Why would a healthcare provider prohibit yoga? Often, the person who can put their palms flat on the floor with no resistance is more than flexible in their muscles and tendons. They have what we call hypermobility, or more than “normal” motion of the joints. Conversely, not all hypermobile folks are outwardly flexible.
“Is that me?” You likely fall in the hypermobile category if you answer yes to any of the following questions:
- Have you ever been called “double jointed”? e.g. your knees or elbows hyperextend, you can touch your thumb to your forearm, your pinky finger bends backward more than 90 degrees
- Can you easily touch your toes in a forward bend or further? (palms on the floor, or past the feet)
- Do you get certain poses “for free” (with minimal effort) such as full wheel or camel or full shoulder binds?
- Do you love to have your joints popped (either by a professional or yourself) but find the relief temporary?
- Do you find it difficult or painful to remain in any one position for a prolonged period of time?
- Do you feel stiff and usually feel better if you move around or exercise?
- Do you feel stiff and crave stretching, but sometimes feel worse afterward?
- Have you injured the same body part more than once, and each time, the precipitating incident more and more trivial?
Some of the uber flexible have a genetic connective tissue disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome in which the collagen tissue (which makes up much of the soft tissues in the body) is more elastic, or less able to resist tensile loads. Whatever the cause of the hypermobility, there isn’t an easy fix to restore the joints to a more normal range of motion. The best way to prevent injury and pain is to avoid taking the joints into their extremes of range of motion and strengthen muscles around the joints.
If you are one of those hypermobile folks, what do you do? In most cases, you don’t have to give up your yoga practice, but you will be better served by approaching it differently. These are some basic suggestions to get you started, but as usual, if you are injured or have difficulty with these suggestions, seek out some private instruction with an experienced teacher and/or a PT who loves yoga! (like me!)
Use caution with heated classes. Some of our constitutions thrive on heat. Heat feels great and allows you to stretch more. However, if you are already hypermobile, adding heat to the mix may allow you to stretch past your healthy range without noticing it. So, I’m not saying avoid heated classes altogether, but approach them mindfully.
Don’t take every pose to the most “advanced” variation. The hypermobile person will often be instantly “good” at yoga. They will be able to achieve the extreme shapes with relative ease. Do not confuse this for being an “advanced” yogi. What you don’t see in those experienced yogis is the incredible amount of work their muscles are doing in the poses. Your pose may look similar on the outside, but if you’re not doing the work inside the pose, you could be abusing your body rather than nourishing it. Most yoga teachers will offer “bus stops” or several variations of each pose. Experiment with taking a different variation than you usually do and work on the following suggestions…
“Hug in.” or “Hug muscle to bone.” This is yoga speak for using your muscles in poses. This achieves several outcomes. 1. It gets you focused on your body and moving with intention rather than achieving some outward ideal of the pose. 2. Activating the muscles around your joints in a balanced way helps create stability. 3. Over a long period of time, consistently activating those muscles will create “hypertrophy” – the muscles actually add more fibers in parallel. This creates passive stiffness and helps protect your joints even when you’re not actively engaging them.
Move slowly. It may be tempting to walk into those fast-paced level 3 vinyasa classes because you can achieve the shape of the poses, but being hypermobile often means your sensation of your body position and joint position (kinesthesia and proprioception) is more difficult to connect to, especially when moving at a faster pace. The easiest sensation to connect to is that of muscle stretch – at this point, you may have already taken the pose too far. Also, many of us have adopted resting positions of our joints which are already on the extreme side. In that case, you can’t expect your body to magically find the optimal position on its own, certainly not when moving fast. Instead, slow down and learn to connect to the sensation of the boundaries of your muscles and the subtle movement within your joints. It’s quite fascinating and will transform your practice!
Reacquaint yourself with gravity. If I were to try to sum up a multitude of movement impairments in one concept it would be an impaired relationship between your body and gravity. When you are hypermobile, gravity’s opposite upward force doesn’t transfer quite the same from the ground into your body as it does in someone with a stiffer system. You have to practice and train it. For example: Feel even weight between both feet, inside-outside toe balls and inside-outside heels. Use the muscles of the feet to connect to the earth and lift and support your legs. When your hands are in connection with the earth, use the ring of the palm and fingertips to anchor down and support your arms. Even starting here can make a world of difference for some! Now, whatever is in contact with the earth, try some swaying front to back, side to side (like a metronome) or in small circles. What I see happen in injured folks with these shifts is often the body bends like a blade of grass in the breeze, rather than a sturdy steel pole…as if the top half of the body is disconnected from the bottom half. Making these connections is vital for your true core** strength.
Ask yourself some deeper questions. Why do you do yoga? Is it to push yourself to the extreme? You may want to reevaluate. A lot of hypermobile folks I have worked with are unwilling to back off their yoga or other activities the slightest bit in the name of mindfulness. This is a dangerous mindset that in and of itself can be injury promoting. Understandably, slowing down or backing off can be frustrating, but be patient and compassionate with yourself. On another front, sometimes excessive “openness” in the body correlates with excessive openness in other layers of our person (energetic, psycho-emotional, etc). You may be taking on more than your fair share of negative energy, emotion or stress from others around you. Just investigate and cultivate an awareness of yourself. It may take some time to really get to the bottom of it, but that’s what life and yoga are all about!
Here’s to finding balance in life and yoga!
**yes, I think core strength is vital for those with hypermobility just like for any of us…however, I think our traditional model as most of us understand it in the fitness and even rehab community is flawed. More on that subject later!