Flexibility is a frequently celebrated virtue, as we are encouraged to bend, not break. Beyond this philosophical perspective, flexibility may be a physical aspiration, especially among yogis. Perhaps you are one of those people whose heels effortlessly touch the ground in Downward Dog? Or maybe you’ve got enough freedom of movement in your shoulders to fully clasp your hands behind your back in Cow Face pose? Well, in super technical yoga terminology, you would be called “bendy.” In medical terms, though, you might have “hypermobility.” So let’s delve a bit deeper and explore how this attribute of flexibility impacts both our yoga practice and our health.
The good news for all the bendy people is that we can contort our bodies into the various pretzel-like poses often found within yoga practice. You might also particularly enjoy Yin yoga while relaxing into some lovely bendy shapes. Bendy people are also more likely to become yogis since we tend to gravitate towards activities that we’re naturally good at. So bendiness or hypermobility would be more common within the yoga community.
While being bendy can be great for yoga, it isn’t necessarily the best for our health. The issue lies in the underlining cause of our flexibility—abnormal connective tissue. Ligaments are a type of connective tissue responsible for holding together our joints, thus providing stability. With hypermobility, however, our increased range of motion derives from these ligaments being loose or weak.
This seems like a good point to mention that I do not have a medical degree. I’m just a writer with a background in sociology. So I plan to stay well within my lane and away from any complex medical discussion by sticking with more of a basic overview.
Actually, the only reason I know anything about hypermobility is due to my own experience of being bendy. Strangely enough, I didn’t always know I was flexible. The first hint of my hypermobility came from feedback in a martial arts class. With my arm fully extended, my elbows will bend in the opposite direction, putting my arms into more of a v-like shape rather than becoming straight. So when reaching out my arm, I repeatedly got comments about my “weird elbows.” This bizarre fascination with my elbows felt totally not at all awkward (well, either that or the opposite).
Through yoga classes, I learned that even more of my joints are overly flexible. My yoga instructors called me “bendy.” As someone who struggled to build the strength necessary for more taxing yoga poses, I was grateful that, while I might have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing a proper Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff pose), I could chill out in Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero pose) with relative ease.
A chiropractor first gave me the medical term for my bendiness, calling me “hypermobile.” Through her diagnosis, I found out that being bendy could cause health problems. Since hypermobility is a connective tissue disorder, and connective tissue runs throughout the body, it can cause a myriad of other conditions. This ranges from the more obvious, like joint instability, susceptibility to sprains, and chronic fatigue, all the way to perhaps less expected conditions, like autonomic dysfunction, bladder problems, digestive issues, and beyond. Hypermobility may even impact our mental health, with hypermobile people being up to 16 times overrepresented among those diagnosed with anxiety or panic disorders.
One thing I’ve always loved about yoga is how we can modify our practice to work with our bodies. So, here are some tips for hypermobile yogis to adapt to meet our needs both on and off the yoga mat:
1. Build strength. With hypermobility, it’s harder for us to get physically stronger, but it’s also even more necessary for us to gain strength. We are more prone to injury, and so we need the stability of stronger muscles to protect our more fragile joints.
2. Be gentle with yourself. Pushing yourself too hard will increase the risk of injuries. It’s okay to move at your own pace. And of course, every sentient being deserves to be treated with kindness, which includes ourselves.
3. Don’t stretch too much. Ugh, I know, this one feels unfair because stretching can make our bendy bodies feel better. But excessive stretching can exacerbate our health issues, making us feel worse in the long run. We don’t always need to stretch ourselves as far as we can.
4. Get in touch with your body. Hypermobility can cause proprioception issues, diminishing our ability to sense what’s happening in our own bodies. Through yoga practice, however, we can become more aware of what our bodies are feeling. I particularly love “slow flow” yoga because it offers an opportunity to be mindful of our movements while flowing methodically to match what our bodies are craving.
5. Focus on your breath. Breathing is already such an essential part of yoga, especially in practices like Vinyasa where our breath is synced to our movements. Our breathing can also impact anxiety. Taking slow, deep breaths with lengthened exhales can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This signals to our bodies that it’s safe to relax.
6. Talk with your yoga instructor. If you’re taking yoga classes, consider letting your instructor know that you’re hypermobile. They might offer suggestions throughout the class to better accommodate your unique body. For example, a wonderful yoga instructor encouraged me to keep a microbend in my knees to prevent overextension.
7. Talk with your doctor. Hypermobility can cause health problems that go beyond affecting yoga practice, so it’s important to understand all of the health implications. Your doctor might begin by checking your range of motion using the Beighton Scoring System to access the extent of your hypermobility.
Like many things in life, being highly bendy isn’t all good or all bad. It’s certainly possible to be grateful for our extended range of movement while also acknowledging that it comes with costs. Though when we better understand ourselves and what’s happening within our bodies, we can find the flexibility to consciously respond and positively adapt.
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Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash; Creative Commons via Wikipedia Commons