An Anecdotal And Anatomical Introduction To Healthier Practice For The Hypermobile
Some people think extreme flexibility is cool, some people think it’s borderline creepy. Based on experience, it’s got its pros and cons. Range of motion is a blessing, extreme range of motion can be a curse. I can touch my toes easily, but I can’t always feel my hamstrings. My sensation of stretching is a few inches deeper than most people, but the idea of maintaining contraction in a muscle group or stability in a joint requires a lot of concentration. Flexibility-focused yoga poses don’t require much mindfulness. My legs can literally just go there, can’t yours? But that’s not the kind of practice and mindset that will keep me young forever. In fact, it’s the kind of practice that will wear out my joints and land me in the hospital with a hip replacement before 50.
As I mentioned in my previous article [link to article], hypermobility can cause a lot of problems, but it doesn’t limit me. One way to look at flexibility is that it’s the ability to adapt. If you’ve got #BendyPeopleProblems like me, here are a four anatomically-informed guidelines you can integrate into your practice to make it more mindful and sustainable in the long run.
Consider yourself differently-abled. Know your body’s different needs.
I’ve come to understand that my definition of stiff or tight can be very different from most people’s, and what I need to do to prepare for a pose will also be very different from most people’s. Classic example: while the usual route to titibhasana is to open up the hips and hamstrings, I have to strengthen my inner thighs and quads – the muscles that squeeze and straighten the legs. My body doesn’t need to open up most muscles, it needs to wake them up.
It’s essential to be curious about your body. Take the time to observe your body, and how it reacts to poses and instructions. Search for subtle signs, rather than seek big sensations. A little restraint goes a long way.
Which muscles have a hard time turning on? Which muscles have a hard time feeling release? What happens when I do this? If I do this, where do I feel it? What does this tell me about this part of my body? What does this part actually need?
Don’t search for the stretch. Concentrate on contraction.
Raise your hand if the teacher asks “do you feel it here?” and you stare blankly because you don’t feel it anywhere. *Raises hand* I often look like I need an exorcism when the teacher asks us to find a deep stretch of any sort. The floor is never low enough in forward folds, the back never clicks enough in twists. Ok, stop me right there. If I need to click my spine to think I’m going deep enough, I need to reconsider what I’m looking for in the pose, and what my concept of a “stretch” is.
Let me break it down: “stretch” isn’t an action, it’s a sensation. Technically, the brain doesn’t tell muscles to stretch, it tells the muscle you’re targeting to relax while commanding the opposite muscle group to contract. What you feel when you stretch is your targeted muscle relaxing and lengthening, but what you do when you stretch is contract the opposite muscle group. Often what we’re looking for is literally on the other side: if your hip flexors aren’t feeling it, contract your glutes. If your hamstrings aren’t feeling it, contract your quads by lifting your kneecaps.
What am I doing to feel the stretch? What sensations or signs tell me I’ve found it? Am I doing damage to my joints to feel my muscles stretch out? Do I even need to stretch this side, or do I actually need to contract the muscles on the opposite side?
If you think it’s straight, bend it a little. If it feels a little bent, it’s probably straight.
Some people are blessed with strong, straight lines from their shoulders to their wrists. Some people’s elbows take a detour in the form of a carrying angle or hyperextension. The same goes for the knees, which in many hypermobile people can not only move past straight, but can also bend or twist inward and outward in large degrees. (Hint: that’s not how knees should move.)
Between our joints are cartilage, ligaments, meniscus, bursa, fluid, and other tissues that prevent the bones from grinding on each other, and allow free passage of arteries, nerves, and veins. Hyperextending our limbs can cause these tissues that cushion and allow painless movement in our joints to wear out. Knowing how and how far a joint moves, specifically our joints, will help us to understand our body’s capabilities and where it needs limitations. Observe your body through practice, adapt as you go.
Stand in front of a mirror and ask yourself:
How should this joint be moving? Is it actually moving in that way? What does straight look like? What does straight feel like? Can I reprogram my mind and muscles to remember what it feels like when it looks straight? (Yes, you can! You’re flexible that way!)
Focus on finding stability and refining your alignment.
If you’re reading this because you’re morbidly fascinated by hypermobility, let me give you an idea of what it’s like: imagine your joints are balancing on slippery ice, or are bound together by jello. I’d love to wrap up every joint securely in a tight hug and lots of athletic tape, but that’s what my muscles and ligaments need to learn to do. That’s what an alignment-based yoga practice can do.
Yoga can actually be very good for hypermobile people because it focuses on slow, isometric contractions that help build stability. An alignment-based practice promotes observing and understanding our unique structure. It benefits our joints to slow down and observe how they move, to steadily build their integrity by properly and evenly working our muscles so as to not strain our ligaments. Ligaments hold bones together, muscles move them. They can either mobilize or stabilize a joint.
Am I honoring my body’s structure? (Or am I just flinging my limbs around?) Can I make my movements more deliberate? In which joints do I need more support?
In your practice, try to slow down and observe how you move. I now come to yoga not to search for the fallacy of a stretch, but to build and maintain the strength to carry my own body weight. I’ll have to be carrying this body throughout my life, after all.
When she isn’t drawing body parts, you can find Tami Ledesma teaching Vinyasa, FNR, Gentle Flow, and Pre-Natal yoga at Urban Ashram, or pulsing among her students at Barre3. Follow her asana adventures on Instagram at @movewithtami.