From my earliest days of practicing yoga, I heard teachers instructing “Square your hips” in Warrior I (virabhadrasana I) and Warrior II poses (virabhadrasana II).
[Scroll to the video at the bottom of this page to see the essence of this blog post in video format].
I repeated this phrase in my own yoga teaching for most of a decade (2001-2008-ish) before looking up close at the structure of the hips and pelvis in a grad school cadaver lab.
The structure of the hips
The hip sockets, which sit on either side of your pelvis, are shaped like shallow bowls. (“Acetabulum“, the name of the hip sockets, comes from Latin, and means, little bowl for (olive) oil.)
The sockets face downward and outward – more or less – at an angle of 45 degrees. The boney edge, or rim, of each acetabulum serves as a hard stop on your hip’s range of motion. (This is a good and natural thing).
In addition, the shape of your thigh bones (your femurs), and in particular the femoral angle, influence how much hip range of motion you have.
Yes, your range of motion can also be limited by soft tissue, like muscle and fascia, but in yoga asana we address those. We don’t always acknowledge their limits.
Very rarely does one’s hip structure allow for “Squaring” of the hips. When your skeleton does allow the hips to be “squared” in these poses, there is a very real question of whether you should square your hips.
Boney Limitations and Knowledge limitations
Generally, yoga teachers do a poor job of recognizing natural skeletal limitations. Instead of recognizing that our range of motion will be limited by boney stopping points, we say things like:
“Practice and all is coming”
“Keep working on your flexibility, and you’ll get there”
“Just line up your foot to the edge of the mat. Keep trying. You’ll get it.”
When Reverence Goes Wrong
Yoga asana is a physical practice, but it is learned in largely the same way as an oral tradition (with more visuals).
Like an oral tradition, it is passed down person-to-person (or individual to group). Because yoga asana — at least as I have been exposed to it — is embedded with a sense of reverence to teacher and lineage, we yoga practitioners tend to accept answers from yoga teachers at face value.
We ask questions, sure, but we rarely question the answers.
We also rarely seek to test our understanding of yoga against knowledge outside of yoga.
Those teachers we would call gurus, however, were extraordinarily innovative, and changed their minds over the course of their lives. I believe they would readily accept scientific information as it is revealed.
Back to Squaring the Hips
For the second decade of my teaching career, I’ve spoken to hundreds, maybe thousands, of students and teachers about why the hips can’t be squared in Warrior I and Warrior II, and I’ve taught about this boney limit in multiple classes (see my YouTube channel).
Yet many yoga teachers continue to teach with this hyper-geometric language and still say “square your hips”.
Warrior I and II are Spinal Twists
The rotation in Warrior I and Warrior II has to come from somewhere. When your feet are planted with your toes facing one direction but your chest facing another, something somewhere must rotate.
In a healthy, anatomically reasonable Warrior I or Warrior II, the rotation comes from a spinal twist.
In Warrior I, with the right foot forward, on most people the pelvis will face 45 degrees to the left. If you try to square the pelvis, you will rotate at the knee joint of the back leg.
The thigh bone will turn, will rotate relative to the tibia (the shin bone). Forcing this position doesn’t sound healthy, and it’s not.
If you instead focus on simply facing toward the front leg, your spine will rotate, likely from the upper lumbar and thoracic regions. You’ll be able to square your shoulders, but not the pelvis.
Let’s talk Warrior II
Warrior II already requires a fairly extreme range of motion for the back hip (another blog post for another time). Attempting to square the pelvis to the long edge of your yoga mat will transfer intensity from the back leg to the front hip or knee.
Instead, again try allowing your shoulders to square. This brings the rotation into our spines, which can naturally accommodate 45 degrees of rotation over its many segments.
Last bit on this topic: I’ve seen too many yoga students-turned patients with hip injuries. If it is not already clear, this cue “square the hips” is harmful. It could lead to femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) as bone hits up against bone, to hip labral tears, ligament injuries in the hips or knees and a cascade of other issues.
Let’s fully recognize that Warrior I and II are spinal twists. Share this post with your yoga teachers, or yoga teacher communities, and spread the word.
To see this blog post in video format, hit play.
We welcome your questions and thoughts in the comment area below.