Fast & Loose: Protecting Those Hip Joints. ~ Joan Arnold

Via Joan Arnoldon Nov 20, 2013

{Photo via daverose259 on Flickr Creative Commons}

William Broad has got us yoga teachers lunging for our laptops once more and for that we can thank him.

After ducking all those hurled stones since his unscientific Science of Yoga, this time he put his disclaimer right up front—yoga’s great, and here comes the bad news. But for a guy who loves Hatha Yoga—the practice that enhances our lives with strength, resiliency and serenity—he’s made quite a career out of sensational fear-mongering.

Speaking as a middle-aged woman with hip joints, I can say that the generalities sprinkled through Broad’s latest diatribe in Sunday’s New York Times are less than helpful. Some women have loose joints and some don’t. Some yoga puts practitioners into exaggerated poses and some doesn’t. As one who teaches yoga and the Alexander Technique, and helps people—yogic and otherwise— recover from hip replacements, I can tell you that how you walk and sit, in addition to performing yoga postures, can create strain or harmony in that crucial center of the body. It’s all in how you do it.

{Photo from author Joan Arnold}Any movement teacher worth his or her salt should be aware of the pitfalls of both stiffness and hyper-mobility. Some of our students are tightly strung, others loosely strung. Some are women and some are men.

One aspect of flexibility comes from muscle—muscle fibers’ resting length and the easing of tight connective tissue that surrounds each fiber and muscle group. The most effective stretching gradually and gently increases that resting length. Another aspect of flexibility is inherited, determined by the length of our ligaments, the connectors binding bone to bone that stabilize the skeleton.

Illustration from author Joan ArnoldThose we call double-jointed are born with longer ligaments. The advantage is that they are naturally flexible and yoga’s full range postures come more easily to them. The disadvantage is that their joints are less stable. They need to avoid hanging on their joints —something that can feel good and stretchy—and learn how to more fully engage their muscles to stabilize this genetic laxity.

I have one yoga student—a builder who swings a hammer, lifts and climbs all day long—who is hyper-mobile. I coach him to engage his muscles—not to hang in down dog but to lift up and fully engage the shoulders to spare his joints from the over-extension that, to him, comes naturally.

Those with shorter ligaments have the benefit of greater joint stability. Though they’d like to be looser, initially they may hate stretching. In the current culture of yoga, dramatic flexibility is over-emphasized, as is performance over process. These folks need to learn not to envy those flexier types, to work with their own body gradually, learning how to release muscles and fascia, to make fuller joint movement available.

Illustration from author Joan ArnoldI’ve had beautiful, accomplished yoginis come to my class and drop too low in the forward lunge Anjaneyasana that Broad mentions, pushing down into the ribs and waist, putting pressure on the hip joints and lower back. I teach them to lunge less deeply, not suspend on those available joints.

Using the Alexander Technique’s idea of lightness at the top of the spine helps them engage their torso’s natural buoyancy. With a gentle hands-on suggestion, I help them to stop pushing down and guide the pelvis to tilt up and away from the front leg. Rather than exerting repetitive pressure and misaligning the upper thigh (the femur in the socket of the acetabulum, if you want to get technical), they can spare those delicate feminine hip joints.

The result is freedom and lightness as they breathe more fully and build strength with balance.

Broad’s term “modify” is too general and does not address what each student needs to learn. “Listening to our own body” may mean that you indulge your preferences and perpetuate unconscious habits that do not further your practice. An insightful teacher can suggest shifts that initially may feel unfamiliar or wrong, but can lead you toward a deeper understanding of your body’s unique needs and a more intelligent practice of the subtle, complex art we call yoga.

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Assistant Editor: Jamie Khoo/Editor: Bryonie Wise

{Photo via daverose259 on Flickr Creative Commons; Illustrations: author’s own}

About Joan Arnold

Joan Arnold has been an Alexander Technique teacher in New York City for 25 years. An Anusara Yoga teacher and longtime magazine writer, she is always engaged with the interplay of effort and ease. She will be teaching her blend of Alexander Technique and yoga next July in a five-day workshop at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. For more information visit her website.

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6 Responses to “Fast & Loose: Protecting Those Hip Joints. ~ Joan Arnold”

  1. Joe Sparks says:

    Thanks Joan, excellent article. The Yoga teacher in William Broad's article is Michaelle Edwards a contributor on Elephant Journal. In her book, YogAlign, she addresses the" issues in the tissues" and sees the body as a "contimuum" not a collection of parts, that you are writing about. If you get a chance checkout her website: http://www.yogalign.com We need more posture educators like yourself who are teaching yoga as a healing art, not a performing art.

  2. Jessi Farley says:

    Joan, thanks for addressing Broad's article. While the article didn't go in depth, I am so thankful it is shining some much needed attention to a real issue in the yoga industry. I loved your point that how you sit, move, and practice yoga can cause strain or harmony. It seems you are a posture and alignment advocate and not a pose and form advocate. Broad mentioned a huge posture, anatomy and alignment advocate, Michaelle Edwards and her style, YogAlign. Those of us in the yoga world that are educated about the body and how it functions and truly honoring our bodies need to keep speaking out and be thankful that William Broad is drawing attention to the issues in the industry. Like you said, its all how you do it. By doing yoga in a truly anatomically honoring way, by training our teachers properly, and by setting teacher training expectations and standards for the yoga industry, we can strengthen yoga as a profession, increasing its benefits and eliminating the harmful issues giving yoga a bad name. Let's continue to educate ourselves and each other! Thanks for sharing!

    • Joan Arnold says:

      Hey Jessi,

      Thank you SO MUCH for that detailed reply. I appreciate your feedback, and hope that my teaching through writing and in person at Kripalu and in NYC helps people work the body with respect and subtlety. Thank you for sharing your response.

  3. Emily says:

    Great response, and another one along the lines if yours is one from Paul Grilley. He is a Yin teacher with a huge focus on tension and compression. He wrote his direct response to Broads article and it is brilliant, just as your article is here!

  4. Joan Arnold says:

    Thanks so much, Emily! I'll check out Paul's article.

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