“Does yoga help or hurt the hypermobile?”
Yoga asana (the physical practice) is a minefield for those with hypermobility because of a paradox about being hypermobile AND the human tendency to keep doing what we are “good” at (folks with hypermobility are often praised in yoga due to their flexibility).
There is an inherent paradox of being hypermobile. Hypermobile folks have more range of motion than average. That is, after all, the definition of hypermobility.
Yet frequently they feel tight. Including yoga practitioners.
Why is that?
Objective vs. Subjective.
For one, range of motion (the “mobility” of hypermobility) is an objective measure. Tightness, on the other hand, is a subjective experience related to (but not equating to) something called tone.
For example, Hanumanasana, also known as the splits, requires – objectively – above average range of motion in the hip joints.
Yet someone who can easily take on the shape of the splits may still feel tight in their hips.
A joint that has less ligamentous stability due to joint hypermobility syndrome (the genetic make-up of one’s collagen fibers) will often be surrounded by muscles with above average resting tone.
Resting tone is the term for the tiny unconscious constant contractions in our muscles. Tone is a good thing when it is in its Goldilocks zone, but you neither want too little nor too much.
An unstable joint, however, may give chronic signals to a muscle to stay selectively tight (relatively speaking), to stay alert, to maintain high resting tone (one way that we perceive tightness) in order to add stability to the joint.
You / Those people are not crazy.
Therefore if someone you saw on Instagram can kiss their shin with the knee straight, then say their hamstrings feel tight, they are not crazy.
If this is you, you are not crazy.
They / you may just have hypermobility.
Glorification of hypermobility
The physical practice of yoga, both historically and to a greater extent currently, glorifies and rewards hypermobility.
Hypermobile folks may not feel coordinated with sports. They may not feel sturdy enough in a gym. But in a yoga class, they can fit right in, and “excel” almost immediately.
It’s only human to do the activities that make you feel skillful. The tendency is for hypermobile people to be attracted to yoga because it is inherently rewarding to feel competent.
Just because you can…
Unfortunately with hypermobility, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
The splits may be easy for you today or with a little training. But over time, with repetition, the kind of extreme hip range of motion required of the splits may increase your hip joint instability.
Increased hip instability, in turn, could increase the resting tone of the surrounding muscles, which in turn could make you feel tight, and like you need more splits-like stretching.
It’s a catch-22.
The long term consequences of increasingly unstable joints surrounded by imbalanced muscles (some muscles trying super hard to stabilize, others too stretched out to contract) include labral tears, bursitis, arthritis and more.
How can a practice that is intended to heal cause harm?
This is also a paradox.
It’s not just the splits.
Many basic yoga poses require above average range of motion. This includes poses that do not appear to be extreme and are commonly taught. For example: Warrior I and II, cobra and upward facing dog.
Of course, a lot depends on how these poses are taught.
But the right “how” probably isn’t what you think it is.
Finding the perfect alignment cues is also not the answer. (This is a different topic for a different day, but in short: alignment cues rarely work for all people, and are often rooted in geometric perfectionism while our bodies are delightfully non-geometric and intelligent in the ways they innately move).
Is there a resolution?
If you love yoga, if yoga helped you in many ways, yet yoga also caused or could cause you harm, what is the solution?
The solution is to return to the roots of yoga: both to the philosophy, and to the roots of how exactly yoga helped you, or made sense for your modern life, or made you fall in love with yoga.
Yoga philosophy barely mentions asana (yoga poses), so we know from the texts that it’s not about the poses. “Yoga is the slowing down of the thought waves of the mind“, Yoga citta vrtti nirodha, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra 1.2.
Mindful movement that makes us stronger, combined with intentional breathing, combined with community and support, combined with focused awareness, centering and savasana / meditation is often what we love (or loved) about yoga classes.
Extreme shapes are not on that list.
We don’t need to bend our body into extreme shapes. We don’t even need stretching the vast majority of the time. (Again, another topic for another day).
We do benefit from movement that compliments our modern sedentary-ish lives, or cross-trains us to be able to keep running, or to continue loving our time on a bike, hiking, dancing, playing with the grandkids, et cetera.
We could all, the hypermobile among us, but also the athletes, the “advanced” yogis, the desk workers, use more practical time on the mat focusing on core strength, fascia release, functional movements, and hip strength.
We could all benefit from a yoga class that helps us take a break from our monkey mind.
We could all benefit from challenging practices that honor the deep roots of yoga, as well as our bodies in this world at this time.
Try our classes
The classes in our on demand library do exactly this.
Through their emphasis on strength, and avoidance of stretch (except for targeted fascia release), they are designed to be safer for individuals with hypermobility. (Though there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all with hypermobility. Please consult with your physio or doctor before trying classes).
Primary class topics include:
- Core Strength
- Mobility, Fascia and Function,
- Mini-Strength (with weights)
- Hips Happy Hour (hips strength)