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Somatic Exercises for the Hips

Updated: Apr 29

A yoga instructor opening left hip by hugging her shin in towards her chest using her arms to support her leg

Have you noticed that yoga instructors tend to place emphasis on hip-opening poses, sometimes even dedicating an entire class to hip openers? You might even recall a yoga instructor likening the hips to the body’s ‘emotional junk drawer.’ It’s a powerful metaphor that captures the idea that our hips often store lingering, unprocessed emotions, just waiting to be acknowledged and expressed. 


There is a clear link between our hips and our emotional well-being. Hip openers, then, are not just about improving flexibility and mobility; they serve as a gateway to release long-held emotions that have been quietly stored away for years. 


Engaging in somatic exercises for the hips can help release pent-up emotions, and in doing so, creates space for inner growth and healing.


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What is the Relationship between Hips and Emotions?


Understanding the relationship between our emotions and hips starts with exploring the mind-body connection. 


When a stressor or threat–whether real or perceived–triggers our fight-or-flight response, our system is flooded with stress hormones. This activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system brings about numerous physiological changes in the body, including rapid and shallowing breathing, a quickened heart rate, increased muscular tension, and more. This response is vital for our survival, as it ensures that we are primed and ready to respond to any threat, whether that threat be real or perceived.


The pelvis houses the iliopsoas muscle, also called the psoas muscle, a deep muscle group situated toward the front of the inner hip. It extends through the core, attaching to the lumbar spine (lower back) and rests next to the kidneys and adrenal glands. The adrenal glands, situated on top of each kidney, are responsible for releasing stress hormones in the body when the fight-or-flight response is activated. When this response is triggered, the psoas muscle contracts, serving as an important response for mobilizing the body to respond to what the brain has categorized as unsafe. The psoas muscle facilitates movement in the upper legs, hips, and lower back, allowing you to run away from the threat. In situations where the response is ‘fight,’ the psoas muscle tightens as you lean forward, slowly raising your knees as a way to protect your core. This is why the psoas muscle is known as the “fight-or-flight” muscle. Once the threat subsides, the psoas muscle can relax. 


If we find ourselves in a chronic state of fight-or-flight due to everyday life stressors, the psoas muscle can remain chronically tense. Gradually, this tension becomes the norm for our nervous system, leading to chronic tightness in the hips. When the psoas muscle is contracted, or in flexion, this sends messages to the brain that we’re unsafe and to send help. This then triggers the release of stress hormones into the body. This ongoing tension can manifest in the body as acute or chronic physical pain or discomfort particularly in the hips, lower back, and pelvis. This tension can also contribute to headaches and migraines. 


Now, let’s add emotions into the equation. When we do not feel, acknowledge, express, and eventually process the emotions that accompany sympathetic activation, these emotions become trapped, often finding a home in the hips, particularly the psoas muscle. This muscle plays a vital role in our instinctual response to threats, even in situations where your physical safety isn’t at risk. Everyday occurrences like walking home alone at night, hearing a car door slam, writing an email, listening to the news, not feeling heard during a conversation with a family member, breathing in car exhaust, or being stuck in traffic can trigger the fight-or-flight response. The stimuli that you’re taking in through your senses, combined with past experiences, inform your brain’s decision to engage the fight-or-flight response. These everyday stressors are linked to intense emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, worry, resentment, anxiety, guilt, sadness, shame, and more. These emotions can remain stuck in the hips, particularly the psoas muscle, if they are not felt, experienced, or expressed. 


To make matters worse, many of us spend a large portion of our day in a seated position. This habitual pattern informs the brain that flexion is a natural state. Consequently, this mapped out pattern can lead to chronic tightness in the hips, discomfort in the lower back, and weakening of glute and core muscles. In response, the psoas muscle may tighten further in an attempt to compensate for reduced core stability. Additionally, the psoas muscle influences the diaphragm, which plays a crucial role in breathing. When the psoas is contracted, it can impede the diaphragm’s ability to expand fully, resulting in a shallow breathing pattern. Shallow, rapid breathing is linked to sympathetic nervous system activation. 


This indicates that both a sedentary lifestyle and heightened sympathetic activation can contribute to hip tightness and tension, perpetuating the storage of intense emotions within the hips. 


So, how can we effectively release trapped emotions from our hips? Engaging in hip-opening somatic exercises can serve as a valuable tool for feeling, expressing, and processing these lingering emotions in a loving, supportive and nurturing way.


A yoga instructor in pigeon pose

How Somatic Exercises Help Release Stored Emotions in the Hips


As previously mentioned, sympathetic activation can create tension throughout the body, particularly in the hips. Emotions often get stored in this area due to the psoas muscle’s role in keeping you safe from dangerous situations. When emotions such as fear remain unfelt, unacknowledged, or unexpressed, your body can hold onto them, disrupting the flow of energy to your hips and surrounding areas. Over time, this can result in a reduced range of motion, postural concerns, movement restrictions, discomfort, and pain in and around the hips.


Engaging in mindful movement practices, like somatic exercises, can help release both physical and emotional tension from the body. Somatic exercises encourage you to connect or reconnect with your body, fostering an inner conversation between your mind and body. A full body scan is a great example of inner dialogue between your mind and body. As you gently scan your body, you begin to sense areas that feel open, at ease and relaxed, as well as areas that feel tight, constricted, and closed off. These physical sensations can often offer clues in relation to what feelings and emotions are being stored within the body. Exploring somatic exercises allows individuals to develop a deeper awareness of their body’s signals and responses to everyday life, including stressors. This process strengthens the mind-body connection, facilitating the eventual release of that which no longer serves.


Whether in stillness or in motion, this inward attention is crucial. Directing your focus inward can offer new input to your brain, fostering the creation of new neural pathways. These pathways have the potential to alter habitual movement patterns, making important updates to your body map. As you sense and feel your way through hip openers, your brain learns new information about your hips, including the psoas muscle. This is important as your brain will become familiar with the sensation of relaxing this muscle. Over time, as tension begins to dissipate from this area, it can lead to enhanced energy flow and circulation, benefiting not only the hips but also all that’s connected. 


In addition, somatic practices are fantastic for nervous system regulation. Through slow, gentle movements combined with breathwork, somatic exercises communicate messages of calm and safety to both the mind and body. This signals the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest-and-digest” system), thereby easing muscular tension. By cultivating a sense of safety, somatic practices encourage the nervous system to release both physical and emotional tension.  


Somatic exercises invite you to observe sensations experienced in your body through a lens of compassionate curiosity. This non-judgmental approach sends reassuring signals to your nervous system, enabling you to explore intuitive movements that feel good in your body. You are invited to listen, respect, and honor your body’s unique story as you move. 


Cultivating inner safety can inform your nervous system that it is okay to relax, soften, and release tension held in commonly tense areas of the body. This shift from a state of “fight-or-flight” to “rest-and-digest” can encourage the release of pent-up emotions, ultimately freeing your body from movement restrictions, discomfort, and even pain.


A yoga instructor in a wide legged seat

Somatic Exercises for Hips


The following hip-opening exercises are rooted in somatic principles, some of which you may encounter during somatic yoga practices. 


As you explore these somatic exercises, I encourage you to sense how each movement feels in your body. Tune into your internal landscape, allowing curiosity to guide your explorations. Notice areas of tension, tightness, comfort, openness, the grounding sensation against the earth, the rhythm of your breath, as well as any thoughts, emotions, or other sensations that arise.  


Listen to your body’s cues as you move through these exercises. Allow your body to be your teacher and guide as you explore these somatic exercises for your hips. You can decide upon the pace, the duration, which exercises to skip, and whether the use of a prop would feel like a kind option for your mind and body. Somatic practices encourage you to tailor the movements to meet your individual needs. This deep listening to your body is an expression of self-love and compassion. 


Consider closing your eyes during these exercises to minimize external distractions, facilitating a deeper connection with your internal sensations and experiences.


1. Windshield Wiper the Knees


A somatic hip opening exercise rocking the knees from side to side on the mat inviting internal and external rotation in the hips

How To:

  1. Gently settle your back body onto the surface beneath you. 

  2. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on your mat, either hip-distance apart or wider. 

  3. Allow your arms to rest alongside your torso, or you can explore cactus arms.

  4. Sense your back’s connection to the earth, observing which parts of your body make contact and which parts are lifted.

  5. Lower your knees to one side, keeping within a comfortable range of motion.

  6. When you feel ready, bring your knees back to center before lowering them to the other side.

  7. Continue this gentle movement, allowing your knees to sway from side to side at a pace that feels good for you.

  8. As you move, observe how your weight shifts across your pelvis and how your spinal chain responds to the movement.

  9. Allow your breath to find its natural rhythm.

  10. If you wish, gently roll your head in sync with your knee movement or in the opposite direction.

  11. When this movement feels complete, return to center and take a moment to notice the sensations in your body.

  12. To transition out, lower your knees to one side, roll onto your side, and then gently press yourself up to a seat on your mat.


2. Moving Bridge


A somatic hip opening exercise moving bridge with hands reaching past the head while the hips and parts of the back body are lifted off of the ground

How To:

  1. Ease your back body onto your mat or a soft surface.

  2. Bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on your mat hip-distance apart.

  3. Rest your arms alongside your side body.

  4. Press into your foundation (your feet and arms), rocking your pelvis forward to tuck your tailbone under. This action encourages your lower back to lengthen and connect with the surface beneath you.

  5. Gradually lift your pelvis, lower back, and mid-back away from the earth.

  6. Press your feet down and then resist your feet back, as if trying to move them in the direction of your shoulders. Observe which muscles activate. 

  7. When you feel ready, soften through your sternum as you release one vertebrae at a time back to the earth, releasing your back body to the ground.

  8. There is an option to include your arms in the movement: as your hips lift, reach your arms overhead, hands extending past your head; as you lower your back body, lower your arms back down to your sides.

  9. Explore syncing your breath with the action, or explore a breathing pattern that feels comfortable.

  10. Each time you lift, there is an invitation to sense how it feels to open up through your front body, especially your hip flexors.

  11. Each time you lower, there’s an invitation to sense how it feels to be supported by the earth.

  12. When this movement feels complete, lower your back body to your mat.

  13. Take a moment to sense how the movement felt in your body.

  14. To transition out, lower your knees to one side, gently roll onto your side, and use your top hand to help prop you up to a seated position.


3. Reclined Pigeon


A somatic hip opening exercise reclined pigeon

How To:

  1. Slowly lower your back body onto your mat or a soft surface.

  2. Bend your knees and rest the soles of your feet on your mat.

  3. Bring your right knee towards your chest, crossing your right ankle over your left thigh.

  4. You can remain here, or you can draw your left knee closer towards your chest for a gentle hip and glute stretch. 

  5. Interlace your fingers around your left hamstring or your left shin.

  6. Flexing your right foot may be helpful as this can protect your right knee. 

  7. You can hold the stretch statically or explore a gentle rocking motion.

  8. Explore directing your breath into the areas where you feel the stretch, breathing into sensation.

  9. Once this feels complete, release the stretch, and lower both feet to the ground.

  10. Pause to notice any differences between your right and left sides.

  11. Repeat the same sequence of steps with your other leg.

  12. When you feel ready to transition out, lower both feet to the earth, slowly roll onto your side, and then press yourself up to a seat on your mat.


4. Butterfly Pose with Spinal Undulations


A somatic hip opening exercise butterfly pose with spinal undulations

How To:

  1. Start by sitting cross-legged on your mat. 

  2. For added comfort and support, consider sitting on a folded blanket, couch cushion, or pillow to lift your hips.

  3. With your hands on the ground to offer support, place your feet out in front.

  4. Draw the soles of your feet together, allowing your knees to open to the sides, forming a diamond shape in the middle.

  5. Place your hands on your ankles or shins as you lengthen through your spine. 

  6. You can choose to remain still, directing your breath towards your pelvis and hips.

  7. Alternatively, you can explore gentle spinal movements. Inhale to gently lift your chest and chin, and exhale as you gently round through your spine.

  8. Visualize that your spine has transformed into a wave as you explore spinal extension and flexion. 

  9. Observe how it feels to open up through your front body, and how it feels to curl inward. 

  10. Sense how your hips and pelvis respond to this fluid spinal movement. 

  11. When this movement feels complete, return to stillness.

  12. Take a quiet moment to reflect on how the movement felt in your body.

  13. To transition out, place your fingertips on the outer edges of your thighs, and then slowly bring your legs together.

  14. Cross at your ankles and return to a cross-legged seat on your mat.


5. Deer Pose with Organic Movement


A somatic hip opening exercise deer pose with gentle spinal twist left hand reaching towards the right side

How To:

  1. Start by sitting on your mat facing towards one of the short edges.

  2. Place the soles of your feet on the ground, and walk your feet towards the long edges of your mat. 

  3. Gently lower your knees to the right side. 

  4. Place your right hand on the ground beside your right hip.

  5. Explore reaching your left hand across your chest and towards the right side, engaging in a gentle spinal twist.

  6. When you feel ready, bring your left hand back to its initial position.

  7. An invitation to continue this movement, allowing your left hip to lift slightly during the reach and lower as your left hand returns to its starting position. 

  8. Explore a breathing pattern that feels good in your body.

  9. Once this movement feels complete, lift your knees back to center, pausing to notice the sensations in your body. 

  10. Repeat the same sequence on the other side.

  11. To transition out of this pose, lift your knees back to center and cross at your ankles, settling into a cross-legged seat.

6. Knee Circles in Tabletop Position


A somatic hip opening exercise drawing circles with the knee in a tabletop position

How To:

  1. Begin on all fours, with palms and knees resting on the mat or a soft surface.

  2. For added comfort, consider placing a folded blanket beneath your knees.

  3. Lift your right knee, shin, and foot off of the ground, and begin to draw circles with your right knee.

  4. Experiment with small, medium, or large circles, adjusting the pace to suit your body’s preferences.

  5. Sense the movement taking place in your right hip socket.

  6. Explore reversing the direction of your knee circles.

  7. Direct your attention to your breath, exploring how it can support your movement.

  8. When you feel ready, lower your right knee back to the ground. 

  9. Take a moment to sway your hips from side to side if that feels good.

  10. When you feel ready, repeat the knee circle sequence with your left knee.

  11. Observe how your weight shifts from side to side, and how your core muscles engage in order to support this movement. 

  12. Explore circling your left knee in the opposite direction.

  13. When this feels complete, lower your left knee to the earth.

  14. You can explore some free flow movement if that feels good, or you can transition to a comfortable seated position on your mat.

  15. Notice the sensations in your hips following the movement.


7. Low Lunge


A somatic hip opening exercise low lunge with arms reaching overhead

How To:

  1. Begin in a tabletop position, with palms and knees resting on the mat or a soft surface.

  2. You can pad your knees with a folded blanket if that feels like a kind option.

  3. Step your right foot back and engage your core before drawing your right knee towards your chest.

  4. Step your right foot up and between your hands. 

  5. Lift your torso away from your right thigh, placing your hands on top of your right thigh. 

  6. Explore a slight rounding of your spine to feel a gentle stretch in your left hip flexor and maybe into your psoas muscle. 

  7. Press into your foundation as you resist your right foot back towards your left knee, and your left knee resists back. So, it is like you are moving your right foot and your left knee towards each other, but they stay exactly where they are.

  8. Lengthen through your spine, reaching the crown of your head towards the sky.

  9. Remain here or extend your arms overhead.

  10. Draw your hands back slightly as you explore a gentle lift of your chest and chin.

  11. Explore sending your breath towards your hips.

  12. When you feel ready, fold forward, releasing your palms to the ground, and then step your right foot back to meet your left foot. 

  13. Repeat the same sequence on the other side.

  14. To transition out, return to a tabletop position, swing your legs to one side, and transition to a seated position on your mat.

  15. Sense how your hips feel following that movement.


8. Low Squat with Organic Movement


A somatic hip opening exercise low squat with organic movement

How To:

  1. Begin in mountain pose, with your feet positioned wider than hip-distance apart.

  2. Start to fold forward, exploring a generous bend in your knees, and release your fingertips to the earth.

  3. Walk your feet towards the outer edges of your mat, turning your toes out slightly.

  4. Begin to lower your hips closer towards the ground while lifting your heels, settling into a low squat.

  5. You can decide whether it feels better to place your whole foot on the ground, or whether it feels better to keep your heels lifted away from the ground.

  6. You can keep your fingertips on the ground or experiment with lifting them.

  7. You can shift your weight from side to side, moving in a way that feels good in your body.

  8. You may remain still, sensing how this hip opener feels in your body.

  9. Explore sending your breath in the direction of your hips.

  10. Observe if one side of your body feels more open than the other side.

  11. Once this feels complete, find stillness. 

  12. To transition out of this low squat, place your fingertips on the ground at your sides to help guide you to a seat on your mat.

  13. Sense how this movement felt in your body. Did any emotions, feelings, or interesting sensations surface?


9. Belly Breathing


A somatic exercise with yoga instructor sitting on the earth with hands on the lower belly sending the breath in the direction of the hands

How To: 

  1. Find a comfortable seat of your choosing. 

  2. You can sit on a folded blanket, couch cushion, or pillow. 

  3. Place your hands on your lower belly, allowing your index fingers to connect and your thumbs to gently touch. 

  4. Softening your gaze or closing your eyes can encourage an inward exploration of sensations.

  5. Explore directing your breath towards your hands, sensing the rise and fall of your belly with each cycle of breath. 

  6. You can stay with this sensation, or you can explore sending your breath towards your pelvis and hips.

  7. Explore how your breath can deepen your connection to the earth, perhaps cultivating feelings of grounding. 

  8. You can visualize physical and emotional tension slowly releasing onto the surface beneath you with every exhale. 

  9. When this feels complete, explore a natural breathing pattern with your hands on your thighs.

  10. Take a moment to sense how this breathwork practice felt in your body.


Final Thoughts


The hips don’t lie, they bury. Hips bury repressed and suppressed emotions. Often, these emotions originate from the past, where expressing certain emotions wasn’t encouraged. Maybe you were told to “suck it up” when you were feeling sad. Perhaps you were told to “just get over it” when you were experiencing feelings of anger. Maybe when you were feeling scared, you were met with laughter and ridicule, labeled as a “scaredy cat.” Or perhaps when you expressed emotion, you were met with indifference or disregard. These messages communicate that it’s not okay to feel certain emotions. To avoid feeling them, we may subconsciously or consciously push these emotions down. We bury these emotions to avoid feeling them. We clench or tense our bodies in an effort to contain these emotions. Repeatedly suppressing emotions can convince the brain that certain emotions are unsafe, which can trigger the fight-or-flight response when strong emotions do arise in everyday life. This response prompts the release of stress hormones and the tightening of the psoas muscle. Over time, accumulated buried emotions can manifest as physical sensations in and around the hips.


Hip openers can play an important role in facilitating the release of lingering emotions. Incorporating somatic principles into your practice can create an environment that fosters inner peace and safety, allowing for the expression and release of repressed and suppressed emotions.


Enjoy this hip opening somatic yoga practice!



References


“Could Your Hips Hold the Key to Your Emotions? Some Experts Say Yes.” Healthline, 17 June 2021, www.healthline.com/health/mind-body/the-powerful-connection-between-your-hips-and-your-emotions.


“The Psoas and Chronic Stress/ Trauma.” Indwell, 27 Nov. 2018, www.indwellcounseling.com/blog/blog-1. Accessed 16 Apr. 2024.


Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog post is for educational purposes only and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. You are encouraged to speak with a healthcare practitioner if you are experiencing any health concerns. Rachel from Yoga with Rachel, highly recommends that you consult with your physician prior to participating in this exercise program. Please follow any safety precautions as indicated by your physician. Participating in any exercise program involves the possibility of physical injury. Listen to your body. Stop the exercise if you are experiencing any pain or discomfort. If you decide to engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree to do so at your own risk. By voluntarily participating in these activities, you assume all risk of injury to yourself.


FAQs

What is the difference between traditional yoga and somatic yoga?

Somatic yoga combines elements of yoga, somatic movement, and mindfulness to strengthen the mind-body connection. Traditional yoga practices place greater emphasis on proper alignment and mastering the pose, whereas somatic yoga is about finding what feels good in your body. 


Somatic yoga is a practice of self-inquiry, exploration and discovery. Somatic yoga invites you to tune into your internal experiences as you engage in movement and during moments of stillness. 


During somatic yoga practices, you are invited to observe sensations like emotions, feelings, impulses, tension, ease, discomfort, the flow of your breath, the rhythm of your heartbeat, pain, and more, through a lens of compassionate curiosity.  


This practice acknowledges that each body carries a unique narrative, inviting you to turn towards your body for guidance and feedback. This inward listening is an expression of self-love and compassion.  


Typically, somatic yoga practices involve slow, gentle movements on the floor, using the ground for sensory feedback. This approach allows for a more intuitive exploration of the poses and movements, facilitating a deeper connection with your body. 


Somatic yoga practices can create a felt sense of inner safety, which can play an important role in nervous system regulation. 


To learn more about somatic yoga, please read the following Blog Post: What is Somatic Yoga?

Is somatic yoga suitable for beginners?

What are the benefits of practicing somatic yoga?

Can somatic exercises help with anxiety?

Can somatic yoga help with chronic pain?

How often should I practice somatic yoga to see benefits?

What are examples of somatic practices?


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