Yogis, Be Careful with Your Joints. ~ Charlotte Bell

Via Charlotte Bellon Sep 11, 2013

Stretched

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When Flexibility Becomes A Liability. 

 

Last spring, I was honored to be invited to co-teach a training at Avenues Yoga Studio in Salt Lake City.

The 20-some students were earnest, curious and right on board with our slower-than-usual approach to asana practice, and our emphasis on meditation and philosophy. I am inspired to know that this group of teachers is bringing their wisdom into the world of yoga.

Early in the training, one student who had been teaching in a fitness studio asked a very important question. She explained that one of her female students became unusually flexible prior to ovulation (probably because of the presence of relaxin, a hormone that relaxes the ligaments that hold together the various joints in the pelvis—hip joints, sacroiliac joints and pubic symphisis). The teacher said that she encouraged the student to move farther into poses at that period in her cycle since she was already more flexible.

“Should I continue doing this?” she asked.

Twenty years ago I would have said yes. In fact, I did encourage women to take advantage of their relaxin-induced flexibility during pregnancy. No more.

Fortunately, the third time I took anatomy the importance of understanding the structures of ligaments and tendons finally sank in. (For clarification, ligaments connect bone to bone in our joints; tendons connect muscle to bone at the joints.) Ligaments and tendons are constructed of dense, regular, collagenous, connective tissue. Ligaments are dense, fibrous tissues that are designed to limit the movement of our joints.

Please repeat this three times: Ligaments are designed to limit the movement of our joints.

This is also very important: ligaments and tendons are considered to be avascular, i.e. containing no blood flow of their own. Oxygen and other nutrients diffuse into ligaments and tendons from cells outside the tissues. Because these structures need to be strong, they are largely comprised of collagen fibers with some elastin to create a small amount of stretch.

Don’t Sprain Your Body!

Have you ever sprained an ankle? How long did it take to heal, and did it ever return to its former stability? When you sprain your ankle, you overstretch ligaments. Because the tissue is avascular, it does not heal as quickly as muscle does. Ligaments do not have the “memory” that muscle tissue has. When you overstretch ligaments, there’s a good chance they will not bounce back to their former length.

Ligamentous Tissue

If ligaments are meant to protect joints by limiting their movement, continually overstretching joints can lead to joint instability over time. I know a number of serious practitioners who are now in their 50s—including myself—who regret having overstretched our joints back in the day. All too many longtime practitioners now own artificial joints to replace the ones they overused.

Those fancy poses way back when were not worth their consequences.

Healthy Asana

Flexible people have a much stronger tendency to overstretch joints than stiffer people do. Armed with the pervasive “no pain, no gain” philosophy, we flexies tend to keep stretching until we feel pain. Because our muscles are loose enough that we don’t feel much there, we collapse into our joints where there’s plenty of sensation. Not only does this overstretch our ligaments, it can also wear down the cartilage that protects our joints and keeps them articulating smoothly.

The Counterintuitive Answer

My advice to the student’s question was to encourage her student to protect her joints, to do less rather than more. Counterintuitive, I know, especially when many asana classes encourage people to push past their limits and rock those fancy poses. If a person’s ligaments are made unstable by relaxin—or by excessive heat or any other outside factor—that creates a situation of imbalance in the joints.

You wouldn’t encourage a muscle-bound yoga student to lift more weights and stiffen up. Equally, a too-flexible student doesn’t benefit from becoming even more flexible. Too much flexibility is just as unhealthy is too much stiffness. Balance is what we’re going for in asana practice. Familiarize yourself with what normal range of motion looks like.

By all means, do practice to lengthen your muscles, and remember that it takes 30 seconds of continuous stretching for your muscle spindle neuron to actually allow your muscle to habituate to a new, longer length.

So take your time, and be gentle. When you feel tissue stretching along the bones—as long as that stretch is not extreme—it’s probably healthy. When you feel discomfort in a joint, please stop doing what you’re doing.

And please protect your students’ future joints by teaching them the difference.

 

Like elephant Yoga on Facebook.

 

Edited by: Ben Neal

About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and has practiced ever since. She began teaching in 1986 and was certified by Iyengar in 1989. She’s practiced Vipassana meditation for 25 years and blends mindfulness into her classes. She recently founded the Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. Author of two books for Rodmell Press—Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, she also writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and in the Emmy Award-winning sextet Red Rock Rondo.

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117 Responses to “Yogis, Be Careful with Your Joints. ~ Charlotte Bell”

  1. Kelly Huegel says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for this article. My partner is a yoga teacher and we are both massage therapists, and we are constantly working to reeducate our students and clients who have been told by yoga teachers that one of the benefits of yoga is to increase flexibility by stretching ligaments. We see a lot of injuries because of it, and unfortunately yes, once ligaments are overstretched they keep most of that slack, and muscles have to be retrained to take up the job of creating joint stability; it sends a lot of yogis to physical therapy.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thank you for educating people about the difference between muscles and ligaments. In your corner of the world, at least there will probably be fewer yoga injuries!

  2. ivette says:

    this article couldn't have come in a better moment.. As I lie in bed for the 3rd day in a row due to a ligament contracture on my knee and back, this is the first thing that came up on my facebook page as I logged in. I'm a yoga instructor, and I've always been super flexy, everyone calls me elasti-girl or gummy or stuff like that.. and yeah, about those fancy poses, one takes some sort of pride of being able to do a perfectly good lord of the dance pose holding the foot above the head and mega arching the spine… but how far can one go?
    I never feel any pain while stretching this far, until this happened, and now, I'm forced to be 1 or 2 weeks in bed.. I had to take a break of my yoga classes because even a slightly over stretch can make things worse.. my knee and ankle feel super weak I can't even walk without pain, all as consequence of the ligament thing..I'm feeling really bummed and sad, and it is very stressing to be in bed when you are a person that's always moving and exercising but… I guess I should listen better to my body for now on… thanks for the heads up on the being flexible in bendy asanas might be a problem along the road, I don't wanna see myself worse in the years to come.. maybe I should just keep my yoga in an average level for now on, right?
    My doctors suggested therapy or yoga as treatment, but now I'm scared to even move a muscle because I don't want to get worse until I feel no pain at all.. but this could take weeks.. any advice? maybe walking inside the pool or basic stretches?
    thanks!

    • Charlotte says:

      I'm so sorry to hear about your injuries. Looking at poses like Lord of the Dance, I wonder now if anyone should really practice these. Not only does it overextend the spine and shoulder joints, but I also feel that it strains the SI joints. Just because your body can do something doesn't mean it should. There are a number of poses I used to do that my body can still perform, but I'm just not going there anymore. If yoga is about understanding the ego, this is a great way to explore that as well!

      My suggestion would be to avoid stretching your knee for a while. This includes making sure you don't hyperextend or lock your knee. One thing I've been practicing is staying 10 percent (or so) inside the boundaries of where my body can go in a pose. In poses like standing poses or forward bends, this practice stabilizes your core and legs.

    • sacredsourceyoga says:

      I'm a Doctor of Physical Therapy and yoga teacher. I've been teaching yoga for 12 years, and hurt myself 5 years in — due to limited strength and lots of reliance on flexibility (hence, why I went back to school for physical therapy). Flexibility, if not balanced with strength IS a liability. Think of flexibility and strength like two piles of gold on an old fashioned scale.

      I'm chiming in since don't see it mentioned yet above — active stretching, where you engage the muscles around the joint being stretched is the way to go. Passive stretching with no muscular engagement, just giving over to gravity — or even forcing a joint beyond it's normal range is bad news.

      So for example, in natarajasana / "lord of the dance" pose mentioned above, the passive stretch would be to use the muscles of the arm to tug on the leg to extreme hip extension overflowing into extreme lumbar extension. The active stretch would be to engage the glutes to the maximum muscular hip extension, engage transverse abdominus and gently lift pelvic floor to create more length in the lumbar spine. Meanwhile, adductors are hugging in to the midline, decreasing stress on the SI joints, keeping pelvis neutral, and, although you may need a strap to reach your foot, your body is happy.

      This method is much more likely to keep you in a safe range. Hope this helps!

    • molly says:

      ever heard of Ehlers Danlos Syndrom? I only heard of it recently from my daughter's doctor. It is about hyper flexibility, and it comes with problems to be aware of. Check it out!

  3. Alison says:

    I appreciate this article so much. Thank you! I badly I injured my right sacroiliac joint doing hot yoga, and it’s taking me years and years to recover. I’m 90% there. I loved yoga and hope to practice again someday. But I am very hyper mobile it turns out,, and I had neither the strength to properly stabilize my joints nor the in-class instruction to guide me in when to stop. I learned the hard way! Katy Bowman’s work (her blog is Katy Says) has helped me immensely in healing my body and learning to stretch muscle instead of connective tissue.

    • Charlotte says:

      SI joint injuries are the most common injuries in yoga. The SI joint is meant to be stable and to move only slightly to facilitate walking. My SI joint was really sensitive for years, and being a yogini, I thought stretching it was the answer. Now that I've learned how it's supposed to move and how to keep it from moving out of its healthy range and trajectory, it's gotten much better and hasn't given me problems for years. Thanks for the heads up about Katy Bowman's work. I'll check it out.

  4. Kimberly Lo kimberlylowriter says:

    Thank you so much for this!

    I happen to be hyper-flexible and I have hurt myself one too many times. This is so important.

  5. Alison says:

    Is it possible to heal the damage done to joints from overuse through asana practice? I practiced a "power yinyasa" style of yoga for 13 years…and in the past year my knees have gone from pain during warrior postures, to full-on pain in passive, supine stretch postures like child pose. I've seen an accupuncturist, added supplements, started distance walking and have stayed off the mat for three consecutive months, now. I'm mourning the loss of my practice, though even the slightest exertion shows up in my knees the next day.

    I'd appreciate any advice you can offer to help me get back to a regular practice, and rebuild my weak knees. Not that I would have listened, but I wish I had this knowledge years ago, when I began. Instead, I trusted my teacher and "rocked the poses."

    Thank you for your wisdom.

    • Charlotte says:

      I think it is possible to heal asana-related damage, but if the problem is in your ligaments, you may need to strengthen the muscles that act on a joint in order to protect the ligaments from further damage. I experienced chronic pain in my SI joint for years until I stopped doing the asanas that were irritating it. In the past 10 years or so, I've focused on stabilizing the joint and have stopped following some of the alignment instructions that I learned from so many emphatic teachers. I learned about how the spine and SI joint are actually designed to move and not to move and worked on stabilizing instead of continuing to stretch the ligaments that hold it together. I doubt I've strengthened the ligaments I overstretched for so many years, but I have strengthened the muscles to compensate. I'm happy to say that for the past two years I've had no problem with the joint. It's a great practice to do less than your body is capable of doing. My advice would be to learn about your injury and figure out a gentle practice that activates the supporting muscles but doesn't stretch your joints.

    • sacredsourceyoga says:

      Hi Alison, I'm a Doctor of Physical Therapy and yoga teacher. After an injury, you can definitely return to a yoga practice. It may not look like the practice you had before, and you may need the guidance of a yoga-knowledgeable / physical therapist. But remember your body is changing, and yoga is vast. It is not all asana, it is about taking a comfortable seat in your body, mind and spirit. We need movement to thrive, even if one segment doesn't need movement at this time.

      "Weak" knees are usually related to weak hips, ankles and even core / pelvic floor. When I say "weak" it's not always about pure strength. Limited neuromuscular control is often the key factor. A physical therapist can, for example, teach you to track your knees properly in various poses (even poses like trikonasana, where the knees are often ignored).

      The other factor to consider is myofascial restrictions. Fascia does not necessarily respond to the stretch of asana, especially fast-paced asana sequences. Fascia responds to deep pressure, and may benefit again from the hands of a physical therapist, a Rolfer, a massage therapist trained in myofascial release or foam rollers/ yoga tune-ups / tennis balls. I'm teaching a workshop in DC this weekend on yoga and fascial release. info: facebook.com/SacredSourceYoga ~ I wish you could join!

    • Yo fit trainer says:

      Strength training with weights and bands; nothing too strenuous and work up slowly.

  6. Catherine hall says:

    This is a wonderful article that reminds me to be mindful and respect my body's aging limitations

  7. Laurie Hislop says:

    Look up Svaroopa Yoga!

  8. @emilycordes says:

    Thank you Charlotte!! What a fantastic reminder.

    I have overstretched my ankle ligaments trying to sit in lotus position. On my left ankle I developed a ganglion cyst, and both ankles click and roll constantly. That's just the way it is now it seems – unstable and not particularly comfortable!!

    I had to learn that ligaments are for support not stretching the hard way, now I try to make sure my students don't have to.

    • Charlotte says:

      Sorry to hear this. Too many teachers are teaching lotus in a way that damages the ankles. Fortunately, I learned lotus from Iyengar teachers who were meticulous about making sure that no one practiced full lotus unless his/her ankles were all the way across the opposite thigh and flexed. If you're looking at the soles of your feet in lotus—if your outer ankles are stretching and inner ankles are contracting—you're at risk for ankle and knee damage.

      Being a teacher is a lot like being a guinea pig. We learn the hard way so that we can keep our students from doing so!

      • jenifermparker says:

        Same. Not to mention, I don't even bother to teach lotus. It's an extremely difficult, advanced posture for most people — particularly people with whom I work: those who are basically sedentary during the work day and then "weekend warrior" training folks (lots of triathletes, distance runners, and guys who lift weights).

        We do a "power yoga" — but it's modified deeply to meet their needs (calling it "power yoga" also meets their needs!). We work from the point of strength/stability to develop flexibility and good posture (by which I mean whole posture — standing, sitting, walking, sleeping properly a la Katy Bowman and my own teacher, Nik Curry of Postural Patterning).

        It's amazing to see people transform over time just by applying the same alignment principles and also *teaching* them how the joints/muscles/etc work and what they are trying to accomplish and how what they "think" it should look like/feel like/etc isn't necessarily what it *should* look like or feel like based on their own limitations and seeking to find stability. And out of that, flexibility and adaptability/agility is developed.

        I love my people. They're so awesome to get to teach!

        • Charlotte says:

          I don't teach lotus much anymore either. About 10 years ago I cotaught a teacher training with Donna Farhi. Participants were very experienced practitioners from around the world. One day Donna taught lotus—which she said 10 years for her to be able to do. Only three out of the 50 people in the class could do full lotus safely, with their ankles all the way across their opposite thighs. That made me realize that most Westerners’ hip joints are not shaped and positioned in a way that allows us to externally rotate our thighbones to the extent needed to get into lotus. It's often not a matter of flexibility. It's an issue of immutable skeletal structure where the movement restriction is due to bone hitting bone at the joint.

  9. Freya Watson Freya Watson says:

    Thank you for this, Charlotte! I've been practicing yoga for over two decades and this has been my personal experience too. I've had to alter my practice to make more time for building strength in the core muscles to make up for over-stretching some of the ligaments. It's a hard one for the ego to take, though – with all the emphasis on 'achieving' advanced poses. But I absolutely love settling into the poses in a meditative way rather than focusing on how far I can get.

  10. Stand and face the sun. says:

    I say this exact speech quite often. I'm always so glad to hear there are more teachers out there sending out the correct information. As I do feel the mass number of teacher trainings and trainees being produced and YA lack of requiring continuing education training is creating a lot misinformation on anatomy, and too much focus on tricks, and not on form and function. Yay! for teachers that are teaching wisdom and responsibility. Thank you. :-)

  11. Jessi Farley says:

    I’m glad to see the yoga community is beginning to become more educated on anatomy and its function. I hope the profession moves in this direction and looks to scientific evidence based approaches to yoga as it is truly best practice and hopefully will become the standard set. I’m so glad I found YogAlign with Michaelle Edwards this past year. I hope to save my hips and sacrum after destabilizing those areas by overstreching ligaments in yoga in my twenties and the first couple years of my thirties. Like someone else said, my physical therapist told me my hypermobility was a liability. If don’t want to quit yoga, but you want to maintain your spinal and anatomical integrity, check out YogAlign. Michelle Edwards is giving one day workshops I’m NYC on the 21st, then Vail the week after, and Colorado Springs on Oct 5th, then Toledo, Ohio on November 9. I’m going to the Toledo one and I can’t wait!

    • Melinda says:

      Can you give me some more info on the workshop in Toledo? I live in Ohio and may consider this!! Thanks! Melinda
      You can email me directly if you don't mind! (msmorgret@hotmail.com)

      • Joe Sparks says:

        Hi Melinda, I am a YogAlign teacher and my yoga studio is sponsoring Michaelle Edwards visit in Toledo this coming November. I will e-mail you the information. You can also visit http://www.manyoga.com Thanks for your interest! Joe Sparks

    • rossano says:

      Yogalign is new to me but I believe Patthabi jois would not agree to that method.

  12. HI Charlotte, What a great article and so needed in the biomechanics of asana. How do you feel about yin yoga? I think it is quite dangerous to stretch ligaments without muscular effort and I have always taught that hip stabilization is way more imortant than hip opening. I am actually much less flexible that I was in my push to do intense asana but my body feels amazing and I can still run, ski, swim, dance etc. even after practicing forty years. Its great to see another yoga educator writing about the importance of not stretching ligaments. I have felt like the lone ranger for over a decade as I warned people that further is not better and also to stop the hypermobile women in class to stop pushing for sensation. Did you see my recent article in EJ called When Flexibility becomes a liability? In the Kauai Yoga School, I place a huge emphasis on global anatomy so that we never sacrifice spinal integrity to do poses like straight leg forward bends or plow. I was injured over twenty years ago doing Ashtanga yoga and began to use my knowledge as a bodyworker to create a whole new system of yoga called YogAlign. It fuses what I call natural anatomical poses with techniques to rewire posture at the nervous system level and a core breathing technique that works from the inside out. In YogAlign, our focus in on posture not poses. If you know of people injured from yoga asana, please send them to yogainjuries.com to complete a survey on why and how this is happening to so many. Michaelle Edwards

    • jenifermparker says:

      I also have this criticism of Yin Yoga, and here, it's also practiced *in heat* which only makes it more risky for the ligaments (cold ligament theory backs this up).

      Like you, i focus on the function of the poses in terms of how they improve posture. Understanding how everything works together (how a shoulder pain could come from how a person stands, not necessarily something they 'did' to their shoulders), and guiding people to utilize the postures of yoga to create a stable, balanced and agile posture that works for them and decreases risk of injury as well as pain and stiffness. It's amazing stuff.

      You're not alone, for sure. BUt it sometimes feels like it, doesn't it? :)

      • Jennifer, Check out the yoga I created called YogAlign and I am open to further communication to discuss our teaching paths. After my serious yoga injury helped me take a look at all the asana I practiced, I created a yoga asana practice that would support natural anatomical function and include self guided bodywork. Its about joint stabilization, psoas/diaphragm activation, natural spine alignment and somatic education so that postural alignment is the focus no yoga poses. YogAlign is a way to change postural patterning very quickly by reeducation of the nervous system. As a bodyworker, I have been greatly influenced by the work of Thomas Myers Anatomy trains of Fascia continuity and it helped me move away from the compartmentalized view of muscle actions. Any yoga pose should support optimal posture and simulate how we move in real life. Otherwise what is the point of stretching the seams or ligaments that hold our joints together so we can move? With all of the hips and knees being replaced by the famous teachers, we all need to take a very serious look at how we engage our body in any yoga pose. If the spine is not in its natural curves, what exactly is being stretched or strengthened and will these actions lead to a favorable outcome?

  13. Niki Widmayer says:

    Wow. So good to read what I have known for some time now. I started doing yoga in my late 40's to regain some flexibility. I became a yoga teacher but always preferred teaching an "Easy Does It" approach. Even with that philosophy, several years ago I over stretched my lateral collateral ligament in my right knee. I had to hop myself around on a walker for 6 weeks. It is pretty much back to normal, but I recently fell on the same knee while out for a walk. So I am pulling back and doing everything with a much gentler attitude. After all, isn't yoga really about proper alignment so you can sit in meditation longer than 5 minutes? Increasing energy and focus can come from so many different avenues that don't overwork the body. I have added a gentle qi gong workout to my routine and get just as much energy from it.

  14. Joe Sparks says:

    She and other postural educators point out that Western cultures are sitting cultures, putting the body in a right angle which goes against our natural design of the spine, causing major damage over- time to the vertebrae and joints by over-stretching the ligaments and destabilizing the hip joint. She has come up with pain-free, safe and effective postures that allows the body to return to its natural state of function. Her philosophy is to work smarter not harder, practicing postures that facilitate deep rib cage breathing. The SIP breath as she like to call it, lengthens the spine, which makes it possible to release and lengthen stored up tension, especially in the psoas, which is very tight in most of us, due to decades of sitting. The best thing about YogAlign is, you do not have to perform any painful poses, it is more focused on alignment and posture. Which we can all benefit from. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, especially to the 20 and 30 something women, who are at risk of damaging their bodies from over-stretching!

  15. yogaspace1 says:

    Hi Charlotte, thank you for this article. I have a question…what of yin yoga? Which I understand to be "stretching" the connective tissues to stimulate the meridians. Could you please comment on this?

  16. Erin says:

    This article is extremely fascinating, however it kind of negates what a doctor told me and I’m curious on your thoughts.

    I’m hyper-flexible and they believe I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I also have 11 autoimmune disorders and fibromyalgia. The only thing I have found to help my chronic pain is yoga and stretching, but a doctor said that I need to go further into a stretch than most people because the pain is caused because my muscles knot up trying to keep my joints stable. And usually when I have the assistance to get a fuller stretch (my muscle weakness limits how much I can do on my own), that is when I feel the relief of increased circulation and the pain goes away.

    Curious on your thoughts as to why this happens, and what should I explain to instructors that I have so I am practicing in the best way for my body?

    • Jason Gan says:

      Muscle knots are caused by weakness and instability in the synergist muscle, which let the agonist overwork. When muscles over-stress themselves, their cells exhaust, and become weak.

      The key to re-balance the bio-mechanism is to know the supporting muscles in the "chain", and proprioceptively perform a stabilizing action-reaction, through what is called holding and engaging the shortened muscle. You'll feel it vibrating as you hold the muscle in engagement. Follow after with gentle relaxation of the muscle to allow the muscle to lengthen. (So, yes, you are supposed to get a proper stretch, by stabilizing. A proper stretch means stretching muscle, not stretching ligaments. In order to stretch muscle, the muscle needs to be able to shorten and lengthen. Knots prevent this.)

      If there is muscle knot, massage the knots before exercise, because the knots make it impossible to exercise muscle effectively. If you exercise when there are knots, the knots can cause further muscle imbalance, because of the muscle tendency towards imbalance. To help relieve muscle knots, try pressing the resisted muscle and holding down with a foam roller.

      P.S. Jess Glenny has written a specific article for people with Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome: http://movingprayer.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/teac
      You may want to contact her to follow up.

    • Maria says:

      Hm… if i may pitch in as a hyperflexible person: before I learned about proper alignment, I would stretch my body and joints very very deep to find the release I needed. I just "had" to go in deep. That way of training hurt me and crippled me. Since then, I learned all about the proper posture my body should be in, and most importantly, that I need to keep that posture in training and yoga asana as well. Most people realize that when they are not cheating by misaligning joints to go into deeper stretches, their range of motion is smaller and the deepness of the stretch they get is bigger at a more conservative pose. You should try this approach.

    • sacredsourceyoga says:

      Hi Alison, I'm a Doctor of Physical Therapy and yoga teacher. After an injury, you can definitely return to a yoga practice but please be exceedingly safe due to your suspicion of Ehlers-Danlos. It may not look like the practice you had before, and you may need the guidance of a yoga-knowledgeable / physical therapist. But remember your body is changing, and yoga is vast. It is not all asana, it is about taking a comfortable seat in your body, mind and spirit. We need movement to thrive, even if one segment doesn't need movement at this time.

  17. chiroyoga says:

    The Technology of Ligament Micro-Pleating
    Ligaments, the thick bands of tissue that hold bones together in their joints, are made mostly of collagen fibers. Collagen provides excellent resistance to lengthening, able to only stretch an average of 8% from their resting length. Collagen is also easily damaged when crimped or bent, as seen in wrinkles of the skin, another collagen-rich tissue. To create flexibility in ligaments, a system of extremely small folds, or micro-pleats is built into each ligament. These micro-pleats enable ligaments to shorten and lengthen safely by folding or unfolding at designated locations. The design is similar to an accordion-type window blind.
    Ligament also wrap around the joints, able to tighten or loosen their grip to provide either movement or stability when needed.

    The micro-pleating and wrapping mechanisms follow a specific pattern that can be used by the yoga student to provide safe flexibility or stability when needed.
    Ligaments loosen – pleat and unwrap – when a joint moves in any of these three directions:
    Internal rotation
    Flexion
    Adduction
    To make ligaments taut and tight, they un-pleat and wrap around their joints. This produces stability. This occurs when a joint moves in these directions:
    External Rotation
    Extension
    Abduction
    Applying these basic joint mechanical principles to asana makes yoga practice safe and allows poses to go deeper- supplying greater flexibility when needed and stability where required.

    • H Weston says:

      so the idea of "right, tighty; lefty, loosy" applies here, too, it seems.

    • sacredsourceyoga says:

      If I may — I'm a Doctor of Physical Therapy and yoga teacher — your concept is good to keep in mind, but the general way in which you describe executing it is not accurate. There are differing ligaments on each side of each different joint in the body. Sure, some are stronger than others, but they are not all loose in internal rotation, flexion, and adduction. For example, the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint: when you move that joint into internal rotation, the posterior ligamentous structures become taut (posterior superior and inferior glenohumeral ligaments, the posterior capsule..). There are checks and balances in the body in all joints in all directions unless there is pathology. You can't generalize based on planes of movement for the entire skeleton.

      • chiroyoga says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I do agree that there are many counterbalancing tissues that prevent exploitation of the large movements we make. Many small muscles and ligaments play vital roles for that end. You posted good examples. I've found that any attempt to present an idea involving anatomy is a rocky path where exception to the rule, is the rule. I appreciate the reminder to always include the caveats, generally, or most often.
        However, as a method for modulating flexibility and stability in major joints, I do find that the "general" principles that I pointed out are valid. If you haven't explored the principle in a practice setting and plan to try it, I'd be curious to know whether it holds up for you, or not.

  18. Guest says:

    I've asked my OBGYN several times about the effects of hormones and joints because I have injured many of mine – shoulders, knees, ankles, neck, sterno/clav joints, thumbs, jaw, and more . . . I have a diagnosis or Ehler-Danlos Syndrome, but I've always thought that hormones were involved. I've had more injuries since menopause so I've got some research to do. I am SO careful even with the shoes I wear, but hypermobility is a real liability!!

  19. RAR says:

    Enjoyed your article. I have a Ehlers Danlos, a connective tissue disorder that causes hypermobile joints and stretchy skin. I have been praticing yoga for over twenty years and have found that as long as I move slow so that I can keep my alingement I do not hurt myself. If I try to keep up in a yoga class I will have severe pain for days. Also, I feel that it is OK to move within your own personal range- as long as you do so slowly and with awareness. Thank you for mentioning loose joints.

  20. Christie Sorochan says:

    Hi Charlotte, this article is unbelievably timely as i sit stranded on the couch from another knee injury. I just gave birth to my first babe 2 months ago and this is the fifth injury to my right knee since becoming pregnant. At about the fourth month of my pregnancy i began practicing some very gentle yin-style asanas. I can not know for sure if it is related, but the first injury to my knee occurred at about 5 or 6 months when I was lifting my body out of a hot bath and twisting to sit on the edge of the tub. My right leg completely buckled under my weight and I couldn't walk on it for 2 days. I could tell that it was a connective tissue injury and discovered that the hormone you mention, relaxin, must have been working it's magic. My theory is that this hormone combined with the hot bath water over-relaxed my knee to the point it couldn't support my increased weight. My knee has now been injured 4 more times, from things as simple as sitting on my knees on the floor. It seems my knee cannot take that kind of stretch right now. I was inspired and excited to get back into shape after giving birth, so at two months post-partum I have started some very simple ashtanga, like sun-salutations, and yesterday added tree pose which resulted in injury. I suppose I still have some of this hormone coursing through my body, but perhaps it has more to do with the connective tissue taking longer to heal as you mentioned above, and I am not allowing it the proper time. Basically, I don't want to be injured anymore. I have a babe to take care of! But I also want to feel good in my body, and get back into shape. From some of the comments above i gather that the answer has to do with strengthening the muscles around my knee. I also would like to hear your comments on yin yoga. From what I understand, the principle of yin yoga is to gently stretch and stimulate the connective tissues so that they will rebuild stronger. Is this true? Perhaps it is more about balance as people have mentioned above. Pregnancy is already such a yin state that to add more yin to the mix may create imbalance. Should the focus be on yang postures during pregnancy? As I said, this is all so timely, and I am very curious to hear your reply! Thank you so much.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Christie, Thanks for your thoughts. I'm sorry to hear about your knee injury. The question about Yin Yoga has come up a lot in response to this post. I wish I knew the answer. One thought I've had about this is that there's connective tissue pretty much everywhere in the body. My limited understanding of Yin Yoga is that it focuses on the fascia more than ligaments and tendons. My sense of it is that stretching fascia is a whole different thing than stretching ligaments and tendons. I'd love to do more research on all this to see what I come up with. I personally love the concept of Yin Yoga. Increasingly over the years my practice has become slower and gentler, with fewer poses and longer holds, and I have to say I experience many fewer asana-related discomforts than I did when I was practicing a more active style.

      • the production of relaxin continues after birth for up to a year requiring postpartum yoga practice to focus on strength/stability and not flexibility. Hot yoga, really vigorous practices (such as ashtanga) have a higher probability of injury during the first year after baby.

  21. Sonia Stiefel says:

    Great article but I am a but confused. What of yin yoga and Paul Grilley’s teachings about stretching or – as he says – stressing the connective tissues, joints, ligaments?

  22. @simonarich says:

    In India yoga teachers really try to stretch you. Indian people are naturally more flexible (because of habits such as squatting instead of sitting on chairs) so they assume Westerners are too. So this post is really helpful for those Western yoga students who really try to do their best in stretching and don't realize that there might be some painful consequences in the future. Thanks for the post!

  23. Amen sista! I overstretched my illiopsoas (tendon/ligaments in your hip, extending to your groin) from doing pigeon pose too far. Since it prevented me from running, I rarely do it at all anymore.

    • ross says:

      yes i got sciatica from doing pigeon pose too long ……now I do it ashtanga method shorter time tristana by connecting with breath and things got better

  24. Karla Núñez says:

    Hi, Charlotte!
    This is a great reminder. I'm a dancer, I do contemporary, bellydance and yoga. I've been working on increasing my flexibility, cause of my work, dancers need a lot of this for all the fancy things you mentioned. My question is: what are your recommendations for a practice focus on flexibility, splits, arcs, squats, etc. in time, repetitions, so I can protect my joints but also gain more flexibility in a healthy way.
    Blessings.
    Karla

  25. Yin yoga is a questionable practice that supposedly stretches fascia more than muscle since you are passive in the poses. So unlike real life function where we use strength and flexibility at the same time to move and function, yin yoga is passive stretching of the joints which is anatomically questionable especially if you are already flexible. We need our ligaments to be tight not loose and the body is global and all parts affect the whole. Fascia is continuos throughout all the tissues of the body down to the membranes that comprise cell walls. One cannot compartmentalize the body and assume that they are just stretching fascia and not ligaments. Fascia, ligaments, tendons, and aponeurosis are all connective tissue and they string the body in a web that shapes our posture, our movements and even our moods. Our bones are even made of connective tissue and act as spacers. Without the connective tissue holding bones together, they would collapse. My work with YogAlign is about balancing tensional forces in the body not trying to get rid of tension because we need to strengthen the forces that hold our body together not try to pull it apart at the seams. The assumption in yoga is that if the hamstrings feel tight, they must need to be stretched. We all sit in chairs too much which shortens the flexors of the hips and the forces of the anterior body. The back body or extensor forces are stretched out and strained from chair sitting and also trying to balance the shortness of the front flexors. Our ham strings and back muscles for the most part need to be shortened and strengthened not stretched. Hamstrings are weak and overstretched so doing forward bends with the knees straight actually makes them strained even more. Shortening the front to stretch the back makes no sense at all. Your article is great but just the tip of the iceberg. If yoga asana is to retain creditability, it needs to make anatomical sense. WE are not designed to move without bending our knees. Try to walk without bending. If you stretch forward without bending, the belief is that we are stretching those tight hamstrings. WRONG ! Yogis are stretching the sacral joint ! most common injury in yoga asana. The connective tissue and ligaments that string the sacrum to the hips and femur bones is getting torqued and stretched in all of those straight leg forward bends that go against our natural design. I treat and work with so many yogis with flat sacral platforms which robs them of the most important shock absorber in the spinal column, the sacral nutation. So when the sacrum is flat, the breastbone drops, the head goes forward and then the whole back body hurts even more ! YogAlign is a whole new approach to asana and its amazing because people change their posture from the first class and nobody has to touch their toes with the knees straight ever.

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks so much for this explanation. There's plenty to contemplate here. It seems the more I know about anatomy, the more I realize I don't know! I tried to respond to your post above, but for some reason it didn't work. Anyway, I really appreciate your comments. I totally agree with you about the importance of sacral nutation. The position of your sacrum sets up the entire alignment of your spine. I've also found that sacral nutation is responsible for keeping my wildly hyperextendable knees stable. Nutation affects what's above and what's below.

      • ross says:

        Hi Charlotte
        Funny stuff indeed!! many aspects of yoga are pretty paradoxal!!

        I follow Ashtanga method and by applying bandha in straight leg forward bends help to rotate the pelvis .
        It is important to create a "forward fold" from the hip joints rather than a forward bend from the spine.
        Straight leg forward bend is part of sun salutation which is the foundation of health and any ancient yoga system.

        I might be wrong or correct but this is what my knowledge is telling at this time of my journey.

        • Ross, What is not widely understood in the practice of yoga asana is that the body is global. Saying you are going to do a forward fold at the hip joint rather than bending from the spine is simply not anatomically possible. All parts affect the whole. Just hold your jaw tight and walk around and notice how that affects the body. Applying bandha ( contraction of pelvic floor muscles and/or abdominal compressors FLEXES the spine. So the rotation of the pelvis from holding bandhas is a posterior or lumbar flexing tilt. This means the lumbar curve is being reversed not in its natural nutation. This position stretches out the sacral ligaments as Charlotte warned and does not address how we are designed to move and function in real life. Hold the bandhas and try to walk around. How does holding tension from your extremities assist your bodys' infrastructure? I respect your dedication to your practice however there is a yoga sutra which urges us to use discernment and work on reducing avidyas in what we believe to be good for us. There is nothing in the yoga sutras by the way telling us to do sun salutations or asking us to bend over with our knees straight.
          "Anityasuciduhkhanatmasu nityasucisukhatmakhyatiravidya"
          [Misapprehension leads to errors in comprehension of the character, origin, and effects of the objects perceived. What at one time feels good or appears to be of help, can turn out to be a problem; what we consider to be useful may in time prove to be harmful.] From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, translation from Heart of Yoga by Desikachar
          With the increasing frequency of yoga injuries and the unfortunate hip and knee replacements of well-known instructors, it may be time to use discernment and consider that some yoga poses may be causing more harm than good.
          As a 40-year practitioner of yoga, and 25 years teaching yoga and working as a licensed massage therapist, I have seen countless injuries, chronic pain and joint issues in yoga clients of every age. When we engage in poses that go beyond natural anatomical function, ligaments loosen, joints destabilize, and over time, deteriorate.
          It is not necessary to push our joints past the normal range of motion to create a healthy body. Contorting the body in positions that do not represent normal range of movement will not bring you together in one piece at the end. We are not made of parts. Our body is global in nature and all parts affect the whole.

    • nancey says:

      As someone who has studied extensively with Paul Grilley as well as practice and teach yin yoga regularly, I strongly disagree with these statements, at least in the context to which you are referring. When we stretch the spine in a yin forward fold (caterpillar), we soften the at the knees if there is any pull on the hamstrings, and focus on gently rounding the spine. This creates nutation and does place emphasis on the SI joint and the lumbar, but some amount of mobility in that joint area is needed in order for the back to be able to move. In Yin, we are not trying to overstretch these tissues (ligaments and fascia), we are simply affect the tissues so they return to their fullest ranges of motion. The proof is in the pudding that, over time through aging, overuse, underuse and injury, that these tissues stiffen and lose some of their pliability. A good knowledgeable yin yoga teacher will educate her students in such a way that they will hopefully not be injured. I have been teaching for 4 years now, and no one has ever been injured in my class. And I have also seen the benefits of this practice in my own body. Paul teaches us that there are no absolutes, that we should question things we don't understand and that in order for us to understand any principle, we must experience it for ourselves for it to be true. I strongly urge you to truly learn about the practice of Yin yoga before judging it so harshly.

      • Joe Sparks says:

        Hi Nancey, People can reach agreement to any desired degree, if they get their distresses out of the way and acquire enough information and allow for the differences in viewpoints. Michaelle has been studying practicing yoga for over 40 years. She has taken Paul Grilley's Yin classes. Michaelle is speaking from experience. Go to her website: http://www.manayoga.com. I lovingly invite you to try YogAlign and then decide if it is something you want to learn. Sorry nancey, if Michaelle's post seemed hard on you. She is one of the most knowledgeable, caring, loving, intelligent person you will ever meet. YogAlign is helping people make sense out of all the yoga injuries people are having from practicing yoga._ There are absolutes, some very common ones. You are completely good, lovable, intelligent, caring, kind etc…, and that is absolutely true for you and everyone else!

        • Yoga Neutral says:

          I do not want to comment on the merit of the article. All I want to add is that just because someone has 40 years of experience does not make their knowledge the authority. There are many living examples of teachers out there with years of experience but still have no clue of what they are teaching. The naive student can only then validate the accuracy of what their teachers are teaching them through their teachers' years of experience. But for those of us out there who are not naive students, we know better to educate ourselves through constant study so that we do not need to rely on someone else's experience to teach us what is right. What is the experience of a teacher may not be the experience of the student. A good teacher is someone who recognises that and does not impose his/her philosophies onto their students because all our bodies are different, even our connective tissues are different. What is a dangerous stretch for someone may be beneficial for another. We need to move away from these dogmatic ideas and begin to embrace possibilities for deviation from what is "anatomically correct" because there isn't any.

          • Joanna says:

            Thanks for your perspective on this, yoga neutral. Alignment is extremely important in asana practice, of course, and worth the debate, but the more we cling to methods being ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ we are moving away from the greater purpose of yoga which is to step away from duality. The more I teach yoga classes I realize the dangers of teaching to groups- giving proper cues become all but impossible (half the class needs muscular engagement while the other needs to soften) so always encourage students to listen to their own bodies to govern what style, poses, etc are appropriate for them. We, as students, do tend to put our teachers on a pedestal for their ‘knowledge and years of experience’ and putting their wisdom before our own intuition is again counterintuitive to what we are moving towards in the greater scheme of yoga

          • How about respecting the wisdom, design, and innate intelligence of the human body rather than the experts, teachers, books or methods?
            The body does not lie.

          • The more I learn about anatomy the more I believe yoga should be taught in small groups or privates

          • I agree Delora and in my career as a teacher, about 50% of my classes up till recently have been one on one sessions with clients suffering from serious chronic pain, TMJ, plantar fasciitis, headaches, chronic fatigue etc.. Posture is the most important determinant of health, well being and longevity. This is why yoga asana needs to support functional movement and normal ranges of joint motion.

          • Jane Phelan says:

            After 10 sessions of Rolfing you can get to another level of yoga…just by releasing the restrictions in the connective tissue…each session builds on the next…yoga is actually the movement part of Rolfing…you can empower the client to change but yoga actually helps to re-educate the fascial tissue to maintain proper alignment that will keep you out of your slump!

          • Jane Phelan says:

            After 10 sessions of Rolfing you can get to the next level of yoga by removing the fascial restrictions that have created imbalances and compensations for years…yoga is the perfect way to re-educate the fascial tissue to maintain proper alignment and keep your muscles firing in the right order. It's the sequence of the Rolfing sessions that make it work…each session building on the next…but you also need the movement therapy to maintain and keep you out of your slump! You need an outside force to change the fascia…either a therapist or gravity!

  26. laportama says:

    <<My advice to the student’s question was to encourage her student to protect her joints, to do less rather than more. >> Not counterintuitve at all, if you follow Patanjali. (So what does that say about what we're teaching?)

    • Charlotte says:

      So true. It's only counterintuitive if one's intention is to accomplish ever more impressive feats through hypermobility. If one's intention is to create a state of ease in the nervous system for meditation, protecting the joints is perfectly natural.

  27. Jessie says:

    I was lucky early on to have a teacher who said that strong people need more flexibility and flexible people need more strength. I've always been flexible and understood that what would bring me into balance was more strength to stabilize my joints. At age 40, as I can feel myself becoming a little weaker I've stepped up the strength……unbalanced strength also pulls joints out of alignment, too, so I find myself still always see-sawing between the effort and surrender. Thank you, for helping to inform the next generation of students on how to be more sensitive to the importance of both!

  28. There are so many yogis getting hip and knee replacements now that people are starting to wake up but I think many are confused about the biomechanics of asana because people believe that yoga poses are all old and traditional and time tested. Most modern asana came from Western military drills, contortion positions, and womens gymnastics. Standing with the feet together and bending over with both knees extended or straight goes against our human design. Just watch any toddler bend over and he bends his knees very deeply, takes the hips way back, keeps his spine in neutral natural curves engaging his gluteus and leg muscles. It is not natural to ask our spine to bend that way. Any back doctor advises us to BEND the knees and not a microbend either a huge deep bend. When we do those seated and standing forward bends with knees extended, we are not using our muscles to engage our joints as in real life function, we are hanging from our joints and relying on stretching our ligaments to perform the pose. These poses by the way may have nothing to do with the way we are designed to move. Just try to walk without bending your knees and you will get the picture immediately. Any physical therapist will warn you not to stretch the ligaments because they need to be tight to keep our joints stabile as Charlotte explains in the article. Somehow yoga gets a hall pass to bend over with knees straight and unfortunately those who do it well will pay a price down the road when the ligaments of the hips, knees, feet and spine no longer have the necessary tension needed for natural anatomical function. See my article in Elephant at http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/07/when-flexi

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks for sharing the link to your article. That's great information that all yoga teachers should know about. I so appreciate your informed contributions to this conversation!

    • Oli says:

      while what you say makes sense and addresses an unbalanced approach that is common in yoga and I'm sure helps many people. I think it's important to note, however, that lumber flexion is still an important and normal part of human function. For every photo of a child bending with a neutral spine there are plently of examples of small children bending with some lumber flexion (knees always bent though). The strongest power-lifters use lumber flexion to lift the heaviest weight a human has lifted. Curling into a ball is important for rolling, falling etc. All this doesn't mean I advocate stretching flexion, it's the stretching part I think may be problematic.

      • Oli, When we engage the lumbar spine in flexion for instance to do a spinal roll, this is not harmful and feels quite natural. However these are very temporary movements and certainly lumbar flexion is not helpful if we are taking a jog or trying to learn to dance. However the trunk flexors or abdominal compressors should not be engaged at the same time the lumbar spine is in flexion because it creates an internalized pressure on the discs as well as adding unnecessary stretching tension to the sacral lumbar ligaments. When we lean forward, the lumbar spine will lose its natural curve we have when standing ( hopefully) However by bending the knees and practicing keeping length to the front body, the compressive load to the lumbar/sacral platform is greatly reduced. We are born in the C shape spine with no lumbar or cervical curves and when babies begin to lift their head, these curves appear by the actions of the back extensors. With aging, the C shape reappears and the human body in most cases shrinks and collapses in on itself. Sitting in chairs has speeded up the aging process and weakened these spinal curve forces leading to the epidemic of poor posture in the western world. My point is that flexing the lumbar spine and creating muscle actions to support flexion is not going to help us get realigned or even flexible. Its like pulling yourself apart at the seams or ligaments as Charlotte is warning us. What is most important is to be aligned and balanced in strength and flexibility. The body is not made of parts and yoga poses best serve us when the body is engaged in positions that simulate aligned natural posture and contribute to the global nature of our structure.

    • Yoga4life says:

      Somehow yoga gets a hall pass….
      Yoga is more than asana.
      I don't believe all asana is being taught to take forward bend with straight legs. There are some pretty intelligent teachers with a lot of knowledge who know how to offer variations to allow every student to experience benefits of asana. Yoga is a process of becoming more aware. Good teachers are creating environments for this to be possible and students to think/feel for themselves. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Those who are training yoga teachers have a duty to teach that asana is not one size fits all anymore.

  29. Stacy R says:

    Charlotte, I not only agree with you 100%, but I appreciate your spreading the word. My right knee and hip are now in a perpetual state of soreness, due to (I believe) over-stretching. My question to you is, once you've over-stretched and have ongoing tenderness, how do you heal it? I'd love to be able to sit for 30 minutes without limping for the first 4 or 5 steps after getting up from my seat. I'm only 35 yrs old! Thanks in advance for any insights you may have…

    • Stacy, I work with many yoga practitioners who have similar issues. You can regain stability in your joints but must approach your rehabilitation by addressing your basic biomechanics in not just yoga asana but how you use your body in daily life. Your body is sore because you are out of alignment and your body will heal but you need to address the postural issues that have led to the joint dysfunctions and pain. Yogalign is what I created to give people tools to fuse self guided bodywork, realignment techniques and anatomically functional yoga poses into one practice and align so your body can heal itself. Your joint destabilizations are happening to many other young people. I have a woman who just came to me for help with a sacral collapse and serious hip and back pain and she is only 28. I predicted that Yoga asana as practiced by many would lead to this and created the site http://www.yogainjuries.com to help people understand how to shift asana to support our natural design.

      • Charlotte says:

        I agree. I learned a lot of alignment "rules" back in the day that simply don't apply to many people. I credit a few teachers for pointing me in the direction of practicing in harmony with the reality of my structure–mainly Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater. I learned about how the spine is actually supposed to move and have stopped trying to move it in ways that it's not designed to move. I also agree that the way yoga is being practiced these days–fast and forceful, with well-meaning but under-trained teachers–has led to lots of wear and tear on the joints that you would normally not see in people in their 20s and 30s. Thanks, Michaelle, for the work you're doing to educate people.

    • Charlotte says:

      Stacy, I'm so sorry to hear about your hip and knee soreness. My left hip is the same way; I have to limp for a few steps when I get up from sitting. This has only happened in the past year or so, and I'm 58! Sorry to hear you're going through this at 35. What I've been doing that seems to help is standing poses, but I move into them progressively. In other words, I don't transition into them in one single movement, and I usually don't go as far as I possibly can. So for example, in Trikonasana, I exhale and move 10 degrees and stay there for a few breaths. Then I exhale and go another 10 degrees and stay there for a few breaths. If I don't go all the way to where my torso is capable, I have to use my core muscles and leg muscles to hold myself up against the force of gravity. This ensures that I don't overstretch my joints, and also that I'm not just stretching passively, but strengthening at the same time. It seems to have helped my joint pain.

  30. marinlee says:

    thank you for a well written and informative piece! as a physical therapy student i sometimes struggle with how best to articulate to healthy and active athletes and yogis that they may be putting themselves at greater risk of injury by pushing too far. i will use this article as a reference and entry point into deeper discussion with these individuals. thanks!

  31. rossano says:

    Equally, a too-flexible student doesn’t benefit from becoming even more flexible. Too much flexibility is just as unhealthy is too much stiffness.

    Can someone explain me why?

    • Joe Sparks says:

      Being overly flexible is not a benefit. Our human body needs a balance of muscle strength and flexibility to move well and protect the joints. It is our sedentary lifestyles that is causing a lot of problems. In the latest issue of Runner's World, there is an article titled "Is Sitting the New Smoking?" The human body was not designed to be at a right angle. Unfortunately, most of the right angle poses in Yoga have the same effect.

    • Charlotte says:

      Balance is the most important thing. Balance will look different for different people. All of us are born with a certain propensity for strength and/or flexibility. (My flexibility came from my dad, who was a very flexible gymnast.) For me, the balance of flexibility and strength looks more bendy than it might look for someone with a different type of muscle/joint construction. But I now realize that hypermobility is not balance anymore than excessive tightness is. I've found out the hard way that exaggerating flexibility can lead to joint instability and deterioration.

      The definition of tone in a muscle is balance—neither hard and tight (like the much-wanted six-pack abdominals that inhibit free breathing) or flaccid tone that gives no support to our vital organs or joints. My body feels MUCH better since I stopped doing things that exaggerate my flexibility–mainly eka pada rajakapotasana-type backbends and extreme hip openers–and began exploring lessening the range of motion that I'd attained by overstretching.

  32. Linda Wells says:

    Yes!!! As we age and/or our asana practice continues over many years, it i's important to maintain a balance of strength and flexibility. I'm a naturally hyperflexible type, and it is so important for me to main strong muscles to stabilize my joints. Remember, asana is not actually meant to be competitive, but is a vehicle into meditation and the other limbs of yoga. Balance, balance, balance in your practice!

  33. Caroline says:

    Thank you for sharing this, we need more of these kind of teacher out there. I am a yoga teacher and I teach anatomy on teacher trainings. Thank you for being a teacher with integrity and sharing your wisdom. On this subject another major concern for me is yoga teachers adjusting students by moving them deeper into asana's, alot of over stretching comes from the teachers adjustments and injuries occur all too often because the teachers don't have a full understanding on anatomy and safe joint actions. If you're a teacher reading this, please only adjust students if you really understand anatomy and please only adjust to educate a student on a deeper understanding of an asanas alignment, rather than adjusting to move someone deeper into a stretch. Peace and love to you all

    • Charlotte says:

      I totally agree with you about adjustments. I never adjust someone with the intention of moving them further into a pose. If I adjust, it's to help them feel the difference between continuity and discontinuity in their alignment.

  34. Jesse says:

    Thank you for writing this. Pilates was always profoundly helpful in assisting me to balance my flexibility with stability within my yoga practice. Without that model there is no where within my yoga classes that I would have learned about movement from that perspective (and yoga has in turn taught so much that I wouldn't have gained from Pilates which leans to a more technical perspective).

    I would love to pass this along to the next Vinyasa teacher that zips the class along asana to asana. SLOOOOOOWWW DOWN! :)

    • LCR says:

      Yes! Another big fan of Pilates here. My last pregnancy- I suffered from tons of SI joint issues and found that yoga (even Prenatal Yoga) was doing more harm than good for my pelvis. I started to take up Pilates and it's been such a lifesaver. I started to practice yoga again after giving birth, but also continued with my Pilates practice. It really does help to stabilize things so much.

      Also- I wanted to remark that as a hypermobile person, you cannot feel the "overstretch". Often, because your range of motion is so much broader than that of a "normal" person, it just feels well, normal. You need a good teacher to be watching your actions and continually put you into the regular range of motion for whatever joints you are moving, until you memorize the feeling of what "normal" is. I still have issues with remembering where "straight" is on my overextended elbows. It feels like they are bent at a really random degree, and I have to use lots of muscle strength to hold them there. I don't think that people who are not hypermobile understand that we actually can't FEEL when we are overextended. This is why good teachers are so critical.

  35. GL says:

    Good conversation. I’ve been injured ever since a Yoga Yoga instructor here in Austin suggested the entire class, all women and two men including me, place a firm foam block under our lower backs so that our hips and shoulders touch the floor with our knees bent and pointing out and away from our bodies. I immediately felt tingling in my extremities. The young chai tea sipping overly tattooed instructor suddenly turned from love for all to legal speak and told me “we can’t be responsible for your injuries.”. Nice huh? I’ve been told that “stretch” might be easier on women due to pelvic differences, but my sacroilliac pain has been on and off ever since then. That studio tends to teach Americanized “boot camp” stretches that can injure people who want yoga not how far can you stretch til it snaps testing.

  36. sacredsourceyoga says:

    I'm a Doctor of Physical Therapy and yoga teacher. I've been teaching yoga for 12 years, and hurt myself 5 years in — due to limited strength and lots of reliance on flexibility (hence, why I went back to school for physical therapy). Flexibility, if not balanced with strength IS a liability. I'm chiming in since don't see it mentioned yet above — active stretching, where you engage the muscles around the joint being stretched is the way to go. Passive stretching with no muscular engagement, just giving over to gravity – doing things you couldn't do if something external wasn't pressing or pulling — forcing a joint beyond its edge is bad news. So for example, in full natarajasana / "lord of the dance" pose mentioned above, a strong core (transverse abdominus) is essential, strong glutes to extend the lifted leg and upper back to open the chest and shoulder depressors to prevent impingement and deep neck flexors to prevent strain…all are way more than how bendy the lumbar spine and hips are.

    • As the creator of YogAlign, I totally agree that all stretching should by dynamic or active and never passive. So how do you feel about Yin Yoga which is passive stretching and long holds in various positions (many which create lumbar flexion and a reversal of natural sacral nutation) ? People believe that yin is beneficial because it will open up and loosen connective tissue however I feel connective tissue ( the fascia web) will reorganize when muscle actions become balanced. Since fascia is the organ of posture, it lays down more substance when there is localized stress but it also has an enzyme within it that can dissolve fascia not needed when muscle actions become balanced. With my approach, the focus is to change your posture using active stretching that balances strength and flexibility forces and only do poses that reinforce good postural alignment. We do a lot of self massage before engaging in any active stretch to make sure there is adequate circulation but the fascia will reorganize itself from the inside out when asana is based on good posture not good poses.

  37. Sherry says:

    I was always very flexible and studied yoga since I was a child of about 6. In my 30's my ligaments started letting go and I would roll over in bed and dislocate my shoulder. Fortunately, I had a very savvy yoga teacher who looked at my flexibility and told me to stretch, yes, but to work on strength rather than flexibility.. Thank you for writing the article.

  38. Brandi says:

    Thank you. I am one of the lucky "stiffer" bodied people and feel I am just beginning to have to watch the over stretching of the joints.

  39. onesadhaka says:

    that last paragraph almost sounded like a prescription for Yin Yoga : )

  40. Thank you so much for this article. I lead various styles of yoga classes but work mainly in teaching vinyasa. In vinyasa classes, many students have said I have lost my flow due to high emphasis on anatomy. I think it wasn't until my 3rd time taking anatomy, the words actually supported my practice and influencing how I offered to share yoga. I am often struggling with students who feel I am holding them back when I caution about over stretching or encourage working with muscles and not the joints. One of my students shared this article with me:).

  41. HI Nancy, thank you for commenting on my comment as I think the more we can all share about our experiences with yoga, the more understanding we will receive. However I am only speaking of body position and joint anatomy and do not want to bring teachers names into this discussion. It is simply not necessary.
    Here is an interesting connection about where the word ligament comes from.
    "Ligament" comes from "religio" of latin origin. translates as 'that which binds your structure together". So the reality is that we need to strengthen with flexibility and avoid passive stretching of joints.
    Charlotte is really doing us all a service to write this very important article about why we should not stretch our ligaments and the mistakes she made to keep creating more flexibility at the expense of joint tissue is a warning people would be wise to pay attention to. When you mention that yin yoga is about affecting connective tissues so that they return to their fullest range of motion, this is not the way our body works. You cannot stretch parts like the sacral joint and achieve integration. Our body is held together by a natural tension that when balanced keeps us in alignment. Most of us feel excess tension because we have been made to sit in chairs which puts our body in an unnatural right angle position that flattens our sacrum, shortens the flexors that run from head to toe causing our hamstrings to feel tense. But they do not need to be stretched, they need to be strengthened. Fascia or connective tissue develops naturally to support whatever posture we are in. If we have forward head carriage, neck and back muscles are performing abnormal functions they are not designed to do. They signal the fascia system to lay down more substance and this is how fascia thickens. Stretching body parts will not rearrange postural dynamics that result from a short front and a weak, strained and over stretched back. When we are aligned, we do not even crave stretching but instead strengthen natural posture forces as we move around. No animal has to lay around and and stretch his body for five minutes in one position as this is not necessary or natural.
    The body does not lie and there are very simple biomechanical tests one can do to see if the pose or position you are doing is assisting the body in natural design function. Keep your knees from bending and try to walk. What do you feel? What is the point of trying to stretch joints of the body with the knees straight?. We are designed to move. If we stretch the ligaments too far joints are destabilized and unable to engage in natural anatomical function because they lack the necessary tension to hold the joint stable. My approach is to view the body globally rather than in pieces. So stretching parts of the body should never happen at the expense of spinal or joint integrity. Every day I hear about another yogi or two or three who has chronic low back or SI joint pain or worse groin and hip pain. This is what starts to happen when the hip joint is under compression from lax ligaments caused from stretching "to the fullest range of motion" . Further is not better. Unfortunately too many also have to get hip joint replacements or labral tear surgeries. It can take years for pathology of the hip joint to show up because of the slow insidious loosening of ligaments designed to be tight enough to hold a joint stable I urge anyone reading this to please check out my site at http://www.yogainjuries.com and also my article in Elephant Journal called When Flexibility Becomes a Liability. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/07/when-flexi

  42. I agree that people need to use discernment when taking yoga classes and not assume that because something or someone is old or has years of experience, that it has value or superior knowledge. The first thing I tell students who study with me is not to believe a word I say but to process it through their own body, intellect, discernment meter, heart, and gut level feelings.
    Not all students are motivated to educate and practice self study so they are putting themselves at risk to let others tell them what is right. I also invite all questions and realize that I cannot possibly know everything and that any discipline or method needs to grow and change or become static.
    WE all have different bodies because of our activity levels, belief systems, and bone structures however I do thing there are primal movements that we as all humans share such as breathing,walking, running, squatting, reaching, bending over etc. What I do in YogAlign is help people to connect with the innate way the body is designed to move and I translate that into yoga asana. That way we are not doing positions for artistic or traditional reasons that engage our joints in positions that go beyond natural anatomical function. Charlottes article is a warning that doing so could lead to serious joint issues and pain, the antithesis of what we seek when taking up the practice of yoga. I do have forty years experience practicing and 25 years teaching yoga and that does not mean that what I know is necessarily true or valid and each person should decide for themselves in the best case scenario. But the fact remains that many people who practice yoga are getting joint replacements or suffering from chronic pains in the back, groin, neck etc. Many people tell me when they stop doing asana, the pain goes away. This is a huge clue that something in the practice of asana is causing misalignments.
    Yes I have practiced yoga 40 years and so what but my 25 years of doing bodywork and also thousands of hours teaching YogAlign in one on one private sessions has given me a lot of experience into knowing what works and what does not for many body types and fitness levels. I photograph before and after pictures of my students and clients so we can see if posture is shifting because having poor posture is the major reason why we suffer chronic pain, and have joint compressions that lead to surgeries etc. Also poor posture habits affect the emotional body as well as the endocrine and circulatory system. Aging poorly means shrinking and compressing. My experience is that doing straight leg forward bends actually shortens the front body and causes strain to the back. Hence I leave out these poses and instead focus on using poses and positions that empower forces to keep us upright and balanced because the sad fact is we have spent too much time in the right angle of a chair. We feel disconnected from our body and from source so we come to yoga.What do we find? A lot of poses that put us back in the same chair shape.
    There are no straight lines or right angles in organic nature. Man builds static structures with straight lines and right angles because these objects do not have to move and breathe. Humans are made of curves and we move in spirals and diagonals. We are not designed to be in right angle positions like staff pose and plow. When we try to engage our body in these shapes, we flatten the beautiful curves that make us human and damage the forces that hold us together. Just like the chair is the bane of the modern lifestyle, in my experience so is putting our beautiful intelligent body in shapes not found in nature. Michaelle at http://www.yogalign.com

  43. @dslyoga says:

    @Charlotte Bell … The lead article by Charlotte is excellent, and I agree for the most part. Here are some of my comments:

    "Ligaments are designed to limit the movement of our joints." … This is why I encourage people to not use Excess (or any) Force to push deeper into a posture, to not overpower resistance, but to use the posture as a tool of exploration of the body and any current resistance, to learn, what's going on in here? What am I feeling? What & where is my body (not my ego-driven ambition) telling me to go, or should I just hang out here, and not push or pul too hard? …

    One of the biggest challenges in musculoskeletal medicine is "tightening up" ligaments that are **too loose.** Jury is out on how much you can do that. (Pro-Lo Therapy seems to have some luck there, but there are implications one should understand before using it.)

    "… to do less rather than more." … This is why I encourage yoga students, and teachers/therapists, to spend as much time as they can at their Minimum Edge, where they feel the VERY first, teensy weeny, HINT of a feeling of sensation, and hang out there for a while. That tiny bit of sensation becomes a very subtle, meditative focal point, where much internal self-learning, and action, can occur. It also, I believe, facilitates a RE-sensitization of the body, whereas most of us have had a life of DE-sensitization. (That happens in the descending sensory pathways in the lower brain, designed to keep our minds from being overwhelmed with TMI: too much info.

    The Maximum Edge, on the other hand, has so much sensation going on it can override the critical yet subtle messages our body is attempting to deliver to our conscious mind. It can actually reinforce our DE-sensitiation, over-riding subtle yet necessary information. So, we increase likelihood of hurting ourselves without knowing it. … It's about learning to do arithmetic before you do calculus.

    "All too many longtime practitioners now own artificial joints to replace the ones they overused." … A former president of the Australian Yoga Association contacted me about this very question. He personally knew several teachers who had various joints replaced or fused because of their all too intense yoga practice. And the system of yoga they all practiced is well known world-wide, but it is so alignment focused that many of them failed to realize they were FORCING their body into alignment, rather than allowing it. … Let's just say that getting into Proper Alignment, though the Holy Grail according to some teachers, can in many cases be the very source of trouble. Yoga, in my view (and at risk of oversimplifying), is NOT about achieving the *idealized alignment.* It is about exploring the resistance, in a non-violent way, that prevents me from easily achieving that alignment. If I ever arrive at that alignment, great. But that is NOT the objective. It is only a by-product.

    "Armed with the pervasive “no pain, no gain” philosophy, we flexies tend to keep stretching until we feel pain." … One of my mottos is NO Pain, MORE Gain. But if a person is going for the intensity of the stretch, which can have certain pleasures attached to it, they cannot feel the far more subtle messages informing them of what's REALLY going on deep down in there. So they are in constant over-ride, and possible denial, of what their body is trying to tell them.

    "Too much flexibility is just as unhealthy is too much stiffness. Balance is what we’re going for in asana practice." … Physical Therapy has a concept called *Active Insufficiency.* This is where the actin-myosin cells are either too far overlapped with each other (over-shortened), or too little overlap (over-lengthened). In either case, no matter how much fundamental, neuromuscular Power you are able to generate, that Power cannot be translated into actual Force of the muscles delivered to the bones, then resulting in Action. So you FEEL "weak." But I call it pseudo-weakness, or just plain exhaustion.

    "… remember that it takes 30 seconds of continuous stretching for your muscle spindle neuron to actually allow your muscle to habituate to a new, longer length." … Actually, and I speak of VERY personal experience, it can take MANY MINUTES for a muscle to lengthen out to a new length just for one time. It can take MANY repetitions of MANY MINUTES to re-habituate to a *new, longer length" and STAY that way … But I must admit that my own musculoskeletal problems, and those of the Clients I tend to attract, are FAR more severe than most of the population. So, 30 seconds might work for a lot of people, but if you deal with a more dysfunctional and pain-ridden clientele, please do NOT think 30 seconds is ANYWHERE NEAR enough to do the job. It MIGHT be, but don't bank on it.

    I have more Comments on the Comments in my next post.

  44. @dslyoga says:

    @Michaelle Edwards … "As a bodyworker, I have been greatly influenced by the work of Thomas Myers Anatomy trains of Fascia continuity and it helped me move away from the compartmentalized view of muscle actions. Any yoga pose should support optimal posture and simulate how we move in real life." … I bought and read with great interest Tom's book on fascia. It did a lot to round out my perspectives on the realities of fascial planes. I was glad to see Tom state that separating the fascia from the muscles was nearly impossible, except in conversation and scientific discourse. That's why it's called *myofascia.*

    However, I did NOT find it useful in changing my views on how the musculo-fascial system works relative to posture, structure & pain management. While Tom focuses on back lines and front lines, my work, for example, says the most common line of stress & dysfunction is from the pubic bone UP to the upper sternum on the Front line, and the sacrum DOWN on the Back line. … In my mind, this pattern is FAR more common than any other, and fits much better with, for example, the anatomical & kinesiological information found in Janet Travell's Trigger Point Manual, as well as many other sources.

    @ivette … "As I lie in bed for the 3rd day in a row due to a ligament contracture on my knee and back…" … I am trying to figure out what is *ligament contracture*??? I am not familiar with any physiological mechanism that allows ligaments to *contract.* … The rest of your post makes me think it is an over contracted neuro-musculo-fascial unit that is causing your problems, not a ligamentous *contracture.*

    @sacredyogasource …
    "active stretching, where you engage the muscles around the joint being stretched is the way to go." … Yes, back in the 1970s, Joel Kramer used to teach about engaging your Lines of Energy and Stretching the Nerves. What was really going on, in my mind, was engaging the muscles when accessing a stretch. He emphasized, however, phasing back and forth between aggressively pushing into a pose, then letting go & relaxing as much as possible. … I have found that approach to be as close as you can get to an overall balance of stretching and exercise, although I encourage people that, once out of their severe therapeutic challenge, they should practice a more gentle, relaxing approach to yoga, as well as a more strength building approach, whether it be a power type of yoga, or a more overt form of exercise. (I like Matt Furey's bodyweight exercises, such as Hindu Squats, Hindu Pushups, Back-bridging, and etc.)

    "… gently lift pelvic floor to create more length in the lumbar spine." Although I've heard this idea many times, I am unable to see how lifting the pelvic floor has any direct affect on the lumbar spine. I remember the old trainings of finding the seven actions of the pelvic floor, and lifting them, but I can feel NO direct, or even indirect, effect on my lumbar spine, AT ALL. … Transversus Abdominus? Absolutely. It decompresses the lumbar spine. But pelvic floor? I dunno?

    • DSLyoga, what Tom has helped many of us to see is the global design of the body and the bones as the spacers in our structure which is more like a tensegrity model rather than blocks stacked up on each other. Fascia is a web that is continuous throughout the entire structure and as a bodyworker, we can only palpate the outer parts of the body. ( we cannot for instance massage the underside of the rib cage or breastbone where fascia can get glued. Fascia does respond to localized stress by adding more substance supporting whatever posture habits we engage; and can work against us. However one can learn to undo dysfunctional habits, and stop the body from adding more substance to stressed areas. When there is no longer localized stress, the fascia system releases an enzyme to dissolve the excess protein fibers. ( a kind of rolfing from the inside out)

  45. @dslyoga says:

    @Charlotte …
    "One thing I've been practicing is staying 10 percent (or so) inside the boundaries of where my body can go in a pose." … Some of the old Tai Chi texts say to never move more than 70 percent into a stretch or movement that you think you can do. Although I prefer the more precise exploration of finding Minimum, Moderate and Maximum Edges, and letting those be the teachers, the 70 percent rule would seem to work for those not to motivated towards a more introspective and precise approach to yoga.

    "My completely anecdotal experience is that flexible people are far more likely to injure themselves practicing yoga." … Consider your anecdotal experience to be well-confirmed by that of others. Not that hyper-flexible people are not harmed. They are. But it's a lot easier to strain a too tight muscle than a too loose muscle. That's also one reason hyper-flexible yoga teachers tend to have difficulty relating to their far less flexible students, often causing more problems than they realize.

    "Its great to see another yoga educator writing about the importance of not stretching ligaments." … Thankfully, very few people have muscles that can relax enough to actually get to the ligaments. Paul Grilley, in his book Yin Yoga, gives an example of pulling on the finger to feel the connective tissue rather than the muscles. Well, I'm sorry, but most people have so much tension in the muscles of their forearm, which extend down to the bones of the fingers, that it is HIGHLY unlikely they can isolate their connective tissues and not be pulling on the muscles more than the ligaments. Yes, there are probably exceptions, but not many.

    @Jason Gan … "Muscle knots are caused by weakness and instability in the synergist muscle, which let the agonist overwork. When muscles over-stress themselves, their cells exhaust, and become weak. " … Hi Jason, I could not figure out what you were actually saying here, so could you direct me somewhere so I can understand what you said? It sounds l little like the Goodheart model (the chiropractor from long ago) that never made much sense to me. … Thanks, DSL

    @Christie Sorochan …

    "I just gave birth to my first babe 2 months ago and this is the fifth injury to my right knee since becoming pregnant." … It is highly unlikely that the relaxin was the actual cause. You probably had developed pre-existing stresses in those tissues before the pregnancy. The hormonal changes merely revealed or exacerbated what was already going on.

    "From some of the comments above i gather that the answer has to do with strengthening the muscles around my knee." … There is an entire mythology about *strengthening* that people have to take a closer look at. While I am not saying strengthening is an inherently bad or unnecessary thing, people take it way out of proportion to reality. Start from the very young child who is just able to sit or stand upright for the first time. You'll see that the vast majority of them stand and sit with a near perfect vertical line, totally upright, with NO effort. And they never took a Yoga, Pilates or Good Posture class. My conclusion is that when it comes to basic posture and pain problems, **strength** has almost nothing to do with it. It's about having muscles that are relaxed, lengthened & balanced, and releasing the Natural Forces that are built in by nature at birth. THAT is the starting point, not so-called *strengthening* of allegedly *weak* muscles.

    @Charlotte … "My limited understanding of Yin Yoga is that it focuses on the fascia more than ligaments and tendons." … If you have much anatomical knowledge, you'll see some self-contradictions in Paul's work. For example, most of the tendons in the body are merely continuations of the fascial sheaths of the muscles. So, if you are stretching muscles, you are, by definition, stretching the fascia at the same time, and vice versa. They are tightly integrated, wholistically functioning units that cannot function without each other. Stretching *the fascia* without stretching *the muscles* is almost a complete mythology. That includes most of the fascia that engages when *stretching* as in yin yoga. Ligaments are fascia too. It's just that most of them are limited to surrounding the joints, and are not direct continuation of the muscle sheaths. (There is the superficial fascia, a thin layer just under the skin, but it has no little or no affect on the joints when you stretch or move it.) But the number of people who can relax their muscles enough to get a stretch into the ligaments alone is comparatively small.

    @reneechristian48 … "I overstretched my illiopsoas (tendon/ligaments in your hip, extending to your groin)" … The iliacus and psoas are muscles. (They are not ligaments.) They are two different muscles attaching to bones via their respective tendons. The tendons are continuations of the sheaths that contain your muscle fibers. The psoas attaches along all your lumbar vertebrae down to the upper thigh bone, the iliacus runs from the inner surface of your pelvic bone to the same place as the psoas on the upper thigh bone. The point is that healing a tendon or ligament is a very different problem than healing muscle fibers.

  46. @dslyoga says:

    Commenting on Michaelle Edwards various posts will take a lot of time. So that will have to wait until tomorrow.

  47. Posture is a huge determinant of our health and vitality and this is the alignment that I am referring to in yoga biomechanics. Pose alignment is focused on engaging the body to get into positions that may or may not even resemble how we move in real life function. Do these poses contain templates that benefit human alignment and movement patterns or are they poses we try to do for artistic or traditional reasons? Many yoga poses when viewed from a natural anatomical perspective are practiced at the expense of the integrity of the spine, hip and knee joints. Alignment of poses and alignment of posture are two very different perspectives on how to engage the joints of the human body. Many yoga teacher trainings are asana or pose factories where alignment is all about pose positioning instead of alignment of the human body for better posture. I photograph my clients before and after to show how posture can change when asana is based on posture instead of poses. See my latest article in the Huffington post at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michaelle-edwards/y

  48. Evanna says:

    Your article is very interesting, particularly as I'm studying teacher training with YogaScotland. We had an anatomy lecture this weekend with a wonderful, humerous woman, she is a biologist by trade. Her 'pet hate' is yoga teachers telling their pupils that they stretch their muscles when she very clearly stated that muscles t
    Can not be stretched/lengthened, they can only be returned to their original length (after they have contracted) so is that what you mean by stretching can only happen after 30 seconds….because noŵ I am confused as my tutor really knew what she was taking about (being a dr in Biology) Thanks for any input…..

  49. Sky says:

    Great article, thank you Charlotte for your gentle reminder to come back to balance, with intuitive and well reasoned explanations. Much love, Sky

  50. I totally agree with your article. I am a yoga teacher from Amsterdam and wrote the recently published book Yoga: Critical Alignment (Shambhala Publications). In chapter 6 (about connections) I describe 11 connections which make it possible to connect certain body parts. They are the foundation of every asana. The essence of each connection is that there is a natural bony "stop" in the movement. Therefor it is not possible to overstretch any ligament or tendon.
    Amsterdam, Gert van Leeuwen

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