Someone recently posted an interesting comment/question here on this blog, and I thought it warranted not only a response, but a full posting. Basically, the blogger’s question was: Why do you need open hips? (Here’s the full comment if you want to read it in its entirety.) This is a really tricky question, and I’ll attempt a partial answer here, but I’m really curious to hear what other people have to say about this topic.
First, I want to say that the question “Why do you need open hips?” is probably just a specific instance of a more general question, namely, “Why do you need to be open or more flexible at all?” So, instead of focusing on hips just now, I’ll address the more general question, and then return briefly at the end to discuss the more specific case of hips.
There are two levels on which to address the question at hand. One level deals with the physical, and the other with the philosophical. Let’s start with the physical. Being flexible is really just a part of the larger package of being fit and healthy. If we are stiff in our bodies, we lack mobility and balance, and are often more at risk for injury, discomfort, and even disease. A person with really tight shoulders, for instance, is probably much more likely to hurt himself, say, lifting some furniture or playing tennis than someone who is both strong and flexible in the shoulders. Quite literally, someone with a wider range of motion and more elastic tendons and muscles will be far less prone to tearing or pulling something than someone who is tight as a ball. It’s no wonder that many profesional sports teams, especially in high contact sports like football and ice hockey, are incorporating yoga or other kinds of flexibility training into their fitness regimes.
There are also a lot of claims (mostly unsubstantiated by modern science/medicine, as far as I know) along the lines that flexibility benefits the body by improving blood circulation and cellular health. I don’t know if there is any truth at all to such claims, but I can at least report here what some yoga instructors and practitioners are claiming. One claim is that people with tight bodies tend to have worse circulation, and, as a result, “stale” blood tends to pool in certain areas of the body. By stretching and maintaining flexibility, we allow our bodies to more readily and effectively circulate new blood into every last corner of our aging bodies, thus maintaining optimum health. Again, I don’t know that there is any truth to this sort of claim, but it is a kind of claim that I often hear in yoga classes. On a macro level, it is sometimes claimed that yoga (and the flexibility, strength, openness that it provides) can actually slow down the aging process. Certainly, at least from my own experience, people who practice yoga regularly do look much younger than their years. Of course, this may have more to do with their overall lifestyle choices–i.e. being vegetarian, not drinking alcohol, not smoking, etc.–and less to do with the fact that they practice yoga. To be clear, I’m not advocating the claim that doing yoga and being more flexible makes you younger, but this is definitely a claim that I hear from time to time, and one that gives many people (here in LA at least) a good reason to keep up a regular yoga practice.
Now, some considerations about the philosophical motivations for pursuing a more open or more flexible body. As my teacher Raghunath points out in class, one of the goals of yoga (if we can talk about “goals” at all) is to break free from our bodily imprisonment. We are, as he puts it, “prisoners to our senses;” we constantly seek to satiate our bodily desires, or to stave off pain or suffering in our bodies. One manifestation of this imprisonment is a tight body. The tighter we are, the less able we are to move freely, and the more we are likely to suffer from aches and pains or, eventually, complete immobility. With a strong and limber body, we (somewhat ironically) free ourselves from our bodies and can move onto more important concerns, namely, concerns of the spirit/mind. The physical asanas, then, serve as a gateway to pratyahara, or sense-withdrawal and concentrated meditation. To put all of this more simply, it’s really hard to meditate and be calm in the mind when your back aches like all hell.
So, to return to the specific case of hips, I might say to someone who asks “Why do I need open hips?” something like the following. You need open hips because (a) tight hips will likely cause you all kinds of physical discomfort and suffering, and (b) because having open hips is part of the larger process of breaking yourself from a dependence upon or identification with the body. If none of this works, some students respond when you tell them that they need open hips so that they can one day master, say, Eka Pada Galvasana. Personally, I don’t think that this is such a good reason for trying to get your hips open, but oftentimes our reasons for doing something can change over time, even if our initial reasons were somewhat naive or misguided. So, even if we now pursue more open hips just to “get the pose right,” we may later come to realize that this was not so important after all, but, nonetheless, that it was important for us to go through this process anyway.