Thoughts on Hip Pain, Gluteals, and Groundlessness
I haven’t been moving as much these last two weeks. Where I would normally take walks with the kids or get on my yoga mat during their nap time, I’ve been too tired. The kids have been sick. No one is well-rested except that the kids can just keep going during the day, despite a less-than-stellar night of sleep. Ah, youth…
I’m also the kind of person who always has several projects going at once, and even more so right now thanks to a resurgence in creative energy brought on by my journey on The Artist’s Way. That means I’m on the computer typing, hunched over an art project, or contorted in order to paint my dining room baseboards (thankfully not all at the same time). So while I’ve been more sedentary than normal, I’m still putting my body in a lot of weird and interesting positions. These are all the ingredients I need for wonky sacrum soup (the technical term). Add a sprinkle of ‘it’s time for a new mattress’ and my pelvis is certifiably out of whack.
When I experienced a searing pain in my right hip while going up the stairs, followed by a deep ache that wouldn’t go away, I immediately recalled my pregnant, unstable pelvis. This was familiar pain. During both pregnancies, I dealt with pretty terrible sciatica. Thanks to the fluid nature of my pregnant bod, the pain frequently switched sides to keep me guessing. In addition to deep aches in my hips most of the time, they would often buckle or give out when I went to stand up.
While I was pregnant with Audrey, I operated under the idea that when something hurts, I should stretch it. I quickly discovered that only made the pain worse. A friend hinted that perhaps creating more stability in my pelvis would help so I did squats. Like a million of them. I’m not sure they really did anything though, apart from getting my heart rate up. I didn’t really feel any muscle fatigue. Alignment was my thing at this time and I was well-versed in proper squat form (knees over ankles). I maybe would feel some work in my quads but definitely nothing in my glutes.
In my second pregnancy, I started seeing a pelvic floor therapist and we found some trigger points and muscle imbalances that caused my sacrum to get loaded unevenly, thus putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. It appeared that all this hip business was coming from a wonky sacrum.
For years in yoga I was taught to not use my glutes, especially in back bends like bridge, locust, bow, and even upward bow. Now I’m not sure what my glutes were doing before that time—probably not much since I worked a desk job. I also can’t remember what happened the first few times I practiced those poses. Did my glutes naturally activate to accomplish the movement before I was counseled against it?
Yoga teachers explained to me that because the glutes bring the thighs into external rotation (legs like a duck or ballet dancer), using them in a back bend could compromise my SI joint and lower back. There was also this idea that using the glutes in these poses meant that they were ‘over active’ and that was basically the same thing as being a butt clencher. One teacher went so far as to tell me to never sit in easy pose (criss cross applesauce) because the external rotation would be bad for my unstable sacrum.*
I followed along. I let my gluteals go. I taught my students to relax their backsides. It was really hard for some of them and I preached that they were carrying unnecessary tension in their tuckuses. Now, maybe some of them really were tight asses who needed an invitation to relax. But I was definitely under the impression that a tight muscle was a strong muscle and that working to further activate or recruit said muscle would cause it to store extra tension…or something like that…Oh how I’ve come along in my understanding!**
Eventually, I saw a Yoga Journal practice for glute strengthening. I remember wondering if my glutes were weak in the first place? After all, I’d been doing all those squats and I didn’t feel any work in my tush. Then I found a book by Lillah Schwartz in which she points out that the gluteals attach to the sacrum and that strong glutes can help to create a more stable sacrum. Alarm bells went off. The very muscles I had been taught to deactivate could actually help me!
So I started doing some of the moves from Lillah’s book and they were HARD. My glutes were weak. Then I read in some of my Katy Bowman books that our modern, sedentary lifestyle doesn’t do a whole lot for the glutes. I realized that the way I stand with a forward pelvis is even a cop out for my glutes. As I got all these ideas realigned in my mind, I also found more stable alignment in my body. I became more glute-focused…I know, I’m such a weirdo. But this evolution of understanding and movement has paid off - I did a squat the other day and I felt my glutes turn on automatically to help me stand up. I was so excited! (It’s the little things, people). That was even the moment of inspiration for this blog post.
We went to Chattanooga this past weekend for a bluegrass festival. Once we arrived, unpacked, and started heading down to the landing for the concert, I noticed that deep ache in my hip again. Oh brother, I thought, perfect timing. This hip is going to be a nuisance all night long. We were about to do a lot of walking and some possible piggy backing. I decided to be curious though. What would happen if I really tried to activate my glutes while walking? So each time I took a leg behind me in my stride, I squeezed that side of my tush a bit. While we waited at the cross walk, I did some leg lifts (taking my leg up behind me). And you know what? It worked! I’m not sure if it was actually the mechanical act of recruiting my glutes that made the pain go away or if it was just the shift in the way I approached it (from catastrophizing to curiosity). But either way, I felt empowered and excited that I knew how to help myself.
For me, the hips and pelvis are places that symbolize the dichotomy of groundedness versus fluidity in the face of change. So when I struggle with my hips, I take time to consider what changes or transitions I’m facing and how I can flow through them more skillfully. One idea that comes to mind is that of ‘groundlessness.’ In the introduction to When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron says, ‘…we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation.’ She goes on to say, ‘The main point is that we all need to be reminded and encouraged to relax with whatever arises.’ These words have helped me time and time again. When I can relax with an idea or a situation, I can gain some perspective on its permanence. More often than not, I’m reminded that the agitation is temporary. And when I’m dealing with physical pain, this simple shift in perspective can tip the scale toward making my experience feel more manageable — and that makes all the difference.
*Maybe that advice is true for some people in some situations but from what I know now about the origins of pain, saying that a certain pose or movement is inherently detrimental feels too ‘black or white.’
**Isn’t it funny the phases we go through as teachers and learners? I assumed for a while that my understanding of alignment was correct and safe. There are times when students with preexisting conditions should be cautioned about how a pose or movement could place a compromising load on a vulnerable area. However, I was failing to recognize the intelligence of each student’s nervous system and its ability to organize the body independently. Does that mean we should never teach alignment? Hell no! I can’t tell you how many times I have asked students to stand with parallel feet and yet they still had their feet all askew! In the past I would have pathologized those feet and explained to a student how they could cause lower back pain or some other issue to crop up. Now I might say, Hey did you know your feet aren’t actually parallel? Do they feel parallel now? How would it feel for your body to change your feet? Because I do think it’s important to be able to stand in a lot of ways.