When you are master of your limbs and of your concentration, you will delight in meditation and in solitude.
– Dhammapada v362
Some of us have joints that hyperextend. Elbows and knees that hinge open like can-openers, past the structural stability of a straight line, to rest on the strength of our ligaments and whatever bony structure finally blocks further movement. The soft skin of the inner joint is stretched taut, the rougher skin of the outer joint is dimpled and depressed. Our shoulders and hips may also have an excess of play, though ball and socket joints hide it better because they’re supposed to move in all directions: hypermobility here is often viewed simply as flexibility. Our spines may also have an extraordinary range of motion.
It is estimated that 10%-15% of normal children have hypermobile joints or joints that can move beyond the normal range of motion. Hypermobile joints are sometimes referred to as “loose joints,” and those affected are referred to as being “double jointed.” –Medicinenet.com
Flexible people, especially women, are often drawn to asana practice because it’s a physical activity we seem to be naturally quite good at: we get early praise for deeper postures, and it feels good. Especially for those of us who hated gym class, who did not excel in sports, who have had negative physical experiences or a negative view of our bodies, asana can be wonderful. A yoga class might be the first time we’ve been praised, or felt successful, because of how our bodies appear, or what they can do. In baddhakonasan, our knees drop to the floor. In downward facing dog, our heels may reach the ground. Some teachers will encourage us to put the crown of the head on the floor too.
Stay awake. Watch and reflect. Work with careful attention. In this way you will find the light within yourself.
– Dhammapada v27
Is hypermobility a problem? If it causes you pain, yes. Otherwise, let’s think of it as one particularity among many; everyone’s project is bringing consciousness to their particularities. There are two tricky things about hypermobility, though.
One is that we don’t get the sensory feedback —internal limits— that other people rely on to find proper alignment. We have to find other ways to notice alignment, when it’s easy to blow right past it.
And the second is that in a culture of aestheticized extreme asanas, many inexperienced teachers don’t know how to recognize or work with hypermobile joints. They might not know that for us the practice is about building stability to contain our mobility. They coax us more and more open to the point of joint instability, or if they recognize the risk of strain, they tell us to micro-bend and leave us micro-bending forever.
Your work is to find what your work should be and not to neglect it for another’s. Clearly discover your work and attend to it with all your heart.
– Dhammapada v166
Micro-bending is putting a small bend in the elbows or knees. It is the mirror image of hyper-extension. We do not need to live with bent joints: we need to learn how to straighten our joints safely and effectively. When the bones stack straight, we experience the architectural advantage of our design: we exert less effort to hold our position, whether it’s standing up straight, folding forward or bending back. When our joints are straight, we preserve and circulate energy that would otherwise get stuck in the body like water stopped by a kink in a hose. When our muscles are in balanced engagement (front and back leg working evenly, inner and outer arm, front and back of the trunk, etc.) we press down to rise up and become longer, taller, more full of breath and life, rather than sinking into our foundations, or putting lateral pressure on vertical structures. But how do we learn to find straight joints when full muscular extension takes us way too far?
The Middle Path
When Siddhartha Gautama left his comfortable life behind to walk the yogic path, he tried a lot of strategies to arrive at the truth. He saw that his princely life of too little effort, too much comfort, was not the way. So he renounced all comforts and fasted, meditating naked in a cave. Here he discovered that too much effort, too little comfort was also not the way. He embarked on what he named ‘the middle path,’ a balance of steadiness and ease now familiar to practitioners of asana, which he traveled all the way to enlightenment.
Sthira-sukham asanam – Posture is a balance of effort and ease. – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.46
Reality has grown a lot more complex since the Buddha set off down the middle path. In the western world, where asana has seen the most recent growth in popularity, we live in a world of peak material comfort and ease, even as inequality deepens all around us. Starvation and manual labor are not as pervasive in the Global North as they once were, though we are increasingly aware of our exploitative connection, across the globe, to people living under these conditions. Demographically, yoga practitioners are likely to be white, middle-class women.
As we practice yoga within this context, we encounter the idea of austerities: ahimsa: non-violence, asteya: non-stealing, aparigraha: non-grasping, santosha: contentment, and others. If we attempt to live these ideals, we do it as if we were suspended in fluid: most of us do this without the restraint of any particular cultural context, we do not perceive our behavior to have much effect on the world around us, and we rarely encounter material limits. Comfort has moved so far away from renunciation that the middle path is now a gaping expanse of meaningless options. How do we find a true path forward without the help of material limits or knowledgeable guides?
I encourage fellow hypermobile students of yoga to view our pursuit of personal structural integrity as a vehicle for the bigger pursuit: lining our individual selves up with the grain of universal Self, without the help of railings. The physical practice of postures and breath is always both itself and a metaphor for the mental, emotional and spiritual work we’re all called to do.
The wise will give up lesser pleasures to find joy. -Dhammapada v290
Strategies for straightening
So how do we actually learn to find straight joints, and muscular stability, for ourselves?
1. Train your eye to see the plumb lines of your body: spine, legs, and arms. Practice with a mirror.
Observe your tadasan from the front and notice if your knees hyperextend evenly across the whole joint, or if the inner knee presses back farther than the outer knee.
Observe your tadasan from the side: does your pelvis press forward? Do your calves press back?
Raise your arms forward til they’re overhead and notice if belly juts forward as you do so. Move your belly gently toward your spine as you raise your arms overhead.
2. Where is the weight? Using contact sensation to find yourself in space.
In tadasan, shift your weight forward and back until you see the hip and knee joint stack above your heel. Bring the weight into your heels to find vertical extension.
In table pose, is your weight landing in your kneecap and outer wrist? Press the full shin and full palm down, and externally rotate the palms to bring yourself out of hyperextension.
3. Push down to rise up: containing the downward and outward flow.
In trikonasan, notice the weight in the front heel. Press the front big toe-root so firmly to the floor that the heel -could- lift off (but doesn’t). Notice the top line of the leg engage. Notice how actively you can flex that hip socket with the strength of the front foot.
Notice the weight resting in the back heel, moving down and out. Isometrically draw the back heel toward the front heel, and feel the back leg become the engine of the pose.
In parsvottanasan, the front leg engages just as in Trikonasan. From a strong toe-root, feel the connection to front outer hip crease. Draw the hip crease back. Feel the weight in the back leg. If it’s traveling down and out through the back heel, the back inner knee is probably overstretched. Press the back heel in and forward. From the strength of this heel, roll the back buttock crease forward to square the hips.
With engaged feet, does the spine feel longer and more balanced?
In adhomukha svanasan, notice the weight resting in the outer heel of the hand, and in the inner elbow. Press the index knuckle so firmly into the floor that you can lift the rib cage up off the shoulders. The elbows will straighten.
4. Resist the stretch to stabilize. Don’t go to the limit of your mobility in a pose. Back off and/or press back to build stability.
In baddhakonasan, instead of letting the thighs fall toward the floor, press your thighs up into your palms to strengthen.
In supta padangusthasan I, only extend the top leg as straight as you can while maintaining the thigh close to your chest.
In supta padangusthasan II, only take the top leg as far as you can go while maintaining your pelvis square and level on the floor.
In uttanasan, press your knees with your hands and resist in each direction: front, back, inner knee, outer knee.
Practice backbends that build stability, such as ustrastan, bujangasan, and standing backbends, rather than using your limb strength to push your spine into deeper mobility, as in urdhva danurasan, or chatush padasan.