Are you hesitant to start a yoga practice or revisit yours after a break because you have unrealistic, core beliefs about what yoga really is? For many people, the misunderstanding that yoga equals flexibility is a big barrier. New flash! Flexibility isn’t the most useful thing to go into a practice with – an open mindset will help you more. In fact, if you naturally have extra flexible joints (or are ‘hypermobile’, like me) you are actually worse off than others and more likely to sustain injury. With hypermobility comes extra-stretchy soft tissues and an increased risk of injury due to the assumption that your flexibility is endless. Or the misinformed belief that flexibility is all you need to do yoga. Wrong. What we need to sustain a yoga practice is considerable strength, balance (with proprioception) and, yes…. a bit of flexibility. But you only need enough to get you started. After that, yoga will do the rest.
So how do you know if you are hypermobile? Here’s a common test: do your knees or elbows bend backwards? Can you bend your fingers and/or wrist back or touch your toes with ease? Do you have fasciitis, muscle fatigue, poor posture, restless sleep or painful joints? Perhaps a massage therapist or other body work professional has commented on your natural flexibility. Or maybe you can relate to this; I had a 15min dental visit today and came away with a very sore neck. Why? My head was tipped-back in an unnatural position for a relatively short time, so my neck muscles decided to tense up into logs to compensate for the opening in my neck joints. Also, I can easily twist my torso almost 180 degrees to look behind me. Looks as weird as it sounds.
Or do you find yourself drawn to yoga because you’re already flexible? Only about 5% of the population are hypermobile but in a yoga studio on any given day, something closer to 50% of participants will be hypermobile and many of them won’t even know they are. If you think you might be hypermobile, a little further research online will illuminate for you whether or not you have this condition. It runs in my family and it might in yours. If you think you have it, be aware that you have a greater risk of tearing the tendons that hold your joints together. This can happen by deeply over-stretching (in a yoga class, for example..) or from repetitive movements like swinging your leg up and over as you get on and off a bike. Tendon tearing in yoga often happens when practitioners don’t listen to their bodies, but instead push into deep poses in the hope of looking like an Instagram shot they saw that day. So let’s be realistic about range of movement and focus on how yoga feels, not how it looks.
In my experience, muscle pain is a constant feature of a hypermobile body – with loose joints come muscles that are ‘switched on’ at all times trying to compensate for loose tendons that don’t properly hold joints together. Muscles become fatigued in us hypermobiles in a way that firm-tissued, muscularly, athletic types don’t experience. Low-impact strengthening exercise, restorative sleep positions and avoidance of deep yoga stretches are a must to relieve the pain associated with being hypermobile. Really and fully letting go is also a remedy to the tension I feel almost constantly. Interestingly, hypermobility is also associated with anxiety and I am closely following new research being published on this.
Restorative and remedial types of yoga are the key to pain relief on the mat – training my muscles to let go instead of holding on for dear life all the time. But it’s regular remedial massage that brings me the greatest release. I leave it to the professionals to ease my muscle and joint pain because I’ve come to accept that yoga can only do so much.
Yoga and hypermobility are so interrelated it’s hard to tease them apart. When I see depictions of yoga poses embodied by hypermobile people, I cringe inside. They’re presenting to the public the idea that they are ‘good at yoga’ and everyone who’s less flexible than a rubber band isn’t. Extra flexible people receive a lot of praise online for holding seemingly extraordinary poses which they can probably do without much effort at all due to their natural proclivity for bending joints backwards. But dear reader, please know that contortionism is not part of yoga and many poseurs you see online aren’t even doing the asana right. They’re compromising their sacroiliac joint, overstretching tendons and risking injury. Sometimes I wonder if they were even breathing when the photo was taken.
It’s likely the practise of extreme benders has no longevity. It’s just for the photo and it’s just for now. Tomorrow or sometime soon their bodies will ache and they’ll need a cup of masala chai and a good lie down.