“Good alignment involves a dynamic organisation of the body that facilitates the conduit of force through the body and beyond.”
Wise words from Donna Farhi. However for the hypermobile yoga practitioner, good alignment may be difficult to achieve. Hypermobile joints are a common phenomena amongst yoga practitioners, especially female ones. And because many asana appear ‘easy’ for the hypermobile student, they may think they are ‘good’ at yoga. In fact when weight travels into hypermobile joints, damage may occur over time – hypermobile joints are not healthy. The challenge is to find support at the joint so that weight can travel through it instead of getting stuck there. Increased support may be needed through the strengthening of muscles but it’s just as important to find alignment through the bones. When the bones are aligned it’s likely that the muscles won’t in fact have to do as much. Hypermobile students therefore, need to find containment in movement and posture but it can be difficult for them to feel how to make this happen. For less flexible students the challenges in asana practice are more tangible – they can feel the tightness in their muscles that can benefit from being stretched.
Generalised hypermobility has more commonly been found in people born by caesarian section, especially if they were also premature. These people missed out on the experience of intense flexion and containment during the final stages in utero, and/or intense containment during the normal birth process. A premature, caesarian born baby may therefore present with less ‘tone’ – a characteristic that can continue into adulthood. Tone – meaning a readiness to respond that involves many of the body’s tissues – not just the muscles. Other considerations include genetic tendencies towards hypermobility and the possibility that diet with a specific focus, may ameliorate the tendencies.
I’ll now describe a movement therapy session in which I endeavoured to help a young woman with a painful right knee. Flissy explained to me that the cause of the pain had been diagnosed as hypermobility – particularly evident at her right knee, right hip and left shoulder joints.
My aim in the session was to make the sensation of weight/force travelling through joints more tangible. This meant finding positions where bones at joints were in healthy relationship to each other – with balanced joint space. I also aimed to help Flissy sense the difference between what might feel ‘comfortable’ because of familiarity but is in fact unhealthy, and comfort that is functionally healthy. In the case of knees and shoulders, when the alignment is healthy they may feel ‘snug’. For more on healthy alignment for knees read Knees – to lock or not to lock
As demonstrated in the video below – we began the session sitting and checking out how it felt to take weight into a hand – looking for a healthy pathway through the elbow. I aimed for Flissy to feel the stuck feeling in her arm with elbow hyperextended and then the springy, rebound quality arising through healthy alignment. I explained to Flissy that our joints are supported by ligaments and their job is to keep the bones in healthy relationship with each other.
The next inquiry involved lying supine and becoming aware of breath movement in the centre of the body. Gradually I encouraged Flissy to initiate movement from centre, in a manner reminiscent of an early stage in utero. At times this can feel a bit like the first stretch we might make on waking up in the morning! From there we began an exercise called ‘Starfish’ – opening out from centre on an inhalation and curling up onto the side of the body on an exhalation. After a few repetitions there was a pause, then a change of the breath so that the inhalation synchronised with curling up and the exhalation synchronised with opening out. Next I asked Flissy to bring her awareness to her feet and begin initiating movement from her feet, through her legs, into upper body. I pressed my fingers into the arches of her feet to encourage flexion from extension and pressed my hands to the balls of her feet to encourage extension from flexion. In the latter part of the exercise, I was aiming to increase Flissy’s ability to push from her feet through legs, ultimately gaining a feeling of greater power in her legs.
The aim of the next part of the work we did together was to make a sensation of ‘containment’ more tangible. I held Flissy’s leg, with one hand under her heel, one hand supporting her knee and then ‘jiggled’ her leg to release any tension in the hip joint. Following on from this I extended Flissy’s leg out from the hip joint a little and then applied compression through her leg with the heel of my hand to her heel. I was careful to maintain sufficient support under her knee to facilitate a clear pathway for the force to travel through. This exercise simulates the transfer of weight in a vertical position. I began this exercise with her left leg and then the right – with the supposition that there may be more clarity of alignment through the less affected knee. This was indeed the case and means that perhaps Flissy’s ‘less happy’ right leg could learn from the experience of her left leg.
‘Acorns to Oak Trees’ was the next inquiry. This is a fun exercise – beginning in a curled up position at the edge of the room with feet on the skirting board. It’s good to inhale and then on an exhalation push from the feet to extend and maybe travel across the room! Flissy’s brother joined in this exercise with gusto – you can see him at the end of the video. Again this is an exercise to make a sensation of power and rebound more tangible in the legs. Read more about Acorns to Oak Trees exercise.
We also looked at the concept of core strength – Flissy’s physiotherapist had told her to do crunches to help with a weak core. I suggested and taught her the ‘Janis Roll’ – as a more functional means towards core support, rather than core strength – see video below. This exercise teaches how to move from deeper muscles of the core along with the superficial abdominals.
Flissy also showed me how her feet tend to roll in a little. So we did some work on feet too. For information on foot issues – see ‘How to have beautiful healthy feet’
After some time spent in relaxation at the end of our session, I explained to Flissy that it requires continual work to maintain a strong, healthy, ‘well-organised’ body. This will be through doing the exercises, or asana that specifically address hypermobility, and also carrying out everyday movements with greater awareness. Above all – awareness is the key!