Ashtanga Yoga And The Hyper-Flexible Body
Many people look at yoga as a way to become more flexible or only for flexible people. While yoga can indeed help us become more flexible and tends to attract naturally flexible people, it is also important to use yoga to develop stability and muscle strength as a structure to support our flexibility. In yoga, we practice developing and maintaining balance in all aspects of our being, including in our physical bodies. In yoga asana, we are not necessarily trying to be strong or flexible, and we are trying to be an equal amount of both. Flexibility and strength are the two sides of the same coin. As per our yoga teacher training in Rishikesh In asana practice, we work with our natural tendency (either strength or flexibility) to create and maintain a balance between the two. We use asana to equalize natural imbalance in our bodies. Everyone enters their first yoga class with either a stronger, stiffer body or a weaker, more open body. The stiffer practitioner typically has more strength and stability than the flexible practitioner. Thus they need to work on developing their openness and flexibility. The more mobile practitioner is more open and can more easily access the deeper postures and parts of the body. Yet, they typically lack much of the stabilizing strength that supports these complex dynamic postures and thus are required to work on developing their strength. While the more flexible practitioner is often seen as blessed for their ability to access more advanced and deeper postures more quickly, the other edge of the sword is that often without the necessary stabilizing foundations and alignment sufficiently developed to support the depth of these postures, over time the more flexible yogi is actually more prone to injury than the stiffer yogi.
Hypermobility Vs. Flexibility
More dynamic practices such as Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga can be particularly dangerous to the Gumby body. Though a more flexible or hyper-mobile yogi can do seemingly more advanced postures, in truth, if they lack the muscle strength to safely maintain alignment and support, they are just as “unadvanced” as their stiffer peers who struggle to touch their toes. Join our Tattvaa Yogashala 200 hour yoga teacher training in Rishikesh to learn the difference between Hypermobility and Flexibility in details.
So what is natural over flexibility and hypermobility?
Hypermobility/hyper flexibility affects nearly 20% of the population, particularly women. There is a very distinct and important difference between a yogi who is hyper-mobile and a yogi who has developed their flexibility with practice. Flexibility from practice (or stretching) means the muscles have been developed over time, allowing for extended elongation of the muscle tissues when stretched. Hypermobility means there is a tendency for unusual laxity and elasticity in the muscles and, more importantly, in the joints. The connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia) that hold the joints together and allow for joint mobility are also more elastic and thus are not as stable as the average “stiffer” body. In reference to injury, the seemingly more “advanced” hyper-mobile yogis who can easily enter deeper postures are, in fact, more at risk for injury than their seemingly “stiffer” colleagues. In an average body, the injury typically occurs from over stretching or overextending (or pulling) muscles. This means the fibers in the muscle tissue incur micro-tears that cause pain, stiffness, and limitation in mobility. In a hyper-mobile body where the muscle tissue is generally laxer, the joints have less support from muscle. Therefore, many of the injuries that incur are injuries of the joints. The connective tissues around the joints (tendons and ligaments) are more susceptible to wear and tear in the hyper-mobile yogi than in the average yogi. This causes a bigger problem because whereas muscle gets a steady and abundant flow of fresh blood and healing oxygen, the cartilage, tendons, and ligaments that structure the joints do not. The healing process, therefore, is often much longer, more complex, and less thorough, leaving the yogi more susceptible to reoccurring injury.
Problems Associated With Hypermobility
The muscles in the hyper-mobile body also have the capacity for stiffness and tightness because when we overextend our connective tissues, the muscles contract to protect the joints, paradoxically creating stiffness in the excessively flexible body. This pattern becomes exacerbated when the muscles of the hyper-mobile body are tight or tired, as flexibility (or the appearance of flexibility) is then literally “borrowed” from the laxity of the connective tissues around the joints, further overextending them. For example, many practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga struggle for sometimes years to get their legs correctly around their head in postures such as Supta Kurmasana and Ekapada Sirsasana. Suppose a hyper-mobile yogi does not have the necessary capacity to elongate the muscles in the legs and to surround the hips to allow for such an extreme hip rotation. In that case, they can still probably get their legs over their head (unlike the average body) because the leg muscles will borrow mobility from the tendons that hold the femur bone and sacrum in place. This “borrowing” of mobility from the joints puts dangerous and unnecessary stress on the hip joints and sacroiliac joints. Over time, this action will create micro-tears in the connective tissues of the joints, which, even as they heal slowly, will heal as scar tissue. Scar tissue is even tougher and less elastic than regular tissue, making it more prone to reoccurring injury and tearing in the future. The hyper-mobile yogi may have more access to deeper postures and appear more “advanced.” Still, they generally lack the structural stability of sufficient muscle strength to safely support the joints and spine in these asanas. This is not only true of advanced asana but also in more foundational asanas such as trikonasana and downward dog, where hyper-mobile yogis tend to overextend their knees and elbows. This drops the entire weight of the body in a few joints (in the knees or the elbows in the examples of trikonasana and downward dog) without the support of the muscles, placing the center of gravity in a few vulnerable places rather than dividing it evenly and safely throughout the whole skeletal, muscular structure. Over time, weight-bearing hyperextension in joints degrades the joints and will lead to injury.
How Can Ashtanga Yoga Practitioners Deal With Hyper-Mobile Body?
The Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system, in particular, comprises various postures that require developed flexibility of the hips, spine, and hamstrings to accommodate the deep backbends, forward bends, hip openers, and twists that are present in each of the series. Many stiffer practitioners, particularly men and women, work for months and even years in the Primary Series to develop the flexibility required to do forward bends and preliminary hips openers and backbends. In comparison, the lack of muscle support in the hyper-mobile yogi makes dynamic movements such as vinyasa, transitions, and drop-backs more dangerous. Many apparently “advanced” yogis are leaning on their flexibility rather than developing their strength, further propagating the imbalance of strength and flexibility and leading to unnecessary injuries. So, what to do? Rather than work on increasing flexibility, instead focus on building more stability via muscle strength and connecting to the center line of the body in every asana (Yogi Kamal Singh of Rishikesh, India, effectively integrates meridian lines into his teachings of the Ashtanga yoga system). Paying attention to building the correct supportive strength and alignment in all asanas and movements will help the hyper-mobile yogi (and all yogis) develop a safe and sustainable practice with less vulnerability to injury. As a hyper-mobile yogi in a yoga class, there should be a focus on developing stability and muscle strength rather than trying to increase flexibility. Naturally developed flexibility of the muscles is just as important for the hyper-mobile practitioner as for anyone else, but be aware of any adjustments or exercises that will exasperate hypermobility (and therefore increase the possibility of injury). Basic knowledge of anatomy and physiology for any body type will also help to cultivate awareness and alignment and prevent injury for all yoga practitioners. In the practice of Ashtanga yoga, each posture requires us to balance the counter forces within the asanas (i.e., there is no inward rotation without a counterbalancing outward force). Every asana is ideally approached with an equal degree of power and gentleness. When we find a balance between these two opposing forces, the asana becomes perfect, the dynamism neutralizes to stillness, and we enact what Patanjali describes as his definition of asana, which is “stability and stillness.” To effectively find this balance, as asana practitioners, we can first look to our anatomical level and seek to balance our strength and flexibility.
The naturally more flexible body requires more muscle strength to support the wobbly joints and spine, so do not feel discouraged if you have developed muscle strength but cannot fully stabilize the body or spine. The hyper-mobile body requires exponentially more strength than the average body to support its overly flexible tendencies. In cultivating our yoga practices, we need to develop a balance between our strength capacity and our flexibility capacity. It does not matter if you are super strong or super flexible or if you are not very strong or not flexible; what matters the most is that your flexibility and strength are equal in capacity. Just as there is no point in being so muscular you can’t touch your toes, excessive flexibility is not an end in itself, and we need to be sure that we are practicing and using our bodies with compassion, balance, and awareness. If you are looking to learn all these Yoga poses then attend the best yoga school in Rishikesh and join yoga teacher training in Rishikesh.