Ask the average person on the street what an “advanced” yogi looks like, and they may imagine someone tied up like a pretzel or casually tucking a foot behind their head.
Yoga’s reputation as a flexibility practice is well earned: Most styles include poses that capitalize on the hip and shoulder joints’ full range of movement.
Given yoga’s penchant for funny shapes (when would you otherwise swing your leg over your upper arm to do a hand balance?), you may think that hypermobility—the capacity of a joint to extend beyond a typical range of movement—would be an advantage for a yoga practitioner. After all, wouldn’t more flexibility make accessing these funny shapes easier?
Hypermobility Isn’t Always an Advantage
We are each born with a certain tone to our connective tissue: Some people are naturally tighter, while others are naturally looser. People with hypermobility tend to have looser connective tissue, which means that structures composed of connective tissue—such as joint capsules, ligaments, and tendons—will tend to be more mobile.
In a highly mobile practice like yoga, the stiffer practitioner is protected from overstretching by the inherent tightness of their body.
While this may make putting your foot behind your head easier, joints need to be stable in order to be functional. In a highly mobile practice like yoga, the stiffer practitioner is protected from overstretching by the inherent tightness of their body, but the hypermobile practitioner may risk exploiting their natural flexibility and destabilizing their joints.
Hypermobile yogis can often hyperextend their joints. In the knees and elbows, hyperextension is apparent when the angle in the joint goes beyond 180 degrees. For a hypermobile yogi, it can be tempting to “sit” in the end range of a joint’s available motion when they are weight bearing with straight arms (such as in plank pose) or straight legs (such as in triangle pose) rather than support the pose through muscular activation.
When a hypermobile yogi “sits” in their joints, they are relying on the tensile strength of ligaments rather than the support of the surrounding muscles. Over time, this persistent muscular disengagement can overstretch connective tissue and de-activate the stabilizing muscles that are necessary for functional movement.
Does this mean that hypermobile people should not practice yoga? Of course not! However, in order to fully reap the benefits of their yoga practice, they need to resist exploiting their natural mobility and instead work to cultivate stability in their practice.
Here are five tips to help keep a hypermobile practitioner safe and strong.
1. Keep a slight bend in your joints. Pay particular attention to poses in which you bear weight through straight arms, like plank. If you micro-bend your elbows here so you don’t rest in your ligaments and instead force your muscles to do the work this will help keep your joints stable.
Also pay attention to straight-legged standing poses such as triangle pose (trikonasana) and pyramid pose (parsvottanasana). When you are straightening the leg, press into the ball of the foot and actively press the top of the shin forward to keep a microbend in the knee. Although the slight bend will make the pose feel harder, you will be cultivating the strength that your joints need to stay functional.
2. Choose your yoga styles wisely. If you’re hypermobile, seek out practices that focus on strengthening rather than only lengthening. For example, you probably don’t need to stretch out your connective tissue in a yin class! Hatha and power classes may be a better option for balancing your natural mobility and give you the opportunity to develop strength.
3. Use your feet to protect your knees. As a rule of thumb, place your weight in your heels during bent-knee standing poses and into the balls of your feet for straight-legged standing poses. Keeping your weight in the heel of the front leg during poses like warrior II (virabhadrasana II) and extended side angle (parsvakonasana) will help keep pressure away from the front of the knee by activating the glutes and lessening the pull of the quadriceps. Weighting the ball of your foot in straight-legged poses like pyramid and half moon (ardha chandrasana) will encourage the hamstrings to engage, which will create a slight flexion in the knee joint, helping you to avoid hyperextension.
4. Practice stabilizing. Maintain balanced muscular engagement by keeping the stretching tissues active. In straight-arm poses like plank, pull your hands slightly toward each other to engage the biceps. In seated poses like head to knee pose (janu sirsasana) or seated forward fold (paschimottanasana), resist the full-range stretch of your hamstrings by slightly pulling your heels toward your sitting bones. While your muscles do not need to be 100 percent activated during these stretches, maintaining some muscular engagement will keep your joints supported and prevent hyperextension.
5. Don’t be a sensation junkie.
When you are flexible, it may be tempting to take the pose as far as it can go. After all, you may not “feel anything” if you stop before you have maxed out a stretch. However, if you are hypermobile, you probably don’t need to be more flexible; you need to be more stable.
Rather than seek out the end range of your movement, practice at 80 percent of your range. We sometimes think that we have to be “feeling it” in order to be “getting it.” For hypermobile yogis, backing off (and not having a stretching sensation) can be healthier for the body in the long run. Check in and make sure that your ego isn’t driving the bus.
Rather than seek out the end range of your movement, practice at 80 percent of your range.
Closing Thoughts The Yoga Sutra advises that asana should be “steady and easeful.” Every practitioner—stiff or flexible—is invited to balance these qualities in order to create a practice that is sustainable and functional.
The hypermobile are blessed with great flexibility and simply need to focus a bit more on the steadiness part of the equation.
Remember that the goal of yoga is not turning ourselves into human pretzels; the physical shapes that we make are the vehicles for a far deeper purpose: mindfulness, self-awareness, and self-connection.