Updated: Feb 9
I wanted to take a closer look at the complicated mix of practising yoga with a hypermobile, or rather hyperflexible body. I am a dedicated student and teacher of yoga and have been a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga for almost four years when I write this. I am not an expert on the subject, these are my questions and findings through research and my own experience... I am asking is yoga is actually harder if you are naturally flexible? Is it safe?
Yoga makes us question what we thought we knew about our bodies
When we come to yoga we most often discover that there is some weakness or imbalance in the body, and mine is this slight hypermobility thing. I love my Ashtanga practise, but there are moments during asana where I've wonder Why am I doing this to myself? Must it be so extreme? So hard!? In these difficult moments the others practitioners around me always seem so calm in comparison, they make it look so easy… they don’t seem to break a sweat! I mean I’m steady and calm too, I turn to my breath and drishti, but beyond that sometimes my body is screaming help, my muscles feel like they’re about to buckle... WHY?
Hypermobility in yoga can actually cause a practitioner to struggle or put the body under undue strain if not done carefully with awareness, which isn't fun and can result in a stressful or unpleasant practise, when really we are supposed to be calming down right?! It is common for people with naturally flexible bodies to have a lack of stamina, strength, stability, balance and proprioception, that is knowing where the body is in space. These practitioners often don't feel a stretch until they reach the end of their range, and often lack the stability to then hold that posture, and afterwards exit it.
Yoga teaches us to pay attention and journey inwards through sensations of breath and body, yoga is 'skill in action', but with a flexible body there can be less obvious sensations meaning that the hypermobile yogi must be even more aware, hyper-aware!
Be fair to yourself
Sometimes the practise can build energy, other times it seems to deplete it. It is hard to make the call on how intensely or how often one should practise if you feel frequently tired or chronically tired as many hypermobile people do. I used to be always exhausted after a 'full' practise, this is the main reason why it has been so difficult to keep it consistent and balance it with my daily life on my feet in the restaurant industry which also has physical demands of my body, mostly my legs and shoulders! To have strength to practise means planning ahead, eating healthy nutritious energy- giving food, resting, sleeping and digesting properly, mainly being aware of how much energy you consume and how you use it. That includes building a practise that is appropriate to you and therefore sustainable. It is also important to build strength as well as flexibility, as flexibility work alone can result in injury or weakness.
Sharath Jois himself was recently in London as part of his European 2019 tour and I had the opportunity to share the practise with hundreds of others under his guidance. It was exhilarating and inspiring, but those moments come again, I didn’t sleep well, the body is tired, UHP is harrowing as the balancing muscles aside my shin buckle and I feel that in ABP my knee may actually snap backwards. Note these are both challenging balancing poses. I can’t help but notice practitioners with less experience or less visible muscle than me making it look like a breeze, they must have something I don’t have?! Later I will discuss the importance of building strong deep stabilizing muscles. My ashtangi friend and teacher is practising each day AND goes off to teach classes as usual afterwards and all I can think about is collapsing into a bath and putting my legs up the wall!!!!
Mobility vs Flexibility
Mobility is your ACTIVE range of motion ( unaided from external force )
Flexibility is your PASSIVE range of motion ( aided by external force )
External forces could be:
- moving, pushing or pulling a limb with your hands
-pulling with a strap
-weight from a prop ( perhaps used in Yin yoga)
-weight of another person
-force from another person
Try this simple test...
Spread your hand out on the floor
Raise your index finger and observe how high it lifts = MOBILITY ROM
Now use your other hand to raise the finger =FLEXIBILITY ROM
Each finger that moves to 90 degrees is a point on the hypermobility scale. So you can see how flexibile joints can be exploited when the muscles are not engaged. It is important to learn to engage the muscles before you stretch, so you 'actively stretch' and don't leave the joint capsule exposed or pull on the muscle insertion which hurts, this often happens to our hamstrings, aka the yogi butt, which can take many weeks to heal.
Let’s get this straight, muscles don’t really tighten and stretch, rather they contract/shorten or relax/lengthen. And ligaments are not like elastic bands as many of us were taught at school, they are sturdy and strong, holding our bones together! Ligaments do have a degree of give as in ‘bending not to break’ because the bones do have to move, although one wouldn’t want to overstretch them consistently as they may not go back to their original form. They are more plastic than elastic.
In a hypermobile person there is a higher degree of give in the ligaments, resulting in a body with a larger natural range of motion, meaning they often go to hyperextension without effort or realising. This can be unsafe only if we are not aware. This can be a complicated combination when practising something such Ashtanga that demands stamina and deep flexibility simultaneously. It is not uncommon for yogis to have hip operations later in life sadly, I wonder if this is because we didn't know then what we know now about physical anatomy, and individual anatomical make up, not every body/ joint can be forced in the same way and to the same effect.
Bless the stiff yogi
Flexibility is often regarded as being an asset to yoga and many naturally flexible people are drawn to yoga as usually we love to do what we are good at! The truth is what we are good at isn't always what we should be doing, perhaps quite the opposite, the owner of a North London studio I teach at often reminds me of this! I consider myself to be only slightly hypermobile, I am nowhere near as naturally flexible as some of the students I teach, who can fold themselves up into pretzels and feel absolutely nothing at all! When I asked a regular group that I teach to go into the favourite pose for a photo, the most flexible person in the room chose to fold and wrap herself into Yogi Mudra, a folded and bound seated lotus pose of course!!!
Injury can happen and the ego can bruise when we find out that perhaps yoga as a flexible person can be a lot tougher! There is a saying I heard once, I don’t remember where, ‘god bless the stiff yogi’ for the stiff yogi’s body is less at risk, it is pretty safe and sturdy. Also it is difficult to rush or overstretch as the body has many sensations and alarm signs to observe. The platform for the real yoga to occur is through observance, paying attention, mindfulness. We don't really do yoga to make us flexible do we?!
In varying degrees (there is a hypermobility scale, The Beighton Score, link below ) the joints are less stable and so to make up for that the smaller stabilizing muscles surrounding the joint have to work constantly, and therefore become tired and less efficient at their job. Apparently they can lose as much as 80% of their power! This then means the larger muscles also have to step in and compensate. The ‘movers’, which are designed for actions/ moving the skeleton through space are not designed to work constantly either, and also become strained and less powerful, and these are blood thirsty, especially groups like the Quadriceps, which means they consume more energy. I read a really informative and personal article by Chelsey Engel ( link below) who describes this beautifully, she says asking the muscles to work like this is equivalent to asking a sprinter to run a marathon. Those poor muscles!!!
With this constant need for the muscles to be firing constantly they are always on alert, it’s plain to see why fatigue and lack of strength are the results of living with hypermobility. Loss of balance, poor proprioception, chronic pain, worry, stress, anger, confusion and impatience are also common symptoms and brought to the fore as we demand too much of our bodies. I have seen this in my students and myself.
The muscles are of course activated by the nervous system, and in a hypermobile
person it can be hard to switch off the relentless signals to contract the muscle. When it comes to rest or sleep people affected can experience spasms, trembling or pulsing sensations, which can lead to lack of sleep, further feeding the problem. I used to often choose a lift instead of a set of stairs, and never walk up the escalators!!! After research and recommendations I have tried everything from eating more greens, taking zinc, magnesium spray, Epsom salts, drinking more water and on recommendation from the users of the helpful Astanga Self Practitioners Facebook page a supplement called MSM ( Methylsulfonylmethane) which seems to calm down the joints after exercise. I also have a stash of frankincense which is known to relax muscles, painkillers and balms at home. Nothing actually stops the muscles from trembling but rest and elevating the legs is the best remedy I can assure you.
There is no cure known at the moment to re- tighten ligaments.
What is Hyperextension?
It is very common for flexible people, and mostly women to hyperextend at the knee and elbow. These are hinge joints, designed to open and close through 180 degrees in one plane ( more or less, let's keep this simple). A hyperextension is when the arm or leg moves further than 180 degrees, which has the odd appearance of bending backwards. This is nothing to worry about and perfectly safe so long as you are aware of when you are in your hyperextended range and how much you are asking of the joint when there, ie are you weight bearing? moving quickly? twisting? balancing? You will know when you are in this range and weight bearing for example, as there is discomfort in the patella and tibia and a feeling that the knee might buckle, as I mentioned earlier in the challenging balance poses on one leg... try to catch yourself standing at the supermarket or the bar dumping into your hyper range without realising!? It is now commonly accepted that it is healthy for joints they to be worked through all ranges, but with awareness. I remember Dr Yoga AKA Andrew McGonigle busted many a myth when I attended a functional anatomy training with him!!! Myths like 'don't let the knee go over the ankle in Warrior 2', he reminded us that the body and it's skeleton is incredibly robust, and a miracle and that it would be very hard to break it through yoga. So why am I writing this article you may ask? Well, the danger sneaks up with repetition ... of uneven or incorrect weight bearing, or repeated forcing or tugging at a joint especially in powerful Ashtanga and Vinyasa styles. This is often why people's knees pop or hips wear down, or rotator cuffs become damaged.
My main message is to be careful, know what you are doing, don't just use the body blindly. For years I had sagas of weak knees for example, it was hard to put my finger on the type and exact location of the pain, if it was pain, sometimes they felt numb, other times they clicked, other times they couldn't take weight, I am convinced I pulled my ACL, a ligament that stops the tibia and femur bones separating basically. My knees would hurt on long hikes, or stairs, cycling, dancing, (yes I used to party !) waitering…. it
got to the point, twice actually, of not being able to carry weight up stairs AT ALL, I mean not even a single step! For a period I was practising lots of yoga, working as a waiter AND travelling by bicycle, let’s say it didn’t last long... I was a quivering mess!!!!
It took me a long time to realise I hyperextend (quite a lot) at the knee joint, meaning if I fully straighten my leg it looks dished, my knee feels like it’s pushing backwards. This means the tibia is set quite far back which means it is not ideal for weight transfer as my centre of gravity passes through my patella (see picture). I didn’t know this when I began with yoga on my own, at home, with no teacher. I learnt the hard way!
To Micro- bend or not?
To stop the knee feeling like it was going to bend backwards I experimented a lot first of all with micro- bending the knee in standing poses and 'flointing' the feet in seated poses instead of flexing. The micro bends made my knee feel less loaded, but increased the work on the surrounding muscles, also I feel that I lost the energy lines and integrity of the poses.
I remember I was on a Mysore Intensive with the marvellous David Garrigues last year and I was in Parsvottanasana, he came over and said ‘Leanne, straighten that leg’ and I mumbled something along the lines of ‘I’m micro- bending to protect my knee, he replied ‘Well, that’s a macro bend!’ That is just how dishy my shins are. I was slightly embarrassed but at that stage I was really sensitive about protecting my knee. Now I prefer to straighten the leg with opposite forces...
Create space in the knee
If like me you have had enough of struggling with micro bends try engaging the foot bandha more, Padha Bandha... root down and simultaneously draw energy up through the standing leg to eliminate dumping in the knee. Imagine the tibia and femur actually pulling away from each other, a feeling from the knee down moving downwards and from the knee up pulling upwards. I recommend actively engaging the Quads to protect the knee joint at all times from overload in all standing poses and in vinyasas too. Push and pull, or opposing forces are a vital aspect of asana, to find the inbetween place, the correct balance of each, to root and rise in equal measure. In Patanjali's Sutras it states that finding peace between these two forces is to be steady and comfortable in a posture, to be still, meaning the posture is correct.
46. 'The physical postures should be steady and comfortable.
47. They are mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the infinite
48. Then we are no longer upset by the play of opposites
Patanjali Yoga Sutras
Carrying on from this remember to engage as you fold, many students lack this control. Actively control the stretch and don't just let your hamstrings pull. My advice in standing folds is to switch the glutes on, connect with bandha, move slowly and stop before you reach the end point, resist gravity, then check yourself on the next inhale before you deepen.. quads pulling up to protect the knee and hamstrings, think about using the front of the leg as much as the back. A test to show you how much the legs should work in forward folds is the following, back up against a wall then try Uttanasana!
In seated folds flointing can be nice to relieve pressure in the knee joint if you
hyperextend, a mix between flexing and pointing the toes, think pulling the toes back put pushing the ball of the foot forwards, like pressing a pedal. Also in forward folds avoid spreading the flesh of the seatbones, you want to protect them as they harbour the hamstring insertion point, and I repeat ACTIVATE AND THEN STRETCH! especially if you suspect an assist from a teacher!
Another place that flexible students can fall into the trap of overstretching and causing
pain is by exploiting the massive range of movement that the shoulder girdle is designed to give. In yoga we reach through the arms A LOT. It is important to remember to soften the shoulders constantly to avoid stress and strain and pulling the joint around. This arms up or forward movement is is initiated by the ribs and spine lifting under the inhale, use this and keep the shoulders relaxed and away from the ears, yes even further away. Leave the shoulder plugged in at the socket and relaxed in poses like Urdhva Hastasana, Utkatasana, Virabhadrasana 1 and Uttitha Parasvakonasana for a softer practise and avoid unnecessary external rotation, life will be better trust me!
Watch your alignment in Downward Facing Dog, we come here a lot! don't let the chest sink towards the floor because it can or feels good, you are stressing your shoulder joint and missing the point of the pose. The most common assist I give us to bring in the front ribs and back into a stronger straighter line, creating strength, stability and axial extension of the spine. Many students have to begrudgingly change how they hold this pose, learning to elevate and secure the shoulder by bracing through the protracting muscles in the upper back which is much more work but crucial to achieve the spinal work we are after here.
It also pays to be careful in Upward Facing Dog and poses such as Purvottanasana where there is again, the temptation to press the shoulders back violently. Aim to stamp down and secure the shoulders instead, plug them in, and work on lifting the heart and opening the thorasic region. This feels much more liberating, trust me your shoulders will thank you and you will be building technique for arm balances and Sirsasana, Headstand.
Gravity and External forces
Physical assists are part and parcel of practising yoga, especially Ashtanga. and gravity pulls us deeper in Yin poses, this is important to know and be aware of as a naturally flexible person.
TO BE CLEAR-
In Ashtanga or Vinyasa styles of yoga the muscles are engaged= ACTIVE STRETCH
In Yin yoga they are not= PASSIVE STRETCH
I have had some very deep and careless assists ( not all, but some!) in Paschimottanasana and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana specifically, where outside force applied to the body left me with pulled hamstrings ( much like the example with the finger test for mobility vs flexibility earlier mentioned). Perhaps I hadn't learnt to engage correctly before entering or being put into the pose, it is possible. I am still wary of assists that take me deeper with body weight force, but am noticing how these don't seem to be the 'done thing' anymore, perhaps they are out of fashion or there is sensitivity to the subject given recent discussions... generic or forceful assists seem to be out, mindful and precise assists are in! I have recently experienced teachers steering my body with magical fingertip touches and verbally steering my breath direction. There are also many teachers who assist only verbally.
Mobility is the new buzz word
We seem to be finally satisfied with having explored Fascia! There are now many classes out there designed specifically to work strength and stability... Slow Flow, Power Flow, Fit and Flow, Mobility and Stretch flow and Yogasana classes are widely available here in London and each time I visit Instagram there are flexibilty vs mobility demonstrations and drills. Did it take many people to get injured I wonder to wake us up and see that we need to be safer with our bodies, that flexibility isn't just fun!? Just today I received an invitation to a free 'Mobility Sports Science for Yoga' workshop with Ricky Warren (Thank you Moreyoga!)
What we find difficult is what we need to be doing, to strengthen that which is weak. BUT is this a CATCH 22 if the muscles are already overworked and shaking, surely it cannot be correct to stress them with more work? I admit it this has been an ongoing dilemma for me for a looooong time and is probably the main reason for all of this research!
I have come to understand and learn by experience that it is best to practise what you find difficult, but do not do it when the body is already tired or overdo it. Isolate movements or exercises that you struggle with, or that you hate! and do them often, with control, and slowly to build strength in the deep stabilizer muscles. I recently wound up on a Power Yoga training, I didn't know it was Power when I signed up, I probably wouldn't have signed up! Michael Eley, a fantastic London based teacher of Bikram and Power styles says he's a 'big advocate of practising things you find difficult'... By the end of it my body was stronger and more supple than before, my weak muscles had been strengthened, and I had more mobility in poses and transitions the body was less used to. It was quite remarkable, so try complimenting your usual practise with a movement or exercise or sport even that is quite different in the way it uses the body and see what happens!
Notes on Hot Yoga
The room was ridiculously hot, it was July, we were in the middle of a heatwave, the floor was sopping with sweat, I had never been so soaked in sweat but I felt gloriously springy and flexible from even the first Surya Namaskar! I was practising a lot of lotus all week, my knee wasn't 'talking' to me as usual, in fact I was touching heel to navel to open the lotus hip correctly, a movement I couldn't usually do... We also sat in Padmasana in the afternoon workshops when we were cold for long amounts of time for pranayamas too. Why am I telling you this? I later found out that yoga in a hot room relaxes the muscles, which of course makes the joints more at risk. I was unable to sit in Janu Sirsasana A for three weeks afterwards! And since then I am careful not to sit in Lotus cold, even if it feels good or looks good. Take even more care with hot yoga flexible ones! or avoid and create your internal heat instead!
Yin specifically targets the bones, fascia, joint capsules and ligaments of the body, the muscles are (mostly) in a relaxed state as we surrender to sinking into external forces of gravity over a set period of time. The aim is to 'unstick' and lubricate the connective fascia tissue and gently stress the joints to make them strong and supple, along with increasing their supply of blood and nutrients. Increased flexibility is one of the results as the ligaments respond to gravity's pull without protection of the muscles gripping. If you are already flexible I would discourage you from having a purely Yin yoga practise, and be careful not to spend the whole duration of the class hanging in your furthest edge of flexibility. For you less is best! Perhaps focus on breath, relaxation or meditation aspects instead.
My practise has evolved. I have grown up, got hurt, got wise. I have fallen out with Ashtanga yoga and come back time and time again to reestablish a more healthy relationship with it. We are now more harmonious. I practise consistently but with less force and haste, I find the body is willing and ready, each time it is delightful and I have made progress with little effort. If I have a tired body I modify and regulate my breath. If the legs are tired from all the walking I do around London or working at the restaurant I will omit Warrior Poses, what is the point of taking my legs to burning point or not being able to walk up a set of stairs afterwards?!!!
There is a fine line between strengthening muscles and overworking them, I have heard from various teachers to aim for 70% effort and I think this is great advice. Also by cultivating a deeper awareness of the internal body and by practising with strong bandha the body is much more supported and stable, as you learn to harness the power of the deeper internal muscles as well as the higher awareness of subtleties that come with development of Mula Bandha, the root lock. ( I will soon be writing a blog about this fascinating topic!)
I’m not saying it’s entirely bad to be flexible, but it’s learning how to control it and work with it that is SO important. To have strength and confidence instead of pain. All of this analysis and study and play takes more awareness, yes, and can be irritating, but once you recognise your hypermobility , you relearn, you bite the bullet and go backwards and accept responsibility for your own body. All teachers will instruct differently, based on their personal study and experience, but remember that in most led classes cues have to be generic and the responsibility is the individual's as only you can feel the body you are in. I am sure that once you have found the way it will intuitively ingrain into the practise, as my learnings have, and you will carry on your path safely and naturally.
-Practise mobility with flexibility
-Approach the end point of a posture with caution, hold back to build strength
-If you can't get out of a pose the way you went in you have gone to far
-Avoid sinking, lift out of gravity!
-Activate Quads to protect knee
-Activate Glutes to protect hamstrings
-Avoid pushing /pulling the legs in to place with your hands/ external forces
-Move slowly with awareness
-Don't press the knees backwards if it hurts
-Don’t overdo it
-Avoid practising in a hot room
-Do Savasana, use a timer, weight, blanket
-Get enough sleep
-Legs up the wall before bed to soothe too much nerve activity.
-Practise restorative/ nidra/ meditation
I really hope this shines some light on how to think about being safe whilst flexible in your practise, I would really love to hear about your practise journey too!
You can message me below,