Yogis, Be Careful with Your Joints. ~ Charlotte Bell

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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.


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Edited by: Ben Neal

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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.


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

  1. Kim Stanley says:

    This is the very reason for Yin yoga! If you are a teacher and think Yin is dangerous (as I see from some of the replies…), perhaps you have taken a class from someone not properly trained. Done correctly, it is 100% needed in combination with a Yang practice. I invite you to rethink your position after reading, watching or taking a workshop from Paul Grilley, Sarah Powers or Biff Mithoefer. Enrolling in 'anatomy for a 3rd time' should be a must for all persons taking on the responsibility of teaching yoga. Teachers repeating inaccurate anatomical 'yoga-speak' really do our profession an injustice and can deter would-be students or unnecessarily scare existing ones. Yoga is way more than 'Western Hatha Asanas' and I am concerned about teachers not open to the idea of meridian theory, chakra work and meditation: all fundamental to true Yin yoga.

    • I work with injured yogis. Staying in static stretches if the spine is flexed and the sacral platform flattened, will loosen the necessary tension. Hanging by your joints to stretch your ligaments is not necessary at all. My focus is on balancing tensional forces not stressing the very ligaments that keep our joints stable. Normal everyday movement if not done well will keep you flexible. See http://www.yogalign.com

  2. Jim Brain says:

    Nice to read an informative and intelligent article here. Instead of just stating an opinion. I’m all about gentle , restorative yoga. That’s what works for me. What I see a lot of people doing is what I call extreme yoga. We’re all about extreme sports here in the US.

  3. proteanstar says:

    Yes, quite true! I have been on the path of yoga for over 40 years.

  4. As a muscle bodyworker and massage therapist, I've been educating clients about this for nearly 20 years. I also find it better for muscles to do dynamic movements vs static holds. Go into the position or stretch on exhalation, and back off during inhalation. I understand your view on muscle spindles, hence why weak lengthened muscles occur due to sitting at the computer, etc. Dynamic movement exercises with proper breathing is a neuromuscular re-education. Regardless, overdoing it causes hyper-mobility in the ligaments and leads to instability. Great article

  5. Steph Clark says:

    Yes! And thanks for reminding us of the middle path.

  6. Noah says:

    I have a naturally very stiff pelvis. I’d love to be able to get into more advanced poses but as of right now, I can barely get into a half lotus without a great deal of discomfort. Should I continue to try to push my limits or am I better off accepting that there are certain things I’ll never be able to do?

    • You may want to consider that being healthy, strong and pain-free with the ability to walk and do functional movements is a huge gift in itself. What is the point of doing anything if it causes discomfort? You are way better off to stay away from the lotus pose which has no anatomical functional value or correlation to how we are designed to move in real life. The yoga sutras says we need to balance sthira and sukham. Sthira means posture should be steady and strong and sukham translates to comfortable, ease-filled, happy etc. So I suggest you question whether the yoga asanas we do in modern times actually follow those principles. The injuries and strain to the joints are a result of putting the body in positions that go against the intelligent design of the human body and stress the connective tissue forces that are not designed to be stretched. Muscles cannot even be stretched. Stretching is a myth because a muscle can do one thing and that is contract. When a muscle feels tight, it is actually tense and contracted in a way that inhibits the joint it crosses to move. Muscles need to relax to allow more range of movement and trying to stretch them elicits the stretch receptors in the muscle or tendon to signal the nervous system to contract the muscle more so it will not tear. Why are so many people suffering with tense ( aka tight) muscles? Because we sit in chairs and compress our spines and diaphragm shortening the flexors in the anterior body. We all age going forward in the Western world. Bending over to stretch the tense strained muscles in the back with the spine flexed out of its curves is creating the same position that makes them tense! Can we consider thinking out of the yoga box and get back in touch with the true design of our body with yoga poses that make anatomical common sense? I am here for support if you need it and have even more information at http://www.yogainjuries.com

  7. This is a great article. As a movement specialist, I see a ton of Yoga related injuries in my practice and the vast majority of them are due to instability in the hips and shoulders. The instability is quite often related to over-stretching the ligaments.

    I would love to see more articles like this from experienced Yoga practitioners. There is an obvious disconnect in our larger culture’s understanding and practice of Yoga. Yoga should be healing and restorative, but too often it is taken to extremes and causes harm. Hoping these types of articles help create a shift. Thanks.

    Jesse James Retherford LMT NKT FMS

    Movement Specialist

    Life Changer

  8. Tina says:

    eye-opening, even after 10 years of teaching yoga to seniors. THANK YOU

  9. Lisanne says:

    Hi, great informative article. But it did get me worried, because I teach Yin Yoga once a week, and always talk about gently stretching the ligaments/connective tissue of the joints and letting go of any tension in the muscles in order to melt deeper into the stretch. So what about Yin Yoga? I feel it is a very gentle and healthy practice, but is it?

    • Too much flexibility makes the joints unstable and is the primary reason that half a million women each year are getting hip replacement and FAI surgeries. Flexibility is over-rated in yoga and many of the poses are based on compressing the body using twists and forward bends. It is like people are trying to push the space out of their body when you observe what yoga poses biomechanics.We need to strengthen the postural forces that keep us lifted and upright and that would eliminate the so called 'tight' muscles that people think need to be stretched. Muscles that feel tight are actually tense because of our poor posture habits that are making our muscles perform functions they are not designed for! Stretching is a myth because muscles cannot change shape by pulling on them and ligament tissue is not designed to stretch. It is designed to hold joints stable and keep our parts connected. What is the point of trying to make your joints loose? Collagen bonds in the connective tissue will breakdown and we do not have the sensory nerves to feel the damage until its too late. WE need to balance the forces of tension in the body and pulling on our parts is not the answer. If a Yin yoga pose flexes your spinal column ( removes your lumbar and cervical curve) , you are in danger of creating a flexibility that can be a liability. Yoga poses should support and stabilize the joints and so make sure your YIN practice is doing that. see my article in Elephant http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/07/when-flexi

      • v123alon says:

        Hi Michaelle, I just wanted to take this opportunity to tell you how much I love your book and your ideas. You have totally changed my practice for the better. Now I just warn my teachers that I have discovered YogAlign and will do my own odd modifications. In fact, recently I was at Akasha Studio in La Jolla, and I told the teacher I was into YogAlign and it turned out the teacher was Alison Scola! It was a great class! Many thanks, Valerie

  10. Ramapriya says:

    I couldn't agree more . . . A lot of the "fancier" asanas which we are seeing more of these days are totally unnecessary and probably doing nobody any good. They're generally ego driven and the result of a life which has become imbalanced and a practitioner who has become imbalanced.

    I believe that there are limits to where we should seek to go to in asana, that we should draw the line and learn to work and move more introspectively and deeply into more "basic" asanas as means of health and personal inquiry. As long as we are focussing on our movement with intention and rinsing and "wringing" and flushing out our bodily organs and systems every day we will achieve all of the gifts of a good yoga practice. Extremes are not required to achieve this.

    I recently heard a teacher tell his students that if they wanted to get their feet behind their head that they would have to give up long walks! I couldn't believe that (a) such a false proposition was offered and (b) that a teacher was preaching such a fanatical approach to yoga by suggesting that one should give up such a quality of life activity simply to facilitate sticking your feet behind your head! Feet behind head can produce a number of good things in our practice but this is something which should be taught as a very gradual thing over a longer period of time (if ever) for most people. It is not something to push for as some kind of an urgency because some students feel that they can't be whole until they're admired for their prowess in asana.

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