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Healthy Yoga Practice - Don’t Stretch Your Joints!

healthy yoga practice Some Ligaments of the Hip Joint
Healthy Yoga Practice:  Don’t Stretch Your Joints!

For the past few years, I've been on the faculty of the teacher training program at Avenues Yoga Studio in Salt Lake City. Early in the 2013 training, one student who had been teaching in a fitness studio asked a very important question. She explained that one of her female students became unusually flexible prior to ovulation, probably because of the presence of “relaxin,” a hormone that relaxes the ligaments that hold together the various joints in the pelvis—hip joints, sacroiliac joints and pubic symphisis. The teacher said that she encouraged the student to move farther into poses at that period in her cycle since she was already more flexible. “Should I continue doing this?” she asked.

Twenty years ago I would have said yes. In fact, I did encourage women to take advantage of their relaxin-induced flexibility during pregnancy. No more.

Fortunately, the third(!) time I took anatomy, the importance of understanding the structures of ligaments and tendons finally sank in. (For clarification, ligaments connect bone to bone in our joints; tendons connect muscle to bone at the joints.) Ligaments and tendons are constructed of dense, regular, collagenous, connective tissue. Ligaments are dense, fibrous tissues that are designed to limit the movement of our joints.

Please repeat this three times:  Ligaments are designed to limit the movement of our joints.

This is also very important:  Ligaments and tendons are considered to be avascular, i.e. containing no blood flow of their own. Oxygen and other nutrients diffuse into ligaments and tendons from cells outside the tissues. Because these structures need to be strong, they are largely comprised of collagen fibers with some elastin to create a small amount of stretch.

Don’t Sprain Your Body!
healthy asana Ligamentous Tissue

Have you ever sprained an ankle? How long did it take to heal, and did it ever return to its former stability? When you sprain your ankle, you overstretch ligaments. Because the tissue is avascular, it does not heal as quickly as muscle does. Ligaments do not have the “memory” that muscle tissue has. When you overstretch ligaments, there’s a good chance they will not bounce back to their former length.

If ligaments are meant to protect joints by limiting their movement, continually overstretching joints can lead to joint instability over time. I know a number of serious practitioners who are now in their 50s—including myself—who regret having overstretched our joints back in the day. All too many longtime practitioners now own artificial joints to replace the ones they overused. Those fancy poses way back when were not worth their consequences.

Flexible people have a much stronger tendency to overstretch joints than stiffer people do. Armed with the pervasive “no pain, no gain” philosophy, we flexies tend to keep stretching until we feel pain. Because our muscles are loose enough that we don’t feel much there, we collapse into our joints where there’s plenty of sensation. Not only does this overstretch our ligaments, it causes us to hang or push into our joint capsules, which can wear down the cartilage that protects our joints and keeps them articulating smoothly.

The Counterintuitive Answer

My advice to the student’s question was to encourage her student to protect her joints, to do less rather than more. Counterintuitive, I know, especially when many asana classes encourage people to push past their limits and rock those fancy poses. If a person’s ligaments are made unstable by relaxin—or by excessive heat or any other outside factor—that creates a situation of imbalance in the joints. You wouldn’t encourage a muscle-bound yoga student to lift more weights and stiffen up. Equally, a too-flexible student doesn’t benefit from becoming even more flexible. Too much flexibility is just as unhealthy is too much stiffness. Balance is what we’re going for in asana practice. Familiarize yourself with what normal range of motion looks like.

By all means, do practice to maintain flexibility in your muscles, and remember that it takes 30 seconds of continuous stretching for your muscle spindle neuron to actually allow your muscle to habituate to a new, longer length. So take your time, and be gentle. When you feel tissue stretching along the bones—as long as that stretch is not extreme—it’s probably healthy. When you feel discomfort in a joint, please stop doing what you’re doing. And please protect your students’ future joints by teaching them the difference.

About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

15 thoughts on “Healthy Yoga Practice - Don’t Stretch Your Joints!”

  • Shoosh Lettick Crotzer

    Another terrific column! I really look forward to your thoughts and advice!!!

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks! This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I truly believe that flexible people are in much more danger of damaging joints--especially hip joints--than people with less mobility. Even though I did yoga nidrasana many times in my 30s and 40s, I now realize there's absolutely no earthly reason anyone needs to ever put his/her ankle behind his/her head. I also believe that there are a whole lot of reasons not to do it!

      Reply
  • Scott

    As a teacher, how would you be able to determine if students are stretching ligaments, tendons or muscle? We are taught that it is safe to stretch muscle tissue, but we want to keep the integrity of connective tissue intact. What methods of observation can you utilize to determine if students are stretching muscles or connective tissue?

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks for the question. It's tricky. The people you need to be most watchful of are the bendier ones. Look at how they are using their joints. I'm especially concerned with hypermobile hip joints. Some of the poses to watch are pigeon, lunges and backbends. Watch to see if your bendy students are collapsing into the hip joints in pigeon or lunges. In this case, the hip joints will bow outward. I ask that everyone, no matter how bendy, sit on a block in pigeon these days and that they activate the back leg by pressing the knee down and turning their toes under. When you activate the lower leg in this way, the femur draws back. I also ask people to resist gravity in lunges, to pull their hip joints back. Also, watch for hyperextended knees. The most effective thing I've found for hyperextended knees is tilting the pelvis forward so that the sacrum is at a slant. These are just a few examples. I'd suggest playing with these subtle adjustments on your own so that you can feel the difference between hanging in your joints and keeping them in integrity. I hope this helps.

      Reply
  • Judi Lyons

    Wow! This comes at a time when I really need it. As an ex-gymnast, who is still extremely hyper-mobile, yoga used to ease my hip pain. I love my gentle, restorative yoga class. But lately, my hips are feeling very unstable after classes, and I'm concerned that I'll be forced to stop. Can you recommend any specific reading materials for a more complete understanding of the asanas I should and should not be doing?? Thanks so very much!

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks for your comment. Funny you should ask about a book. At the moment I don't know of a book that talks specifically about healthy hip practices, especially for hypermobile people. But I'm thinking I might want to write about this in the next year or so. Pushing my hypermobility to extremes over the years has caused a lot of problems, including unstable ligaments and loss of cartilage. My hip joints are teaching me a lot these days. Anyway, I'd suggest not going to your limit in anything that causes your hip joints to extend, including backbends and lunges. I'd also suggest not practicing pigeon or hanumanasana (splits). I've been practicing and teaching standing and seated forward bends with bent knees. Also, don't tuck your tailbone! That causes extension in the hip joints.

      Reply
  • Judi Lyons

    Excellent! Was hoping you'd write (a book) about it! Knowing exactly which poses may trigger instability in the hips would be so beneficial. Something more in depth than the obvious, you know? And suggestions for specific modifications to stabilize hyper-mobile hips. I do all my forward bends with slightly bent knees. Was of the understanding that warrior poses (lunges) would stabilize hips, but you're suggesting they may be contributing to increased looseness? These are things I need to know. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks for your comment, Judi! Whether standing poses such as warrior stabilize or destabilize your joints depends on how you position your pelvis. The time-honored instruction to position your pelvis as if it's "between two plates of glass" in Trikonasana, Warrior II and Parsvakonasana can contribute to SI joint problems. I stopped doing this years ago because it was causing my sacrum to revolve in the SI joint, which was debilitating. Now I practice these poses with my pelvis rotated inward. So for example, if I'm doing any of the above poses with the right leg forward, I rotate my pelvis to the right until I feel my back leg become very grounded. That's when I feel my structure is set up most efficiently. I also found that I can stay in Warrior II for a very long time when my pelvis is rotated rather than pulled back. I think this is because both legs can more easily support me.

      Reply
  • mc

    hi charlotte!
    thanks for your article - i think it's really important to teach yoga students the practicality of balancing between the extremes. however it's important to note that the body starts to break down as we age, whether we were doing yoga or sitting in a desk chair all day for most of our lives letting our hip joints calcify - and probably the people who have been doing yoga will fare better even if they do have to have a hip replacement down the line. i know a lot of people who have had hip and knee replacements and back surgeries and none of them have done any yoga asana in their lives.
    it is very important to address hypermobility!!! not to say it isn't. and it is equally important that yoga teachers are teaching sound and balanced movement. i just have been reading so much about yoga injuries and it kind of feels like fear mongering to me. i mean, maybe your joints would have gotten unstable as you aged anyway, even if you hadn't done a bunch of fancy poses.

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      MC, thanks for your comment. I totally agree that genetics can play into joint problems, as well as sitting at a desk and doing no movement all day. I do understand that there are vast numbers of people out there having joint replacements who have never practiced yoga. But I know that in my own case, I did cause some damage by collapsing into my ligaments. Not only did I overstretch the ligaments and create SI joint instability, I also damaged the acetabula on both hips.

      I agree that it's important that teachers teach balanced movement, but it seems that there's a whole lot of encouragement out there to go as far as you can. I found out the hard way that even if you don't feel anything in the moment while you're doing extreme poses, that doesn't mean you are not causing damage. In the case of hip joints, which seem to be one of the "hot" areas for damage, you don't feel the process of wearing down cartilage, because cartilage has no ennervation. You don't feel joint impingement until the cartilage is gone and your joints are bone on bone.

      That's why educated teachers who know how to observe each person's individual practice are so crucial. It's also crucial for teachers to truly understand the difference between the Western exercise paradigm--which is all about pushing and excelling--and the yogic paradigm--which is about creating a state of neutrality and ease to support a quiet mind.

      Reply
  • mc

    Is that really the western paradigm? if you watch "breath of the gods" you will see footage of Krishnamacharya's students demonstrating some pretty extreme poses. Or look at photos of Iyengar and Patthabi Jois from the 30s & 40s -- they are doing extreme stuff too. Not to mention Patthabi Jois was famous for his ferocious adjustments to take people deeper into a pose. Those guys were all Indian and definitely the bearers of the "yogic" paradigm as it has been handed down to Westerners.
    The real problem with Western yoga is that it is all taught in an aerobics class style atmosphere - not in a one-on-one situation to account for an individual's ability. and so classes are full of people with varying abilities and if the teacher leads a whole class through the many steps it may take to achieve a posture, student A who can safely achieve such a thing will move forward, while student B who cannot will see student A and may attempt to do so anyway. and a teacher in that environment doesn't have much control over the situation.
    i agree that we are seeking to find equanimity of mind within the context of a yoga practice but when you look at the indian yoga masters and the way they taught asana, it seems to me that they were all about pushing and excelling too. and if not, then they all definitely prized their students who were able to do so.

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      All that you say about Iyengar and Jois is true. That was a big part of the Westernization of the practice. But you could make a case for Westernization beginning much earlier than that when the British introduced gymnastics to the system when they colonized India. For millennia prior to that, Hatha Yoga was mostly breathing techniques with a few seated poses.

      I also agree with you about the aerobics-style classes that have become popular. Not only are classes filled with people of many different abilities and body types, but also, most teachers are undertrained these days and simply are not equipped to know how to see the differences in the students. And as you say, students will compete among themselves even when a teacher discourages them from doing so.

      When I studied with Iyengar, he said that we practice asana in order to create balance in the body so that the mind can have a balanced physical environment in which to settle. So despite the fact that Light on Yoga is filled with crazy poses that 99 percent of bodies are not genetically capable of accomplishing, he did understand the essence of it.

      Reply
  • Crystalcups | Rose Quartz Healing Crystals

    Most injuries result from improper practice, lack of proper supervision and taking things too far. As for the more "extreme" yoga poses, yes it is true that these were not part of the Yoga that was practiced before the 1800's. People should bear in mind that Yoga is a spiritual practice, not an extreme sport.

    Reply
    • Charlotte Bell

      I agree with everything you're saying. I would also add that lack of sufficient training is also an issue. The 200-hour standard is not nearly enough training for a teacher to be able to guide students safely, and yet, that is all it takes to step into the role of teacher. The system of yoga is far more than postures—and certainly not extreme sport, as you say. Even if you learn nothing but poses, 200 hours is still not nearly enough. When you include all its other aspects, yoga is really a lifetime study. I feel that the current system emphasizes physical prowess to the exclusion of the more enriching, transformational aspects of practice.

      Reply
  • […] is not to “feel a stretch.” The real issue is that pushing our joints to the limit further destabilizes them by stretching ligaments and wears down cartilage as bone grinds against […]

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