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November 20, 2013

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

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.

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.

Those 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.

I’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}

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Joan Arnold