Ever wonder why some people in your yoga class move with ease into pretzel-like postures such as splits, deep backbends, and contortionist-style forward folds, while others struggle to reach their shins, much less their toes? Rather than a sign of being farther along the path to enlightenment, those gumby practitioners may simply demonstrate joint hypermobility.
Hypermobility describes the ability of a joint to move more than normal. Some people have one or two hypermobile joints; some people have many. Either way, hypermobility isn’t necessarily pathological (whew).
A variety of factors may lead someone to joint hypermobility, including the shape of their bones, the angles at which their bones connect , or a genetic difference in their collagenous connective tissue.
Some people have a difference in the structure or function of collagen fibers, or the cells that produce collagen. The most abundant structural protein in the body, collagen essentially holds your body together.
Collagen is the central ingredient in your tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, and fascia.
When a genetic difference causes joint hypermobility in these collagenous connective tissues, it’s more likely to be part of a “hypermobility syndrome” that typically includes wide-ranging symptoms impacting many systems of the body. The most common hypermobility syndromes include Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders (HSD) and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS).
So, while being bendy comes with perks when doing impressive pretzel-like yoga postures, joint hypermobility often can be just the tip of the iceberg for bendy people.
They often experience joint pain, muscle tension, fatigue, digestive problems, histamine intolerance, and anxiety. They’re more likely to live with neurodevelopmental differences including ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Additionally, they’re likely to battle dysautonomia, which means their heart rate and blood pressure fall out of whack, which may create dizziness, fatigue, and other challenges.
Their connective tissue difference makes them prone to strains and sprains, joint subluxation and dislocation, and pain. So, when it comes to yoga practice, bendy people might be more at risk for injury. This comment leads many to ask me, “Is yoga bad for bendy people?” The answer is: “It all depends.” It depends on what you mean by yoga.
I treat many bendy yogis who develop chronic pain and injury through their yoga practice. The more yoga they practice, the worse they feel. Some of the most common complaints include sacroiliac joint pain, chronic hamstring strain, and shoulder pain. And it’s true: if practiced unwisely, yoga can certainly be a source of more harm than good for people with hypermobility syndromes.
However, if we approach yoga practice with certain principles in mind, then it can be a supportive part of a bendy person’s life. Yoga offers some amazing tools that directly support the needs of bendy people. From asana and pranayama to meditative practices and the application of yogic ethics, yoga can be a veritable treasure trove for bendy practitioners.
A fast-paced, highly-asymmetrical asana sequence (i.e., includes an endless string of one-sided postures before getting to the other side) with passive end-range stretching serves as a good recipe for a bendy practitioner to come out feeling worse, not better, after class.
But an asana practice emphasizing smaller movements (back away from the edge!), slower movements (hello, motor control!), muscular engagement to support joint stability, more symmetry in sequencing, and proprioceptive awareness can be like magic for the bendy body.
Beyond asana, yoga is the gift that keeps on giving. Pranayama practices promoting a sense of inner calm may help the bendy practitioner develop a stronger understanding of their inner experience, learn to tame their often hypervigilant nervous system, and develop skills for improved regulation. Meditative practices offer resources for training the attention to calm the mind, understand patterns of behavior, and develop clarity of purpose.
For a more in-depth exploration into the world of hypermobility syndromes and how yoga practices can support bendy people, check out my new book, Yoga for Bendy People, due for publication in summer 2022.
Libby Hinsley, PT, DPT, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Yoga Therapist most influenced by the tradition of Krishnamacharya and Desikachar. She maintains a private physical therapy practice, where she integrates yoga and manual therapy techniques and specializes in the treatment of Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, yoga-related injury, and chronic pain. She also offers a monthly membership program for yoga teachers called “Anatomy Bites” — an embodied, relevant, and fun way for yoga teachers to learn anatomy.