Hypermobility and Yoga Tips for Building a Stable, Sustainable Practice
Many conditions affect our yoga practice. Understanding what's happening in the body when these challenges arise and learning how to modify our movements intelligently, is a key skill in yoga practice.
Hypermobility We're all born with a certain tone to our connective tissue. Some people are naturally tighter, while others are naturally looser. If you have hypermobility, you're naturally looser. Your connective tissues - your joint capsules, ligaments and tendons - allow you greater freedom of movement. Folding deeply into some yoga postures might seem really easy for you! Still - it's important to bear in mind that your joints need to be stable as well as mobile to practice yoga well and safely. In a highly mobile practice like yoga, stiffer people are naturally protected from overstretching. Hypermobility allows you to hyperextend your joints and overstretch - this is something to be mindful of in your practice.
You can see hyperextension in the knees and elbows when the angle of the joint moves beyond 180 degrees. If you 'sink into' a hyperextended joint, you rely on the tensile strength of your ligaments rather than the support of your surrounding muscles. Over time, this can overstretch connective tissue and de-activate the stabilizing muscles. So when you're weight bearing with straight arms (like in plank pose) or straight legs (like in triangle pose) it's important to avoid the end range of a joint’s available motion. Instead, keep a little microbend in your elbows or knees, so you support your pose through muscular activation.
Your special challenge as a hypermobile practitioner to resist exploiting your natural mobility and instead work to cultivate stability in your practice. Here are five tips to help keep a hypermobile practitioner safe and strong.
1. Choose your yoga style wisely If you’re hypermobile, seek out practices that focus on strengthening rather than only lengthening. For example, you probably don’t need to stretch out your connective tissue in a yin class. Hatha classes may be a better option for balancing your natural mobility and give you the opportunity to develop strength.
2. Keep a slight bend in your joints Pay particular attention to poses in which you bear weight through straight arms, like plank. If you micro-bend your elbows here so you don’t rest in your ligaments and instead force your muscles to do the work this will help keep your joints stable. Also pay attention to straight-legged standing poses such as triangle pose and pyramid pose. When you are straightening the leg, press into the ball of the foot and actively press the top of the shin forward to keep a microbend in the knee. Although the slight bend will make the pose feel harder, you will be cultivating the strength that your joints need to stay functional.
3. Use your feet to protect your knees As a rule of thumb, place your weight in your heels during bent-knee standing poses and into the balls of your feet for straight-legged standing poses. Keeping your weight in the heel of the front leg during poses like warrior II and extended side angle will help keep pressure away from the front of the knee by activating the glutes and lessening the pull of the quadriceps. Weighting the ball of your foot in straight-legged poses like pyramid and half moon will encourage the hamstrings to engage, which will create a slight flexion in the knee joint, helping you to avoid hyperextension.
4. Practice stabilizing Maintain balanced muscular engagement by keeping the stretching tissues active. In straight-arm poses like plank, pull your hands slightly toward each other to engage the biceps. In seated poses like head to knee pose or seated forward fold, resist the full-range stretch of your hamstrings by slightly pulling your heels toward your sit bones. While your muscles do not need to be 100 percent activated during these stretches, maintaining some muscular engagement will keep your joints supported and prevent hyperextension.
5. Don’t be a sensation junkie When you are flexible, it may be tempting to take the pose as far as it can go. After all, you may not 'feel anything' if you stop before you have maxed out a stretch. However, if you are hypermobile, you probably don’t need to be more flexible; you need to be more stable. Rather than seek out the end range of your movement, practice at 80 percent of your range. We sometimes think that we have to be 'feeling it' in order to be 'getting it.' For hypermobile yogis, backing off (and not having a stretching sensation) can be healthier for the body in the long run. Check in and make sure that your ego isn’t driving the bus. Rather than seek out the end range of your movement, practice at 80 percent of your range.
Closing thoughts Classically, in yoga postures we aim for 'stabilty and ease.' Every practitioner — stiff or flexible — is invited to balance these qualities in order to create a practice that is sustainable and functional. If you're hypermobile you're blessed with great flexibility and simply need to focus a bit more on the steadiness part of the equation. Remember that the goal of yoga is not 'achieving' a template posture but sensing our movement onto postures in an intelligent way. The physical shapes that we make are the vehicles for a far deeper purpose: mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-connection.
Enjoy your yoga! :-) Fran x
Yoga involves paying attention to things we may previously have left unacknowledged or taken for granted - the sensations we feel when we practice.
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