The yoga world is full of bendy people. I’m one of them. When I first started practicing asana in 1982, it was thrilling to be involved in a physical endeavor where I could actually excel. While I was a decent sprinter and long jumper in high school, I didn’t do well in competitive team sports. My stamina has always been less than optimum. But my hypermobile body could do impressive yoga tricks almost from the beginning. I enjoyed the attention I got for being the bendiest person in class. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that instead of constantly pushing my bendiness, I actually needed to balance hypermobility with strength.
Of course, yoga is not at all about what your body can or can’t do. There’s a lot more to it, for example, the lifelong practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Yoga is so much more than an exercise regimen. It’s a collection of practices that have the potential to transform our lives. The physical practice is the “gateway drug” to the rest of the system, if we choose to explore it.
Physical asana is where most of us enter the practice. And it’s where yoga starts and ends for a large percentage of practitioners. Because so many of the “fancy” poses require hypermobile joints, there’s a whole lot of emphasis on becoming ever more flexible. But extreme hypermobility is not balance, in the same way that extreme stiffness is not balance.
The Problem with Hypermobility
I recently began reading a new book titled Yoga for Bendy People: Optimizing the Benefits of Yoga for Hypermobility by Libby Hinsley, PT, DPT, C-IAYT. I’m only about halfway through the book, but I’ve already learned a lot. Some of what I’ve learned confirms hypermobility as a contributor to lifelong physical challenges I’ve experienced. These include tiring easily during exercise, labral tears, sprains and strains, headaches and sleep challenges.
According to Hinsley’s book, there are other challenges as well that, thankfully, I have not experienced—at least to my knowledge. These include pelvic floor and gynecological challenges, dysautonomia, muscle tension, impaired proprioception, altered interoception, digestive disorders, and mental health and neurodevelopmental differences.
Connective Tissue and Hypermobility
Connective tissue exists everywhere in the body. In hypermobility disorders, that tissue is often lax. The most visible sign of lax connective tissue in bendy people occurs in the ligaments, the tissues that connect bone to bone at the joint sites. The main function of ligaments is to limit the movement in our joints. Hinsley writes: “Floppy connective tissue can’t transmit force across joints as effectively, leading to movement inefficiency and muscle fatigue.” This, she says, can cause bendy people to tire easily during exercise.
I don’t feel qualified to get into the weeds here about connective tissue construction and properties. But I will say that Hinsley gives an excellent explanation of connective tissue and the problems with laxity. Instead of trying to recreate her detailed explanation, I urge you to buy the book. Even if you’re not hypermobile yourself, if you teach yoga, you will encounter bendy students. Flexible people tend to be attracted to yoga, because so many of its asanas highlight flexibility. It’s important that you understand bendy people’s unique issues so that you know how to help them practice in a healthy way.
How to Balance Hypermobility with Strength
Years ago in one workshop I attended with Donna Farhi, she urged hypermobile practitioners to practice inside their maximum edge. For example, in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), she urged us to avoid placing our hands on the ground, even though our bodies could easily go there. Instead, she suggested that we place our hand on a block in its tallest setting, or on our shin. Then she cued us to activate our legs so that we were not leaning onto our bottom hand.
This instruction completely changed the pose for me. When I placed my hand on the floor, as I had always done for years, I could feel my legs losing strength and disengaging. Lifting up higher in the pose allowed my legs to support me, which, after all, is what they’re supposed to do in standing poses.
Hinsley explains that our ability to control movement, and to keep our joints aligned, declines at our end ranges. Muscles are strongest in their mid-ranges, when they’re neither at their shortest or longest. That’s why lifting higher in Triangle Pose feels so much stronger. I began practicing all my other poses this way, going to about 80 percent of my end range. After practice, my body feels much more cohesive and stable than it does when I’ve pushed my flexibility. My nervous system also feels energized and calm.
Slow and Small: The Key to Balance Hypermobility
Hinsley suggests slower and smaller movements to balance hypermobility in yoga practice. Similar to Donna Farhi, she suggests that instead of going directly to their end ranges—a habit most bendy people have cultivated—that hypermobile people move slowly into each asana. It’s especially common for flexible people to go right up to their end range when they’re moving through a fast-paced Vinyasa. Instead, she suggests moving slowly and mindfully into each pose so that we can perceive the place where we first begin feeling a stretch. Then we pause and breathe into the pose in this place of more subtle sensation.
In my experience, this way of practicing has benefits beyond simply protecting our joints. It helps us become more sensitive to subtle sensation, and therefore, better able to care for our bodies and minds. There really is plenty of sensation to be mindful of if we stay well inside our end range of motion. Tuning into subtle sensation unifies our bodies and minds.
The Challenge—and Benefit—of Balancing Hypermobility
This advice can be a tall order for many bendy practitioners. I resisted Donna’s advice for years when she suggested I curb my enthusiasm for fancy poses and focus instead on stability. In most quarters of the yoga world, hypermobile practitioners are lauded for their pretzel-like prowess. Hypermobile Instagram yoga stars garner thousands of likes. The ability to do things that few others can attempt, by virtue of our unique genetics, becomes a part of our identity. That’s not easy to part with. Sometimes it takes chronic pain or repeated injuries to inspire bendy people to slow down and practice with care.
It’s helpful to remember that asana practice is meant to promote balance—in the physical structure, the nervous system and ultimately, in the mind and heart. When we practice asana with an eye toward balancing mobility and stability, we can cultivate balance in all aspects of ourselves.