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Being Flexible Doesn’t Make Yoga Any Easier: Yoga On the Mat

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These photos of me in one legged scorpion pose were taken three years apart (the one on the right is more recent). I'm definitely collapsing into my low back and not properly using the abdominal wall in the earlier photo. (I could even reach out of my lower back more in the latter, too!) To practice yoga safely, it's essential to understand your flexibility and potential overextension-collapse areas!

As a yoga teacher, I hear a common misperception:

Physical flexibility is a prerequisite to practicing yoga.

People will claim, “I can’t touch my toes! How on earth could I do yoga?” If this is your mind-set, please know that yoga can be for you. If you’re naturally a very bendy person, it’s important to know about the risks increased flexibility can present and how to safeguard your body accordingly.

Contrary to common belief, the flexible are at a greater risk of injury in yoga. In fact, being highly bendy can complicate the practice. An increased range of motion can lead to confusion about just how far to go in postures, resulting in subsequent misalignment and/or compression of the joints. Likewise, naturally flexible people often have less dense musculature, meaning reduced protection for the joints and an increased susceptibility to tearing. The highly flexible are also at a greater likelihood of being “pushed” in the practice, and an over-the-top adjustment can result in mild to severe injury.

To do yoga safely, it’s crucial to understand your range of motion and how to modify accordingly. By nature, almost all my joints are highly hyper-mobile. My knees and elbows hyperextend, my spine curves so readily that touching my feet to my head has never required much effort. Likewise, my shoulders used to be so loose (and weak!) that I could voluntarily move them in and out of their sockets.

When I began practicing yoga more than 10 years ago, I could quite readily assume the postures… or so I thought. Without a sound, strength-based foundation, I overextended in so many asana. My back bowed tremendously in downward dog, my knees locked back in almost all straight-legged standing poses. Unfortunately, few of my early teachers pointed this out or corrected my alignment. (It also didn’t help that I wasn’t practicing consistently with any one or two teachers.) There were some teachers in India who would see my aptitude at back bending and guide me into complex foot-to-head, hands-to-ankle contortions I could never get into or maintain by myself at that time. Fortunately, no major injury resulted from these early years of practice (except possibly a hyper-mobile vertebra in my mid-spine).

About seven years ago, I started studying alignment-based methods of yoga such as Anusara and Iyengar, and with a few highly alignment-aware vinyasa instructors. I’m so grateful to these few teachers who not only transformed my perception of body, but also gave me concrete tools to construct a strength versus primarily flexibility-based foundation. While there are varying opinions in the yoga world about merging styles or assuming a cross-disciplinary approach, it has been the most natural course for me. I respect what each lineage continues to teach me and how they have informed my integrative style of teaching vinyasa and basic hatha yoga.

If you are prone to hyperextension in the knees and elbows, I highly recommend studying with an experienced Iyengar teacher. The invaluable foundation they can help you construct can be transformative and an indispensable complement to other methods like vinyasa or Ashtanga. Anusara is another great alignment-focused method that deals a lot with the proper placement of the pelvic bowl, essential info for flexi-backed people! Find Iyengar teachers near you at http://www.bksiyengar.com/ and certified Anusara teachers at www.anusara.com.

As mentioned, the flexible are at risk of being “pushed” too deeply into poses. As I like to tell my bendier students, “Just because you can go there, doesn’t mean you should.” Yoga is not contortionism. Sadly, I see and have been subjected to many aggressive adjustments over the years, primarily in the vinyasa and Ashtanga realm. Learning to differentiate between safe and dangerous adjustments is essential. Common places where injuries occur are in forward bends and lotus adjustments. My left inner meniscus was permanently damaged by a surprise push into lotus pose while in headstand a year ago. Remember this: It’s OK to politely say no to a deep adjustment! It is your body and a good teacher should honor that.

There can be very good hands-on corrections. I love how Timothy McCall, M.D., describes such in his book Yoga as Medicine: “The safest kind of adjustments are not really adjustments at all, but rather a laying on of the hands in order to bring the student’s awareness to a particular area of the body.” Tom Alden describes the first time he worked with BKS Iyenger in India. Iyengar flicked his hand on Tom’s outer thigh, and “His touch brought awareness, and the direction of his touch brought the direction of action. It woke up my intelligence.”  That’s a lot different–and a lot safer–than a teacher’s wrenching your body deeper into a pose.”

Also, be receptive to verbal and safe hands-on corrections. The teacher is doing their job by examining your body. Ask questions if you don’t understand what’s suggested. You can also choose to disagree and override their correction, but do this from a place of objective experimentation and not defense or ego. The teacher is not critiquing you as a person, just the shape you’re assuming with your body.

Oh! I almost forgot: Hot yoga. Be extremely cautious about practicing hot yoga if you have any tendencies toward hyper-mobility for all of the reasons mentioned above.

If you’re in the New York area, I’m honored to be teaching a safety tools workshop for the hyper-mobile vinyasa practitioners at the new Sangha House studio in midtown Manhattan on Saturday, March 10 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Please find out more and/or register at www.sanghahousenyc.com. The workshop will be $35 in advance and $40 at the door.

Yoga brings stability and calm into every discipline of Sophie Herbert's life. She is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student) and a Whole Living contributing editor. She graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art, where she nurtured her passion for documentary photography. It was during this time that she began her disciplined and diverse study of yoga in New York, Paris, and India.

Sophie has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India. She feels grateful to still visit and work regularly with the Deenabandhu Children's Home in Chamarajanagar, Karnataka. In November of 2010, she became an ambassador for Yoga Gives Back www.yogagivesback.org, a grass-roots nonprofit that helps destitute women and girls in India build more sustainable lives. Sophie has also shared her knowledge of yoga at the Prana Yoga Center in Astana, Kazakhstan. Currently, she teaches at the Park Slope Yoga Center www.parkslopeyoga.com in Brooklyn and privately. Sophie is also an avid cook.

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Comments (3)

  • Well said, Sophie. This needs much discussion with all instructors and practitioners.

  • I like to see Sophie taking it to the next level. It must be quite uncommon that someone can both instruct students in yoga so well and articulate yogic issues in writing. Shanti. Namaste.

  • Great article! I had similar issues with my own spine which led me to getting certified in Sadie Nardini's Core Strength VInyasa. I definitely agree that alignment based vinyasa teachers are key to safely practicing vinyasa!

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