Friday Featuring… Too Many Joints?

I recently attended a one-day workshop called “Hypermobility on the Mat” with Jess Glenny. Jess isn’t a doctor or a subject matter expert, but she is a yoga practitioner of more than 30 years’ experience (in a hypermobile body) and a senior yoga teacher. She researches, reads and writes extensively on the topic of hypermobility and yoga.

To set the scene, the term “double-jointed” is a misnomer – after many hours of anatomy training, I can promise that hypermobile people don’t have extra joints! Simply put, a hypermobile joint is one which has an excessive range of motion. This might be due to the particular shape of the bones making up that joint, either congenitally or as a result of trauma. If it is the result of a genetic factor, then the collagen (a structural protein in our connective tissue) is impacted, meaning laxity in, amongst other things, all ligaments.

Hypermobility runs in my family, and, in our case, can be attributed to a particular gene. Also present in my family are various forms of arthritis, fibromyalgia and eye conditions, which are linked.

Jess’ workshop really opened my eyes to the extensive list of other conditions that have been linked with hypermobility – from common life experiences through to debilitating illnesses. Just to cite a small number of examples, hypermobile people can also:

  • struggle to develop and retain muscle tone, and find it hard to stand or sit upright for long periods, often leaning on nearby walls or tables to do so;
  • find it challenging to know where their limbs are in space (i.e. they can appear to be clumsy and have poor proprioception);
  • on the other hand, have a strong sense of their own internal sensations (i.e. they have strong interoception);
  • suffer from digestive issues;
  • tend towards perfectionism or a driven attitude, anxiety and eating disorders;
  • present with autism, dyspraxia and/or dyslexia; and
  • have various different types of vascular conditions.

Hypermobility is pretty common – up to a third of the population might be impacted to some degree, and it is even more common amongst yogis (as well as footballers, musicians and dancers).

Practiced with care and non-dogmatically, yoga can help in a number of different ways. It can bring relief from aches and pains, and teach us to work with these sensations in our bodies, encouraging us not to ignore or fixate on them. Breath work can release trauma and aid insomnia (explored in the last instalment of Friday Featuring). Asana (postural practice) can improve proprioception, body awareness, strength and self-confidence. The challenge for hypermobile practitioners is to stabilise their joints before they reach their full range of motion; to avoid pushing past a line which, when crossed too often or by too far, results in injury. As well as being physically challenging, this asks us not to strive, or rather to strive just the right amount. Difficult in yoga, so difficult in life.

For yoga practitioners and teachers, we can do more than “microbend your elbows” and “don’t lock out your knees”. Here’s a quick canter through some of the adjustments that I make to my own practice and teaching:

  • Focus on the strength elements of the practice. Push the ground away with your hands, rather than resting on them. Squeeze your arms and legs towards one another or away from each other (or both), rather than pressing back into the knees or elbows.
  • Focus on engagement of your deep core muscles as you move between and hold poses (I’m practising and teaching with this as my class theme this month).
  • Where the pose allows for it, stack your joints – for example, when standing, check that your hip points are over your knees and ankles, so that the thigh bones are directly on top of the shin bones. Not only does this help avoid overextension of the joints (‘locking’), it is efficient for the body to maintain. Teachers can provide feedback to help students to find a new sense of what ‘straight’ actually feels like – over time, this gets easier.
  • Use the whole of your feet and hands – spread your fingers and toes – engaging the muscles starts a chain of engagement through your limbs and your whole body. This is easier to do when they are in contact with the ground, but it is equally effective when they aren’t.
  • Include elements of back body strengthening, especially the hamstrings, glutes and muscles of the back. Become a lover of locust pose!
  • Counter all of this engagement by taking the time and making the effort to release, letting go of physical and mental holding and the desire for more.
  • For lower back (or sacroiliac joint) pain, allow your pelvis to move in asymmetrical poses. Avoid ‘fixing’ your hip points in one plane – in twists, in one-sided forward- and back-bends, in warrior 2 and especially in warrior 1 and triangle pose.
  • Consider taking the final resting pose of the class on your side, rather than your back.
  • You don’t necessarily need to avoid stretching or yin yoga. Practiced with awareness and care, they can be beneficial, particularly in relieving tension in overworking muscles, countering postural habits from computer work, mobile phone use or wearing high heels; and in calming the storm of the mind.

All that said, the thing that I have found most helpful is to do some form of breath-led movement each day. When in pain, it is easy to pull into yourself for fear of making it worse, and sometimes the right thing to do is simply to rest. But, especially in the morning, which is the hardest time for me to find comfort in my body, I have found that disciplining myself to do whatever I am capable of that day is definitely the road to a less painful day, and hopefully a good quality life.

Jess says:

An authentic practice emerges, resonates, informs, pleasures. It has the capacity to repattern and recalibrate on a whole-person level. It leads us into the centre of our experiences and reveals increasingly subtle sensations, emotions, and mental and nervous system activities, so that over a period of time, the practising body becomes an ever more intelligent system. This is an intimate and personal process, and it remains the exclusive property of the person experiencing it.

I’m very interested in hearing more from hypermobile yoga practitioners and teachers. Please do share your experience below.

Breathe, make space, be compassionate.

Susie xx

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For more about Jess and her work, have a look at her website and her blog. Her article about yin yoga and hypermobility is here. She also runs a Facebook group called Hypermobility on the Mat.

Along with the workshop, she provided a useful resource guide, including links to books, articles and to this talk by Leslie Kaminov, co-author of the seminal text book, ‘Yoga Anatomy’. He answers the question, ‘How much flexibility is the right amount of flexibility?’ He’s brilliant.

To read more about the ‘continuum of embodiment’, including a fuller explanation of the terms exteroception, proprioception and interoception (particularly in respect of pain sensation), have a look at this article by Bo Forbes. She’s also brilliant.


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