Yoga and Hypermobility
Updated: Feb 21
Yoga culture has long glorified hypermobility. Extreme flexibility is celebrated in most images of yoga. From BKS Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga to Yoga Journal’s magazine pictures, we are inundated with images of flexibility as an apparent asset to aspire to. Hypermobility is present when one’s joints demonstrate an extreme range of motion. Conditions like Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and other connective tissue disorders are under-diagnosed and more common than previously thought, so many people may have some degree of hypermobility and may not know it. It is important to know how to care for yourself if you do have hypermobility, and/or how to care for your ultra flexible yoga students to protect your joints and ligaments from hyperextention. This includes people who are pregnant or post-partum and have had extra relaxin hormone in their bodies.
Throughout my decades practicing and teaching yoga, I have heard: “I’m not flexible enough to try yoga” countless times from people daunted by the ubiquitous images of malleability. I used to think along the same lines before I began my practice. The concept that one must be especially flexible can be intimidating and discouraging. I remember seeing pictures of students in a seated twist and the teacher behind them adjusting them to deepen that twist even further. When I finally started to practice yoga, it was always the bendy student who was used as an example of the “perfect posture,” as it was always the flexible teacher who would demonstrate the pose. The teacher would go to the ends of the ranges of motion of the joints to portray the way the pose is “supposed” to be practiced. That got in my brain, and at the start of my journey into yoga, I aspired to be that student and teacher - thinking that flexibility and the ends of the ranges of motion indicate an advanced practice.
A couple of years into my yoga practice I met a teacher who educated me about the attainment of balance in yoga. Yoga is about creating dynamic balance. If you are very flexible, you will work on stability and strength, and if you are more of a “tight birthday suit” you will work on more mobility and flexibility. I was lucky enough to encounter teachers that were really committed to the practice of yoga in a balanced way, and through my continued studies of yoga therapy at Loyola Marymount University, I learned more about how crucial it is to adapt the practice to individuals.
Many flexible people are especially attracted to yoga because those “ideal” postures are easy for them to attain. This means that yoga carries more danger to those with hypermobility who might not only injure themselves and suffer, but also when they do, they might think they are not good yogis since they are injured. There is a level of stress and thus sympathetic nervous system arousal when you go to the ends of the ranges of motion in the joints. Judith Lasater taught me that even if the student can get the knees and thighs on the floor in baddha konasana, you still support them with a blanket because there is no relaxation at the ends of the ranges of motion. Some things to understand about hypermobility as it relates to yoga as well as teaching yoga is that many people experience musculoskeletal and joint pain, are more prone to dislocation (where two bones that form a joint separate completely) and subluxation (partial dislocation).
My friend Aleksandra Briley has Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS). She speaks to her experience of yoga culture as someone with a connective tissue disorder. “I have always been bendy. I began practicing yoga earnestly in my early teens, and was immediately praised for being naturally limber, for my effortless flexibility. In those early days, yoga was both rejuvenating and calming. It was gratifying to feel capable at something I enjoyed doing. I found the breathwork especially grounding and I enjoyed the feeling of competence as I pretzeled myself into twisted contortions. I continued to practice yoga daily until my mid-30s, when my soft tissue and joint pain reached an apex.
I had been in perpetual pain since I was a teenager, and internalized that I must push through it - I was simply “too sensitive”. For twenty years I sought help from a variety of medical professionals. I was told my pain was psychosomatic, or the result of a car accident, or fibromyalgia. Finally I saw a sports medicine acupuncturist who explained to me that the very poses I was going to in order to ease my increasing pain, were in fact exacerbating it. He noted my hypermobility and soon thereafter I got a hEDS diagnosis, at 40. It is unfortunately common to get a late diagnosis or none at all. Once I was aware that I was indeed made differently, I was better able to understand the inherent delicacy of my joints and laxity of my ligaments - and the additional burden I had been placing on them. Nearly every teacher that I have worked with encouraged me to hyperextend my joints, and those that didn’t spur me to the edge of my range of motion also didn’t stop me from doing so. I was just “good at yoga.”
The physiological stress from these repeated movements weakened my joints further and created high levels of inflammation. The adverse impacts of perpetual hyperextension also contributed to dysregulation of my nervous system, keeping me in sympathetic nervous system overdrive despite practicing pranayama and vagus nerve stimulation with dedication. Yoga went from being my refuge to being a dangerous place for me. I had to work through a fair bit of trauma once I realized the damage I had been doing to my joints for decades, and how that had been encouraged by trusted teacher after teacher. It took working with my dear friend Natalie in private yoga therapy sessions to restore my relationship with yoga, to learn how to safely practice considered and adapted asanas that support my extra pliable body. I started slowly practicing very specific, small postures and movements to stabilize my joints, to keep my hips on the same plane, to not even consider inversions.
Natalie has created protocols that help to restore equilibrium to my system by understanding and honoring how being hypermobile affects me. I now practice particular postures that lengthen and strengthen specific muscle groups, especially ones that support joints. Many people with hypermobility experience some cranial-cervial instability and sacroiliac joint instability, or slipping ribs, and some have lessened proprioception, so being mindful of this as a student or teacher is vital in designing a restorative practice. I no longer practice yoga with the mindset to push through my pain, but with the intention to breathe gently into myself, to inhabit myself where I feel broken, and to offer love to my entire self through my practice. For those of us super stretchy folk and to those teachers who work with us, I encourage a dismantling of the yoga paradigm that exalts Gumby. A healthier model is informed of the spectrum of hypermobility and is designed to soothe, strengthen and stabilize connective tissues while balancing the nervous system. With Natalie’s adaptive approach, I have found both a mending of my relationship with yoga, and most vitally a rehabilitation of my relationship with my own body, in all its bendy glory. It can be very hard to process that one’s body has systemic vulnerabilities, and I have found that slow and deliberate movement and breathwork can be deeply regenerative; it restored me to myself.”
As a yoga therapist, I encounter a high percentage of people in my yoga teacher training program who are hypermobile and who believe that they should strive for even more flexibility. This is very ingrained in yoga culture in the West, and is not doing anyone any favors. Hypermobile-informed yoga teachers and practitioners can mitigate the harm of hyperextension by understanding appropriate movements and limits. I begin my teacher training by introducing a revised conception of yoga - not to be more bendy but to stay within a healthy range of motion and strengthen the muscles supporting loose joints. The poses and practices that I guide my students through are not asking them for more flexibility but rather challenge them to work the musculature. It is a completely different practice and what I hear the most, besides the fact that it is challenging and invigorating, is a sense of being rooted, connected and supported. There is a relief when you feel hugged by the muscles and not being taken to the edge of your joints.
If you would like to connect with me to start your yoga journey for your specific needs and body connect with me at email@example.com. Visit the Yoga Therapy section on my website to learn more about how yoga therapy can help.