, right foot forward. With the feet grounded, place the right hand on the outside of the front thigh, near the hip. Press your thigh into your hand. What do you notice? What do you feel?
It is possible that you may have noticed the arches of your front foot lift and the right knee move in line with the ankle. If you tend to experience back knee pain in this asana, you may have felt it go away. You may have also felt much more stable. Switch to the other side and explore for yourself. If you are a teacher, give this a go in one of your classes and notice what your students experience (then email me and let me know, I am always curious to know how it works for others).
Uttanasana and the Hip Adductors
Uttanasana is a particularly special pose since it’s a forward bend. Forward bends require us to be patient, gentle and quiet as the tightness that occupies the back-side of the body unravels, lets go and releases. As the tightness releases, the whole back-side becomes stronger.
Remember that the hip adductors consist of the pectineus, gracilis, adductor brevis, adductor longus and adductor magnus. They all originate at the pelvis. Most, except for the gracilis, attach along the femur. The gracilis attaches below the knee on the tibia.
As they relate to forward bends, the hip adductors have a secondary role as medial rotators. Not only do they bring the legs together, they also rotate them inward. So, when gently used in forward bends, the hip adductors softly spiral the legs inward, thus acting as antagonists, yet balancing the action of the external rotators. With this balance they contribute to core stability, enabling both the external rotators and the hamstrings to release further.
Move into the Uttansana that you know. Feel what you feel.
Now, take two pressed foam blocks or one wooden block and place it between your thighs about an inch lower than your pelvis. Gently press the block(s). Now move into your forward bend. Notice what you feel. Was anything different?