When Flexibility is a Liability

Published on December 30, 2014

Many of us attend yoga classes to stretch and lengthen our muscles,  dreaming of the day our hips may finally allow us to wriggle into a full lotus pose or some other flexi-goal.

But believe it or not, flexibility can sometimes be a liability in yoga class.  This is especially true if you are one the 10-15 percent of people who have joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS), a typically unproblematic condition characterized by joints that move beyond the normal range of motion.

Someone who is double jointed and can “pop out” their elbows definitely has hypermobility in that joint, but hypermobility doesn’t always look like a party trick. Even if you don’t meet all the requirements for joint hypermobility syndrome, you might still have a joint in your body that is more mobile than average. Knees, hips, shoulders, elbows are all common spots for hypermobility, and those with JHS may experience joint pain as a result of this flexibility. For yogis who are constantly pushing the limits of how far their muscles can stretch, it’s very important to know where your joints fall on the mobility spectrum.

For instance, if you straighten your knees and they actually go “beyond straight,” known as hyperextension of the knee, you have more mobility in your knees than most people. So while working to increase flexibility in yoga class may not seem like a bad idea, it may extra important to not overstretch, especially if you’re seeking to increase flexibility in your hamstrings or calves. Excessive stretching without this awareness in forward folds, for instance, could potentially make your knees more susceptible to sprains, pains and dislocation.

You know when teachers tell you keep a “microbend” in your knees and elbows? That tiny bend is ensures you aren’t locking out your joints or hyperextending. And it’s especially important for those of us whose elbows and knees can move beyond the normal range of motion. That little bend in the joints can help you to build strength around those extra stretchy ligaments and prevent injury.

Think you might have joint hypermobility syndrome? Here are some common tests for the syndrome: If you can place the palms of the hands on the floor with the knees fully extended, have hyperextension of the knee or elbow beyond 10 degrees, and/or the ability to touch the thumb to the forearm, you just might have JHS.

If that’s you, don’t fret. Bringing in some simple awareness around those hypermobile joints will help you to stay within a safe range of motion in most poses.

Do you have hypermobile joints? How do you stay safe and build strength in your practice?

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4 responses to “When Flexibility is a Liability”

  1. TJ Avatar

    Ive heard some varying thoughts on this topic since studying anatomy through Yin Yoga Teacher Trainings and from experimenting with my own body. For one “normal range of motion” is a relative concept and it makes sense to not assume this will necessarily produce a problem if we are performing in reference to our own body’s experience instead of generalities (but the generalities help very much as you say to bring awareness to things we should pay attention to).

    Going to the full range of a joint doesnt seem to be harmful if it is done in accord with the activity. For example during a flow yoga class of any kind keeping microbends is important to protect the joints but in a Yin class where compression is the end point of range of motion keeping a microbend while holding a pose for a few minutes would exhaust the muscles quickly and would prevent the body from reaching its tension/compression points.

  2. Aotea Yoga Avatar
    Aotea Yoga

    A Great Content. Thank you very much for sharing such a valuable information about Yoga.

  3. Julie Avatar

    When the S-I joint is hypermobile, forward bends feel amazing, until, they don’t. Pelvic instability results when the ligaments in the lower back become permanently overstretched and are no longer able to do their job of holding everything in place. Lumber discs can rotate and stick and extremely painful pelvic upslips may occur—I call it a train derailment in my low back. I’ve practiced vinyasa and yin style, along with others, and years later I am unable to do flexion/extension, twisting, or single-leg balancing without pain, which has pretty much curtailed my asana practice. So to all you bendy types out there, err to the side of less, not more, and as for yin yoga, well, stretching those tendons and ligaments may not be such a good idea, after all.

  4. Martisure Avatar

    It may sound funny but my wrist and metacarpophalangeal joints are too flexible and I can bend my fingers backwards until I nearly touch the back of my hand. This is a true issue in asanas where hands should be pressing onto the floor (OT not mentioning push-ups).

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Lea McLellan Avatar
About the author
Lea McLellan is a writer and yoga teacher living in Asheville, NC. She experienced the wonder of her first downward dog in college in Burlington, VT where she also studied Buddhism and Asian religious traditions. She completed her 200-hour, vinyasa teacher training in Boston in 2012 and has been practicing and teaching up and down the east coast ever since.
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