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Yoga for the Bendy—Learning to Back Off
My earliest recollection of being an über-bendy person is from when I took ballet lessons. I was about eight years old. The first time we went into side splits and bent forward, I was surprised to see that no one else in the class could rest her chin on the floor. My body could do it easily, with no resistance.
That led to many years of exploiting my hypermobility in exchange for positive attention. My flexibility even sparked my initial interest in asana practice. I’d see photos of people in splits, extreme backbends or posing with their ankles behind their heads and thought, “I can do that.” Finally, a form of physical practice I could actually do without having to work at it, I thought.
Early on, my hypermobility was encouraged and even praised by many teachers. There were a few though—Donna Farhi, Judith Hanson Lasater and Mary Dunn—who suggested that I pull back and focus on stability.
But, but … My ego was so fortified by being the bendiest person in pretty much any class or workshop I attended that I couldn’t justify changing course. The payoff was too enticing. Plus, nothing hurt while I was practicing asana. It was only in the rest of my life that I experienced chronic neck pain, SI joint dysfunction, sciatica, TMJ, low back pain and frequent headaches.
Joint Hypermobility Can Actually Be a Problem
I just finished reading an excellent article from Yoga International. (1) The article, by Bernadette Birney, (2) discusses Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS) (3) and the author’s experience with its side effects. They include all the symptoms I list above and more, including fatigue and discomfort when standing for long periods, which I also have always experienced.
According to the article, JHS may be caused by a genetic mutation in the collagen, the material that makes up our ligaments and tendons. People with JHS tend to have looser ligaments than normal. Because of this the ligaments do not do their job: to limit the range of motion in our joints. To compensate, the muscles have to tighten. Often the result is muscle spasms.
There are other, more far-reaching effects as well, including circulatory problems because of overly elastic blood vessels; and nervous system sensitivity that can cause anxiety, fatigue and sleeplessness (I’ve struggled with the last two my entire life).
JHS is considered to be a benign condition. According to Medicine.net (3) there are often no symptoms. And symptoms can lessen as we age due to a natural decrease in flexibility.
I have not been formally diagnosed with JHS, but I strongly suspect that I have it. My lifelong hypermobility, plus the symptoms I’ve experienced for so many years point to it. Regardless of the fact that I’ve not been diagnosed, like Birney, I have become much more conservative with my practice on the mat. I simply don’t practice any poses that push my flexibility. In fact, for the most part, I stay well inside my body’s parameters. When you’re hypermobile, whether or not you have been diagnosed with JHS or Ehler - Danlos Syndrome (4), its more extreme cousin, stability is what you need, not more flexibility.
Bendiness is Next to Godliness … Well, Not Quite
I’m guessing that there’s likely to be a higher percentage of people with JHS in the yoga population than in the population at large. It’s enticing, and fortifying in a way, to be noticed and praised for how your body is able to move. So doing a practice that seems to emphasize flexibility feels like a great fit. The so-called "advanced" poses are pretty to look at. Some people find them inspiring. But honestly, those of us who were born hypermobile didn’t do anything to earn our “advanced” status. We’re simply exploiting the equipment we came with.
That said, there are some poses I had to work very hard for. They’re not the impressive ones though. Standing poses and balance poses were extremely difficult for me at first. I had to start at Square One, practicing at the wall to help me gain stability and learn about alignment. Because I had to build them slowly, step by step, those are the poses I teach most competently. I thank my Iyengar background for forcing me into the stability that my practice has provided, which may have prevented some of the more serious symptoms.
Of course, if your body is naturally stable, and not so flexible, your practice should include lots of poses that increase flexibility. It’s all about balance. As we age, maintaining mobility is really important, even for us flexies. Overdoing hypermobility is another thing altogether.
If you started out flexible, you might want to explore shifting your practice intentions. Here are some thoughts:
Let go of extreme poses, or at least, practice them only sparingly. The impressive Instagram-worthy poses are not the staples of asana practice. Think of them as the fatty, sugary treat you allow yourself only once in a while. Standing poses, balancing poses, strengthening poses, and modest backbends and forward bends are your sustenance.
Don’t go as far as your body can go. Flexible people often have to go beyond safe range of motion in order to feel anything. It is common not to feel ligaments you’ve overstretched until the next day. Listen to your body, but know that you may not feel overstretching in your joints until you’re way past your practice time. Play with practicing 10 percent inside your body’s parameters. I’ve found that this helps me maintain joint integrity and fosters a sense of ease and “neutrality” in my practice that pushing for maximum sensation does not.
To that last suggestion, you might say, “But I don’t feel anything.” Actually you do. If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s plenty going on. It’s just a bit deeper than the more extreme, superficial stretching sensations that seem to become an addiction in asana practice. Sure, it’s more work for your mind to be present with subtle sensations, but isn’t subtle awareness one of the benefits we hope to gain from asana practice? If we’re always going for the most extreme sensation, we won’t get a chance to practice observing subtlety.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.