Is there such a thing as “too flexible”?
These suggestions for working with yoga students with Hypermobility Syndrome / Ehlers Danlos (HMS / ED) are written in response to the many requests for help and advice I receive from teachers of hypermobile students. They are neither exhaustive nor gospel. They are personal experience rather than expertise. I have been practicing yoga with Ehlers Danlos (Hypermobility Type) for 32 years and have experienced many different attitudes and approaches from teachers. In the last decade, I have also been fortunate enough to teach many students with hypermobility.
While teachers with a normal mobility range are sometimes, understandably, anxious about how to work with hypermobile students in a beneficial way, most of the principles for teaching hypermobile people are also good practice for working with all students, so hypermobile people are easy to integrate into a general yoga class. Individual techniques for individual postures are outside the scope of this writing, but pretty much any principle for alignment and physical integrity you have learned is potentially a great tool for hypermobile students. Feel free to use it.
The following are some general possibilities to explore.
• Many beginning students share the popular view of yoga in our culture as the cultivation of flexibility. Frame physical practice as a movement towards balance and integrity. For some students this will mean working on strength and stamina; for others it will mean focusing on loosening restrictions in fascia and muscle. This approach will also serve your stiffer students, who may feel that they are ‘bad’ at yoga because they are not flexible.
• Guide hypermobile students to release (micro-bend) the insides of their elbows and the backs of their knees so that they are not supporting themselves by ‘hanging’ in the joints.
• If you are familiar with spirals, use them to guide alignment—as far as I can tell, it is impossible to spiral correctly and hyper-extend knees and elbows.
• Guide students to draw their limbs into the sockets rather than pulling them out. The general principle is to draw back into the centre rather than extending to the extremities. If you teach a vinyasa style, bandhas are key here—and generally very helpful for hypermobile people.
• In a hypermobile body, overworked and very flexible muscles often compensate for tight, contracted ones. Look out for this and suggest ways in which the student might re-balance, by stretching the tight places and strengthening the over-extended ones.
• Educate students about edge as a range of possibilities. Hypermobile people, by definition, have difficulties with proprioception and may need guidance to be able to feel the softer edges on the spectrum. If a hypermobile student consistently chooses a hard edge, be aware that this may be because it’s the only edge they can feel, rather than concluding that they are an aggressive practitioner.
• Be prepared to adjust the hypermobile student’s alignment, in the same place, in the same way, again and again. Because of the proprioceptive deficit that is integral to hypermobility, most hypermobile students will need to feel the new alignment many more times than a non-hypermobile student in order to embody it.
• Offer only one verbal / physical adjustment at a time, even if there may be many things in an asana that you feel need attention. Proprioceptive challenges make it difficult for hypermobile students to integrate multiple or complex changes into their body and they will quickly get overwhelmed by too much information.
• Refer students to the internal—energetic, somatic, psychological—dimensions of yoga. Remind them that the intention of physical practice is to create a simulacrum for life, in which our habitual patterns (samskaras), so naturalized as to be transparent to us, can become opaque, and once visible may be worked with. Physical practice is simply an opportunity in which yoga may occur; it is not itself yoga.
• In making physical adjustments, focus on helping the student to understand the dynamics of the posture rather than increasing the amount of stretch in it. Adjustment focused on stretch puts hypermobile students at high risk of injury.
• Be aware that wide range of motion is only one aspect of hypermobility and that HMS / ED is one of a group of overlapping conditions.
A hypermobile student may also be experiencing:
Dyscalculia (difficulty with numbers and sequences).
Dysautonomia / POTS (disregulation of the autonomic nervous system: so they may feel faint coming up from head-down postures, and dizzy in head-back postures).
Fibromyalgia / chronic pain.
Chronic fatigue / general need for more rest than usual.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Eating disorders / self-harm.
Higher than usual rates of anxiety / a sensitive nervous system that easily gets stuck in fight, flight, freeze / low-level PTSD.
Austism Spectrum Disorder / Asperger’s Syndrome.
• Be aware that while developing strength is desirable for hypermobile people, HMS / ED is a genetic condition of the collagen. While muscle strength can compensate to some degree for lack of tensility in the fascia, it can never create the kind of stability that is inherently present for non-hypermobile people (i.e. people with normally coded collagen). This compensatory form of stability is not automatic and must be consciously turned on and maintained. For this reason stabilising their body can be physically and mentally exhausting for hypermobile people.
• Avoid framing the holding of a posture as a feat of endurance. A hypermobile student may lack the fascial tensility to hold a standing posture for what would be a normal period of time for other students, even when they have good muscle strength. Holding beyond their comfort range may not increase the student’s stamina but may cause muscles to go into spasm, and tendons, ligaments and fascia to become inflamed and over-stretched.
• If you teach a yin style, be aware that for some hypermobile people an optimal yin stretch may be one to two minutes, and extending the hold time may result in damage to tissues. The appropriate duration will vary from person to person, and for the same person in different postures. Encourage students to track their own edge and emphasise that it is always OK to come out of a posture. The optimal hold time is not five minutes but when you feel ‘cooked’.
• Be extra-mindful of your own projections. Hypermobile students sometimes receive projections related to the teacher’s own desire to be flexible, and may be inappropriately praised or criticized as a result. Remember that hypermobility is not something that the student is doing; it is something that they are being. There is no choice or agency involved in being hypermobile; it is simply a genetic condition.
• If you are teaching a student who regularly dislocates (and may also be able easily to put themselves back in joint), keep teaching towards stability and avoid communicating any sense of fear or horror you experience in response. Be aware that this kind of dislocation is an everyday occurence for some hypermobile people and for them may not be a big deal.
• If your student is not aware that they have HMS / ED, it may be helpful to let them know that you cannot diagnose, but that you think they may be hypermobile. Many beginning hypermobile students struggle enormously with balance and stability, and may be having other unexplained health problems. It can be very useful for them to know that there is a reason for this. Explain simply and without drama, and offer as much information as they want to receive. For some students this will be a lot, for others little.
• Offer help to stabilize, strengthen and align the student’s extension rather than asking them to pull back out of it (or not to go so far). This way you are offering them something extra rather than taking something away. Most students will be responsive to this approach.
• Be aware that for all sorts of reasons, hypermobile people do need to stretch. We all do. Unstressed tissues are degenerating tissues.
• If your student is an experienced yogi, by all means offer suggestions for change, but be careful not to sweep in and reconfigure their practice for them. Remember that the practice is the student’s. Because of the proprioceptive deficits involved in hypermobility, most hypermobile people receive limited information about where they are in space and where their body ends. As a result, control over their own body may be an issue for them and they may feel threatened by any suggestion that you are trying to take over. If your student appears resistant to your suggestions, consider this as a possibility and explore how you could work with them more collaboratively. A style that supports what they already know and adds value to how they already practise will generally be well received. Be aware, too, that hypermobility sometimes attracts a surfeit of technical imput. You may or may not be giving the experienced student something new. Enquire and offer rather than impose.
• Some people with HMS / ED are housebound wheelchair-users, others are elite dancers, gymnasts and circus performers. In a yoga class, some hypermobile people will easily be able to enter physically challenging postures and will travel swiftly through progressive yoga practices such as Ashtanga vinyasa, becoming adept practitioners of advanced series. Others will be dogged by injury and chronic pain. One possible reason for this disparity is that HMS / ED is in fact not one but a group of many different genetic variations in the collagen. As genetic testing becomes cheaper and easier to carry out, more of these variations are being identified. Avoid evaluating hypermobile students on their physical performance. An HMS / ED student who is often injured may not be weaker or more pushy or more inconsistent in their practice than another who sails easily through increasingly more challenging sequences of asana. They may simply each have a different genetic variation in their collagen.
In general, hypermobile students try really, really hard, love working with their body and are a joy to teach. Trust your instincts, and honor and enjoy this opportunity to explore together.
I offer occasional workshop days on HMS / ED for (non-hypermobile) yoga teachers and for hypermobile yoga practitioners. For more information see my website.
For general information about HMS / ED see:
A Guide to Living with Hypermobility Syndrome, Isobel Knight, Singing Dragon, 2011.
‘Living with Hypermobility Syndrome’, Rebecca Allen
Jess Glenny is a moving body teacher, facilitator and therapist based in south-east London. She has been practicing yoga since 1981, and teaching since 2003. She offers astanga vinyasa and yin yoga classes and courses; Phoenix Rising yoga therapy sessions; individual and group mentoring for yoga teachers; and dance movement individual sessions and workshops. She says: “Moving body practices are ways of putting all of ourselves into motion. Through moving the body and witnessing what emerges, we give space for subconscious material to surface into awareness. This process fosters the growth of an evolving body of wisdom, enabling us to live with increasing fulness and meaning. I feel privileged to be able to pass on the little I have learnt of these wonderful transformative practices.” For more information see Movingprayer.co.uk.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta