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If I had a nickel for every person that told me they were not flexible enough to do yoga, I would be a very rich woman. The misunderstanding that yoga is all about flexibility is incredibly common and, for certain body types, can actually be quite dangerous.
Yoga is about finding balance: mental balance, as in an even mind, and physical balance, as in a well-aligned pose. This means honoring both flexiblity and strength. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe this concept as sthira and sukha—stability and ease.
Unfortunately, with today’s look-at-me social media culture, the poses that get most circulated and come to represent the public’s view of yoga tend to be performed by very bendy people. Yet even though yoga is so much more than that leg-behind-the-head posture, yoga is still equated with flexibility. Students are encouraged to go deeper in every shape. For a person who is already naturally flexible—a body type we call “hyper-mobile”—this can feel quite good, because it is familiar. What’s more, being able to achieve a big shape often feeds the ego, as people may feel they are then doing the pose “well.”
For these reasons, hyper-mobile bodies tend to be attracted to yoga. On the flip side, a stiff person may feel uncomfortable and challenged. The irony here is that it is actually flexible bodies that are most at risk for injury in yoga.
People with extreme flexibility tend to move from their joints versus their muscles. Joints are where two bones link together; they are made up of ligaments, which attach bone to bone, and tendons, which connect the muscle to the bone. When ligaments or tendons are over-stretched or torn, they do not heal! This is because they are comprised of connective tissue and have a limited blood supply. Keep stretching out an elastic and one day it will snap, as is evidence by the numerous yoga teachers coming forward with injuries and surgeries (myself included!).
In order to have a sustainable and safe practice, bendy bodies benefit from balancing the lengthening with strengthening. This is going to change the feel of the practice, from one of feel-good stretching to one of stability and control. It will mean not going to the edge of every shape and instead, pulling back to come closer to balance. This may prevent you from putting your feet on your head in a deep backbend (sorry!), but it also encourages you to practice for tomorrow and the day after that—not just today’s Instagram post.
Here are some classical shapes in which hyper-mobile practitioners tend to over-stretch, and smart ways to stabilize.
5 Poses That May Cause Injury in Hyper-Mobile Practitioners
Example of Hyper-mobility in Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Watch for hyper-mobility in … the elbows. The word hyper-extension means that a joint goes beyond its normal range. This can occur in our knees, our spine, or our elbows. When we overly straighten the elbow, it puts pressure on the ligaments and tendons. Add in weight-bearing, as we do with poses like Downward Facing Dog or Handstand, and the elbow takes even more undue strain.
See also Dig Deeper in Down Dog
The Fix for Hyper-mobility in Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
In Down Dog, try placing a strap around your upper arms, just above your elbows, and press out. It will feel like you are bending your elbows. Keep your triceps firming in at the same time. That shaking you are feeling? That is your bicep.
Example of Hyper-mobility in Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
Watch for hyper-mobility in … the front knee. Another common site of hyper-extension is the knee joint. This looks almost like a person knee has reverse bend, a bowing backwards, of the knee joint, which places strain on the back of the joint. This misalignment shows up when the legs are straight, but it is especially apparent in the front leg of Triangle Pose. If you hyperextend your knee, the weight of your foot is generally in the heel putting pressure on the back of your leg.
The Fix for Hyper-mobility in Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
To prevent this, press strongly into the ball mound of the front foot and imagine your calf muscle could move into your shin bone. It will feel like you are moving toward a bend. Press your thigh bone back against that action. This is another shape where some teachers recommend a microbend, but practitioners still need to learn how to engage the proper muscles. A good prop that can help you find this is a block placed on a diagonal behind your calf muscle. This will prevent your leg from going too straight.
Example of Hyper-mobility in Plank Pose.
Watch for hyper-mobility in … the spine. Most injuries in yoga come from repetitive movements, which makes vinyasas a prime candidate. ‘Vinyasa’ means many thing, but in this case we are referring to the combination of chaturanga to upward facing dog to downward dog. This is taught in most flow classes after a standing pose sequence or in between extreme movements. They are generally used to help the body return to neutral. Because we do so many of them, there is a risk of becoming fatigued and thus misaligned. Even in a healthy body, the body tends to move where it is most mobile and avoid areas it is tight. In YogaWorks methodology, we call this concept the Law of Compensation. Add in hyper-mobility to the equation and the law becomes even more prevalent. As the spine is a series of S-curves, the lower back is naturally arched. It curves toward the front of the body, what is called lordotic. If someone is in all fours or a plank-like shape, gravity accentuates the lower back’s normal range, pulling it into even deeper lordosis. For some who already has a lot of movement, this can be especially unstable.
The Fix for Hyper-Mobility in Plank Pose.
The fix: Putting your knees down can help mitigate the excessive arch, so you can engage the lower belly and keep the spine supported. This will be helpful in preparing to lower to the floor toward or to chaturanga.
The Example of Hyper-mobility in Low lunge.
Watch for hyper-mobility in … the pelvis
We discussed how mobile the lower back is on its own. Another common misalignment for hyper-mobile bodies is not only dumping into the lumbar spine, but also letting the pelvis tip forward into what is called an anterior tilt. This is common in poses like low lunge or crescent lunge. If someone has a lot of mobility in their body, it is common for them to want to go beyond end range to seek a stretch. This is why bendy bodies need a shift in their intention from one of finding sensation to one of finding stability.
In low lunge, it is common for practitioners to let their front knee creep way forward of the ankle and the hips to sink down and forward, all in an effort to feel more stretch in the back thigh. Instead, we are going to work pulling back, which will actually target the stretch toward the deeper hip flexors of the body: the psoas and iliacus.
See also Tight Hamstrings? Maybe Not
The Fix for Hyper-mobility in Low lunge.
The fix: Start in low lunge position, with the right foot forward. Walk your hands up your front thigh. For argument sake, on an inhale, let your pelvis sink toward the front of your mat and notice the effects. Generally, the front leg falls open, the low back arches, and you get a strong sensation in the more superficial quadriceps. Now try this: Exhale, pull your front shin back until your knee is over ankle. Use your hands to literally lift your pelvis upright off the front thigh. This will also pull your hips back. Gently draw your lower belly in and up. Now add your arms to the ceiling. Using your breath as a measure, notice how the pose feels different. Breathing into the even length of your spine.
See also Your Guide to a Pain-Free Practice
The Example and Fix of Hyper-mobility in Upward-Facing Bow Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana).
Watch for hyper-mobility in … the upper arms and shoulders
Remember the Law of Compensation? Part of the rule is that in avoiding tight areas, the body will find somewhere more open and, in a way, cheat its way into the pose. Backbends are heart openers, but because the upper back often has limited mobility, students take the pose into the areas that are more open, such as the lower back, the neck, and the shoulder joints. Hyper-mobile bodies can practice in such a way that they will literally dislocate the arm bone from the shoulder socket in order to get more movement in a pose. This is especially prevalent in Upward Facing Bow or Wheel pose. In order to keep your arms in their sockets and to reap the benefits of this powerful pose, which is to open your heart and lungs, you are going to need to reel it in a bit.
The fix: Rather than just pressing up into the shape, first lift your hips and pause on the crown of your head, with your elbows bent shoulders wide. Press your chest to the back of your space as you resist your forearms in toward your ears. This is virtually “plugging” your arm bone into the shoulder socket. Keeping this action, now press into your hands and straighten your arms half way (meaning your elbows are still bent). Take stock here: Are your elbows splaying out? Keep your outer upper arms hugging in, your arms in the sockets. If you are able, work straightening your arms fully, but continuing to work the action of firming your outer upper arms inwards toward your nose. Come down just as slowly, first bending your elbows and pausing on your crown, before tucking your chin and lowering to the floor.