During a recent exercise class, my teacher mentioned that it’s typical for women in her yoga or pilates sessions to cry when they’re put in positions stretching their hips. This piqued my interest: I’ve heard people say the hips store negative emotions — and anecdotally, several of my friends have told me about hip-opening movements that led them to an unexpected emotional release. But weeping in class sounds pretty extreme. I began to wonder if there was truly a link between hips and emotions that can be proven by science.
To find out whether this was a legitimate theory or just a yoga myth, I spoke to yoga expert Cathy Madeo and dug into the history of hips and their potential connection to the brain. It turns out, Shakira’s hit 2005 song “Hips Don’t Lie” (remember when she performed it at Super Bowl 2020?) may have been referring to more than mere dance moves.
Why would the hips store emotion?
Your hips are found on either side of your pelvis, and the hard-working hip joint is one of the largest in the human body. This joint is responsible for bearing weight, stabilizing your core, and moving your upper legs. If your hips are tight, your body will naturally have less mobility, and even normal activities such as walking can be painful. “The hip joint has over 20 muscles that cross over it,” Cathy Madeo explains. “This means when we say we have ‘tight hips,’ we are often unclear on which muscle or group of muscles is tight.”
Madeo pinpoints the “psoas” as a hip muscle of particular interest — it’s the only muscle that connects the torso to the legs, and [it’s] definitely a place that can store stress. “While it is a hip flexor, it also has the unique job of stabilizing the lumbar spine,” she says. “The psoas covers the kidneys (which are responsible for removing toxins) and the adrenal glands (which are responsible for the fight or flight response) and this means that when we feel stress, our psoas will tighten.”
According to Martha Eddy, a somatic educator and founder of Dynamic Embodiment, the psoas is the deepest support of our body’s core. “The pelvis is full of our creative, reproductive organs and contains the centrally located psoas muscle that connects the upper and lower body (the breath and diaphragm to the legs) making the core of our body important both physically and emotionally,” Eddy told Healthline.com. Eddy suspects that many types of pain are connected to a tight psoas muscle, since it stabilizes the spine and influences posture.
What’s the science behind it?
So, is there scientific proof that emotions are like airline baggage getting checked into our hips? Dr. Candance Pert, an American neuroscientist, certainly believed that unexpressed emotions could be stored in the physical body, famously stating that “your body is your subconscious mind.” In 1985, Pert found that small proteins known as neuropeptides activate the circuits linked to emotions; her research suggested that emotions are electrochemical signals carrying messages throughout the body that are then expressed, experienced, and stored.
“I have experienced emotional releases, in particular while holding a hip-opening yoga posture for a longer period of time (one to four minutes),” Madeo confirms from a personal angle. “When it happens, it feels like a physical release first, as though a tight muscle is finally letting go — followed by an emotional release.”
Is Eastern medicine more on board with this theory?
In East Asian medicine, emotions tend to be associated with specific organs. Though Western medicine mostly treats the body and mind as separate entities, Eastern medicine considers our emotions and physical health to be intimately connected. This “mind-body” approach to healing means that emotions impact the health of the body and vice versa.
This brings us to chakra — a Sanskrit word meaning “disk” or “wheel” and referring to the energy centers in your body that correspond to nerve bundles and organs. Ideally, your chakras should be “opened” or balanced; when there’s a chakra blockage, you won’t be operating at your physical or emotional best.
“Energetically, the hip area is associated with the sacral chakra, the wheel of energy that pertains to our reproductive organs and creativity,” Madeo explains of Eastern medicine. “When the chakras are blocked, it’s as though the energy is stuck. So when the sacral chakra is imbalanced, you could think of it as the energy getting stuck in this area. [When this happens] we feel emotionally unstable and feel a loss of creativity, so it might explain why we feel stuck or “tight” when we have tight hips and feel a release when they begin to open.”
Do women hold more tension in their hips than men?
Actually, it doesn’t seem like it! I’ve probably heard mainly women talking about their emotion-laden hips because more women take yoga and pilates classes. A 2012 study found there is no significant difference between men and women in regards to hip mobility, and Madeo also points to a study done in 2020 that found certain emotions were felt universally in the same areas of the body, even across varying cultures or genders.
However, women are more likely to have tight tips if they’ve recently gone through pregnancy and birth. “Our bodies release a hormone called relaxin during pregnancy and while breastfeeding,” Madeo says. “Relaxin can relax your ligaments around your pelvis, which can make the pelvis more mobile. This can then cause instability in the hip joint, which might cause some of the hip muscles to become imbalanced, as some muscles might become weaker during pregnancy and then others try to compensate.”
What can you do to relax tight hips?
We’ve learned that hips are an essential storeroom of emotions, from stress to (hopefully) some bliss. But if you’re tight, there’s plenty you can do to get your hips open again. Dr. Eddy recommends getting the spine moving and your whole body involved. “You want to contract and lengthen [the psoas] and get it moving like an accordion,” Eddy told Healthline. “Not just with the leg but with the whole spine.” She suggested African dance as an easy way to “create fluidity,” since this type of movement engages the entire spine. She also recommended “sideward movements like twists and rotating the body to activate the psoas.”
For more ideas, check out our nine yoga poses you can do from your bed for happy hips. Yoga instructor Madeo recommended the following yoga stretches in particular to help you loosen up:
- Pigeon Prep
- Lizard Lunge
- Bridge Pose
- Cobbler’s Pose
- Seated Wide Leg Forward Fold
- Frog Pose
See an example of the Pigeon Prep here:
To tie it all back to Shakira — after all, she wrote the only hip anthem I know about — we should all keep “reading the signs” of our bodies. Pay attention to what your muscles, joints, and organs are telling you and you’ll forge a path toward better mental and physical health.
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