Yogis, Be Careful with Your Joints. ~ Charlotte Bell

Via Charlotte Bell
on Sep 11, 2013
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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.

 

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Edited by: Ben Neal

124,092 views

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.

Comments

118 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.

  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!

  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.

  4. 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.

  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.

  9. 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!

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. Charlotte says:

    My completely anecdotal experience is that flexible people are far more likely to injure themselves practicing yoga.

  19. 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.

  20. Charlotte says:

    So true. The fact that our bodies change as we age is not a mistake. It's our egos that need to adapt, not our bodies!

  21. 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!

  22. Charlotte says:

    I've done Svaroopa once with Rama Berch. It was lovely! I'd love to see it gain popularity.

  23. 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!

  24. 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?

  25. 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!

  26. 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?

  27. 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!

  28. 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? 🙂

  29. 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.

  30. 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!!

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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?

  34. @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!

  35. 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! ([email protected])

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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

  40. 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.

  41. 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?)

  42. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. H Weston says:

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

  45. 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!

  46. 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

  47. 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

  48. 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?

  49. 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!

  50. 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…