Are you “double-jointed”? As a kid, did you amaze and gross out your friends by bending your knees, elbows and fingers backwards? Are you a yoga teacher who’s been baffled trying to adjust students who seem to have no bones — every movement creates a cascade of motion, and it seems they can be anywhere but “aligned”? Or maybe you are that student — the postures don’t quite make sense, you don’t feel stretch where they say you will, but you do feel aches and twinges that don’t seem right. Yoga in particular seems to celebrate flexibility. Touching your toes is beginner’s stuff; the real stars tuck their ankles behind their head and wrap their arms behind their back. But the truth is, healthy joints require stability. Understanding the unique challenges of extra flexibility is important for any student or teacher of yoga.
Joint hypermobility is simply the ability of a joint to move beyond its ‘normal’ range, such as the ability to lock your knees back or fold your thumb to your wrist. Sometimes a particular joint can become hypermobile through excess force, like a whiplash injury, or through repetitive actions or posture, such as a gymnast repeatedly stretching her shoulders to their maximum range while swinging on the uneven bars. There are also some people who are more flexible in general. Their ligaments, tendons and fascia are simply stretchier, and all of their joints have greater range. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that certain injuries or problems may be more common, and in general, a hypermobile person has a different experience of being in their body than a person with tighter, denser connective tissue does.
More flexibility in the connective tissue around a joint also means more laxity, which means it is easier to destabilize or partially dislocate the joint. It is easier for a hypermobile person to injure themselves, and even everyday actions like holding a pen, standing, or putting on a backpack could potentially lead to injury because the connective tissues don’t act as a brake. For the same reason, more muscle effort is required to hold the body in position and resist overextension, so muscle injuries as well as an overall achiness can develop. That’s why a very flexible person might complain of feeling tight and stiff, even if no one else in the room believes them. The extra range and elasticity around joints also means there may be fewer proprioceptive signals — sensory feedback that tells our brain where our body is in space. Because of this, finding neutral alignment can be especially challenging. A simple cue like “straighten your arm” or “take your shoulders back” can be baffling if there seems to be no end to where your body will go, and no clear sensation to let you know you’ve gotten to the right place.
In general, a hypermobile person needs to develop strength and awareness in order to support their joints and limit their range of motion. Rather than being encouraged to reach, stretch, extend and open, these students need a focus on stabilizing exercises and developing proprioception within smaller ranges of motion. Props may be very important to limit range and support joints so that gravity does not force overextension. Teachers and practitioners need to become aware of the tendency to ‘hang’ in certain joints (like locked knees or sitting into the hip) or the tendency for certain joints to move when they don’t need to (like the back arching when the knees bend or the arms raise). Patience is also very helpful! Stabilizing hypermobility is hard work, and requires much more focus and conscious mental effort than stretching into resistance does. All of these techniques also apply to supporting and reconditioning a particular joint that has been overstretched.