Just because I can put my foot behind my head doesnâ€™t mean I should. The reason I should NOT do this is because I have some hypermobile joints. OK, I have a lot of hypermobile joints.
I used to think it was a great party trick to show off my â€œgibblyâ€ elbows when I was a kid. Little did I know how my lax ligaments would affect me as I got older. (Read about my back here.)
Nobody really knows why some of us start off in life with ligament laxity and others donâ€™t. However, many of us go on to create even more hypermobility by forcing our joints beyond their ideal range of motion without the muscular support needed to keep them safe. The more we hang into a joint without muscle support, the more lax the ligaments in that joint become.
For this reason, maintaining muscular engagement while actively stretching is vital in asana practice. Ligaments are there to stabilize joints. They are not meant to be stretched. Yet, this is what many of us end up doing in asana practice.
Ideally, our ligaments are meant to act as our back-up system when we transfer mechanical load through our joints. However, many of us lack either sufficient muscular strength or needed flexibility, so we default to the joints in order to create a movement we desire.
Stretching our ligaments is harmful because they do not have the same elastic qualities as muscles. Once you stretch your ligaments, they remained stretched. Your joints become unstable. Thereâ€™s no going back.
And â€¦ hereâ€™s the real kicker â€“ you can have loose ligaments and tight muscles at the same time.
In yoga, those of us who have hypermobilities often prefer heated yoga and/or classes that focus on stretching because they play to our preference for â€œhanging outâ€ in our joints. This is an example of the adage that what we want is isnâ€™t always what we need.
When I have students with hypermobilities in my classes, I often explain that they need to work harder than those students who present as â€œstiffâ€ or â€œinflexibleâ€. Hereâ€™s why.
We who have hypermobilities need to move slowly, mindfully and hold our yoga poses longer in order to build optimal muscle length and strength. We also need to ensure that we line up our joints according to normal ranges of motion (as apposed to locking out hypermobile joints) and then use our muscles to hold our joints steady. We also have to be extra vigilant while in our yoga poses â€“ continually checking in and monitoring our position because we donâ€™t get the same feedback on our joint position that our â€œstifferâ€ sisters and brothers do.
All of this requires discipline, strength, patience and eka grata â€“ or intense concentration. Itâ€™s hard work and very worthwhile so that our asana practice can improve our wellbeing and create harmony and balance in body, mind and heart.
Try this at home!
Supta Padangusthasana â€“ Supine Hand to Big Toe Pose
When I first started yoga, I was a runner and had very, very, very tight hamstrings. This stretch was integral to improving the resting length of these muscles.
One of the challenges many face this pose is moving too far to quickly and diverting hip flexion into the low back. When this happens, the bottom leg lifts away from the floor and the low back flattens. This keeps your hamstrings tight and sets up hypermobility in your low back.
- Lie on your back with straight legs and your feet on the wall.
- Use a strap rather than your hand to hold your foot. This will help keep your shoulders relaxed and your back stable.
- Move slowly as you bring your leg towards vertical. Be OK with moving less than you typically would. Focus on keeping your knee straight and stop when you notice any movement in your bottom foot, leg or in your low back.
- Hold this position for about a minute then change sides.
Kumbhakasana â€“ Plank Pose
Plank pose is integral to many flow classes as part of Sun Salutations. It is common that those of us who have hypermobile elbows will â€œlock outâ€ these joints. When I looked for an image of plank pose online, I was aghast at how many of the pictures showed this misalignment. Yikes!
Until you can stabilize your elbows with your arm muscles, practice Plank with your knees on the floor.
- Begin on your hands and knees and place your hands on the floor shoulder width apart.
- Spread your fingers, press down through your finger tips and the base of your index finger so that you donâ€™t drop the weight of your body into the outer wrist. This is also common with locking out the elbows in plank.
- Look down at your arms and engage your arm muscles to maintain straight (not locked) elbows.
- Move your knees back until you have a straight line from your knees through your hips and shoulders. Hold for 5+ breaths. Repeat 3 times if you are feeling strong!
Once you are able to consistently keep your elbows from hyperextending, tuck your toes and step back with your feet, bringing your body and head into one straight line.