This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of canfitpro magazine
One of my favourite excuses that I hear for why people can’t do Yoga is still: “I’m not flexible enough”. The irony in that statement is that the increased mobility experienced with a regular yoga class is best served to those who are “inflexible”. In fact, it’s our ‘bendy’ students, our ex-gymnasts and dancers or those just born with more joint mobility that need to be most careful in their practice and are at the biggest risk of joint injury from Yoga. Why? Because rather than relying on their muscular strength and endurance to move into or hold the poses they often end up using their flexibility and joint mobility instead and as a result strain the joints leading to long lasting chronic injury and pain.
One of the most common things I see in my students is the misconception that deeper is better, and that to perform such poses means the end goal of Yoga is gained. If this were true than only the most athletic of us would be able to master Yoga. Asana, or the poses of Yoga are really meant to keep the body limber to be able to sit in meditation for longer periods of time. As in all physical activities, it is natural that over time our priorities begin to shift in terms of why and how we are practicing this particular sport, Yoga is very much the same. When we first learn Yoga, we are most often searching for more sensation in our practice, looking to feel the burn from a good workout so we can feel like we did something. If we don’t understand what we are supposed to feel, this can be quite dangerous. Though it is difficult to receive an acute injury in Yoga, chronic injury in particular in the hips, SI joint and shoulders are extremely common. Muscle memory can work for or against us, sometimes setting bad habits for our posture and alignment which are difficult to break and even harder to re-hab. It is imperative that we, as both practitioners and even more so as teachers, understand how to find the space in the middle. I often use cues such as, “looking for 70% effort in our pose over a 100” or a favourite YogaFit cue, “looking for the space between ouch and too easy.”
Claudia Micco, YogaFit Senior Master Trainer from Hawaii says: “I have been hypermobile all my life, gymnastics as a kid was a big part of my life. When I found Yoga, I could contort my body in every which way. It was pleasing for many years, but I always liked to have an adjustor because I was unable to “feel” my joints. I have been aware of my condition for a long time, but when you’re young, the body springs back easily… in my early forties I became increasingly aware of a nagging pinch, click and painful right hip. Unfortunately, by the time I was diagnosed, arthritis had already set in to joint. I had to make major life and career adjustments. I’ve always used my body to make a living, it was very humbling. Too many years of extreme ROM took its toll.”
Why are we concerned with hypermobility? Because those who are hypermobile for the most part experience little pain as their joint capsule allows them this additional movement. However, when excessive weight is placed against a joint that is beyond normal range complications can occur. For those who are hypermobile the ligaments that hold their joints in place are a little looser and lack the stability required to keep a joint in place so that dislocation or tears don’t occur. Problems later in life with osteoarthritis (wear and tear of the joint) are very common, as we saw with Claudia’s story.
Another condition also marked my hypermobility is a genetic disease, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome or EDS. In EDS one experiences “tissue fragility” essentially, skin more easily stretched, along with muscles, ligaments and joints with extended movement. With EDS, there is now an increased danger of dislocation in the joint and an inability to properly heal because of the lack of tenacity of the tissue itself. Those with EDS benefit greatly from a Yoga practice, in particular those new to fitness because the mobility aspect is very natural and comfortable for them. Under proper direction they can greatly increase strength to support joints while also creating body awareness and proprioception to assist in other sports and strength-based exercises.
What does hypermobility look like?
In hips, most common among our ex-gymnasts/dancers are exaggerated standing postures such as Warrior 2 or Extended Side Angle. Rather than drawing up through the pelvic floor muscles (moola bandha) to keep the pelvis supported and neutral, there is a sinking that is allowed that brings the hips lower than the front knee. When this happens, we can no longer properly engage either the front quad and hamstring and foot stability (pada bandha) is lost as well. Rather than resisting gravity to support the pose and build strength, we are sitting inside our hip joint asking it to hold up the rest of our body.
We may also see this is in back extensions such as Camel, Bow or Wheel. Once again there is a lack of support in the pelvic floor along with now proper core control through the transvers abdominus (udiyana bandha). This allows one to use the vertebrae as a hinge, in particular at the T12-L1 junction or where the thoracic and lumbar spine meet, mid-back. Rather than supporting the vertebrae by lifting up, we sink into this bendy spot in an attempt to get deeper in the pose. All of our weight comes here rather than being dispersed through the body. Overtime when extensions are performed this way, one can experience an impingement in the vertebrae, nerve damage and overall unease.
How can Yoga benefit hypermobility?
There is a great benefit to those that are hypermobile to practice Yoga – and that is to increase strength. To understand proper and safe alignment, and ultimately the bandhas or locks of the body so that one feels the balance of tension in the pose. This is experienced as a dynamic tension or energy that runs through the body.
There are three primary bandhas that run up and down the spine:
- Moola bandha is root lock or the lift of the pelvic floor muscles to stabilize the pelvis and SI joint and to draw strength through the transverse abdominus.
- Uddiyana bandha is belly lock. This describes our core muscles wrapping around our spine like a belt, drawing in towards the navel in the front and back.
- Jalandhara bandha is throat lock. This helps to ensure our cervical spine is supported in particular through back extensions, and the head doesn’t simply drop back.
The primary bandhas should be engaged in every posture outside of savasana or deep relaxation. The bandhas provide the structure for the pose so that we can feel both internal strength and external softness at the same time, or strong spine, soft heart. When we draw up through our bandhas it ensures that the action of the pose is felt inside the muscles and that the joints are stabilized and given space for even slight micro movements and ease.
There are two secondary bandhas as well to help support our postures: pada bandha and hasta bandha. Pada bandha refers to foot lock and hasta bandha hand lock. Here we imagine our hands and feet like suction cups. Spreading out through our toes and fingers, feeling the outline of hands and feet pressing into the floor while we draw up through the centre. These bandhas assist our postures by providing a strong foundation.
When we look at hypermobility and Yoga what is truly needed is an understanding of where the focus should be in the body. Each posture in Yoga is designed to bring both strength and mobility in the body. For those with less sensation in the joints we must honour that we will also have less sensation in certain postures and this is okay. We must focus on strengthening the muscles that surround the joint for better support. In using the additional support of the bandhas, we can be assured that we are both keeping ourselves safe in the present but also setting ourselves up for success for the future. Yoga provides strength and resiliency in mind and body, a connection to Self and others. I believe that everybody in the world should practice Yoga, yet in understanding that we are all a little different, then we will also all need something a little different in our practice. It’s important to honour this.