What Is Hypermobility? The Flexibility Myth
A typical yoga class will showcase a wide range of abilities from strength to alignment to flexibility….to hypermobility. We’ve all been to class and seen that person (probably a woman as it’s more common in women) who can bend her bod into contortionist shapes. We ooh and ahh. We strive for that. We fully embrace that’s the goal. Get as flexible as humanly possible. And we believe one of the main reasons to do yoga is to improve flexibility. But where the confusion lives is in the belief that flexibility and hypermobility are the same thing. They very much are not. And it’s important to understand the difference.
A simple hypermobility test will help you determine if you’re beyond the normal range of motion in your joints.
Stay with me. And you might know this already especially if you’re hypermobile in any of your joints. And yes, this is where hypermobility occurs. Flexibility applies to muscles, and the muscle will return to its normal range of motion once it’s done being stretched. Hypermobility occurs in ligaments. Once they are stretched beyond the normal range of motion, they do not snap back. To determine if you might have issues here, take a hypermobility test to arm yourself with the knowledge you’ll need to keep your body safe and healthy. If any of your joints move past the normal range of motion, for elbows and knees it’s beyond 10%, then you have hypermobility in that particular joint.
Why does this matter? Hypermobility means joint instability. Instability leads to issues. This is really as simple as I know how to phrase it. I’m not a medical professional, but I’m a teacher and a student, and I care about understanding this to a much higher degree. I’m just beginning to explore and question this little-discussed issue in the yoga asana world. It matters because in the physical practice of yoga, hypermobility is encouraged. As long as we revere and encourage the hypermobile folks, we are complicit in the belief that this is the direction everyone should be heading.
Hanumanasana, the full splits, is a goal pose for many. But once you know this requires extreme mobility in the hamstrings, will you decide it’s simply not the best idea? Will you hold back, and not go to the deepest extension you can make your body go if you’re hypermobile? Does it mean no one should ever do this pose? No, but it requires an abundance of strength to ensure the joints are offered the stability they desperately need to remain healthy and to avoid injury. In the vast majority of people who have hypermobility in this area of their bodies, the strengthening work is likely not being done. Rather, the perceived flexibility is given much more attention because it’s easily achieved and doesn’t require the work and effort that strengthing demands. And if the practitioner in question isn’t experiencing any pain or discomfort, how does s/he find the motivation to do things differently?
And this is where things get tricky. People with an abundance of availability in their ligaments often get ‘addicted’ to not only trying to feel a deeper sensation in the stretch, which is not something easily available in ligaments that are stretched beyond a normal range of motion, but also to turning their bodies into shapes that others long to enjoy. I’m certainly guilty of this and felt no repercussions for many years…until I did. If you can achieve Hanumanasana with incredible ease and little to no sensation, the best approach is to NOT go there. Not unless you are willing to go backward first and develop the strength to support the optimal mobility actions required. And even then, it’s a question mark.
Keep in mind there are varying degrees of hypermobility
There are those with some, like me, but with strengthening and awareness, the joints can be supported. And some people suffer from extreme versions of hypermobility such as those with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, where the effects can be life-threatening.
Big backbends and plank pose where the elbows creases are hyperextended require an extra degree of attention to make sure you’re keeping your joints from going past the normal range of motion. The idea is just because we can, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It will be frustrating. You’ll want to ignore it. Changing body memory is hard as hell. But the payoffs are huge physically, mentally, and emotionally. For some, these big glory poses are obtainable, but only if you’ve got the strength and alignment to back up the action. And even then, is it a good idea to push our body to these extreme limits on a regular basis in the long run?
Backing off when you feel obvious strain or indications that you may be pushing past a healthy range of motion anywhere in your body is part of how we advance in our practice. When it’s really easy for you and you didn’t have to work for it, that’s when you truly need to check yourself because none of the danger signs present. Often, we sacrifice proper alignment for the glory of the ‘full expression of the pose’. Damn, I hate that term.
The full expression is the one you can achieve with proper alignment and safely
But how do we get the conversation to go in this direction? Have you ever seen someone do Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose) with their arms overhead to reach back to catch their foot? Okay, you try it. Are you about 4-5 feet away from being able to reach your foot? Yeah, me too, but this isn’t a bad thing. If you were able to grab it, no problem, easy peasy, how do you get that itchy voice in your head to stop telling you to go on, just do it, no big deal? This is a very tough pose to achieve, and to do so safely requires massive strength in the spine, quads, shoulders, and core. In my research, I’ve learned it also means you’ve reached an optimal level of mobility in your shoulders and spine, and in most cases, you’re also hypermobile if you can do this action.
I’m just scratching the surface in my understanding here, but experts are stating we don’t know the long-term effects of going to extreme places in our bodies and it will certainly vary from one person to another. But the mindfulness and willingness to study and reconsider for most of us may just be the path away from injury and pain. Take a hypermobility test, but also consult with a doctor to determine the best course of action for you. There are many modifications one can take in their yoga practice to protect their joints, but will most of us make this choice if, at the moment, we’re not experiencing any pain or difficulty?
I do enjoy blaming Instagram for many things. And even though it can be a terrific resource, it also pretty much exclusively showcases all the fancy stuff. Nobody is offering photo after photo of themselves in Tadasana. It’s the big, dynamic, dramatic poses that get all the glory. And they are stunning. But as long as the way it looks drives us in our pursuits of obtaining these postures, we’ll continue to ignore the way it feels. We’ll remain in denial about the knowledge and information we glean from our bodies. Examining what we do and why is one of the chief ways we can practice more diligently and satisfy our egos through other choices.
So the answer lies, as always, with us and the decisions we make and why. Do your own research. Constantly challenge yourself to understand why you do what you do. Stay safe so you can practice yoga forever is good advice. But will the hypermobile among us take it?