The Question all Yogis Should Ask: Are we Hypermobile?
Pick up any Yoga Journal magazine, or really, any health magazine that touts yoga as a wonderful way to stretch, lose weight and stay fit, and you're likely to see some svelte yogini or ripped yogi with their leg extended above their head or feet wrapped around some part of their body that seems unfathomable to you. I admit, as an ardent student and teacher of yoga, I used to strive for such amazing feats of flexibility. I wanted to be Gumby. But I have the same body that deterred me from a career in ballet when I was 16, and my hamstrings still won't extend into a développé above my head. I am grateful for the grace that years of dance instilled in my body, but my toe would never reach the back of my head. In retrospect, I now see a series of injuries – ones that still plague me today – began in high school with that fervent desire to have the highest kick on the Abington Heights varsity cheer squad.
For years, flexibility was the thing. Yes, I did eventually get into some great-looking poses, ones you may see on my website or in a magazine. However, those came with a price. Two knee surgeries to be exact. Lucky I haven't incurred more damage.
Since my second surgery almost two years ago, I have become obsessed with learning why my body felt out of balance, always injured and pulled, convinced I could do something about it. What I learned from people much smarter than myself – the top physical therapists and body dorks in the country (shout out to Joe LaVacca, Ben Valezquez and Marc Legere in NYC, Kyler Brown in Austin, and the best body dork I know, Jill Miller) - is that my problem wasn't lack of flexibility. It was lack of STRENGTH. Who me? Not strong? Have you seen my legs? They ain't no chicken legs. Maybe. But weak hips and glutes? After one session of squats, lunges, bridges and other traditional physical therapy exercises, I realized the pros were right. I was weak and was repeating movement patterns that were only favoring my limitations and keeping me imbalanced.
Even more amazing – the more I continued with my prescribed exercises, the better my hamstrings felt. Huh? I laid off the yoga, increased the strength moves and I'm more flexible? What the what?
Here's the thing. In the past, I'd get really warm from cardio activity and then spend 30 minutes or more trying to stretch and bend and move into yoga postures that would feel so good. However, I'd wake up feeling like a 75-year-old with creaky joints and tighter than I did the day before. Another good warm-up and some continued forward bends would solve that. Next morning – yup. You guessed it. Sweat, rinse, repeat. I was clueless.
What was happening was I was not getting more flexible – every time I over-stretched when warm was another pull toward hypermobility. I wasn't stretching muscle, but tendons and ligaments, causing instability around my joints. And knee surgeries. And clicking. And cracking. All. The. Time.
I'll never forget the day my teacher mentioned that Krishnamacharya, often touted as the "father of modern yoga," once said that if you had to favor one over the other, choose strength over flexibility. For a moment the insecure non-Gumby teenager in me was satisfied. Because I can hold Bakasana like a champ.
Just last month, I listened to a lecture from a top physical therapist in my area. The photos he used to demonstrate hypermobility shocked me. Mostly because they were yoga postures you've seen or maybe even do every day. Mostly taken from a very popular yoga anatomy book. Virasana anyone? Baddha Konasana? Dhanurasana? Like I do, you should take information you read or hear, assimilate it, and retain what works for your lifestyle and growth and development.
However, such lectures along with a Facebook post by a fitness friend and colleague, Saralyn Clark, have forced me to question my physical goals. In a nutshell she asked, "Should we be teaching flexibility for flexibility's sake?" How functional is it to bring your face to your shins? As far as I know, there is no gold medal for getting your foot behind your head. (PLEASE hear my plea to NOT add yoga as an Olympic sport!) Nor is it usually a position we assume day in and day out. To what end are we bending, stretching, pulling, and pushing? And should we as instructors, be emphasizing the "deep stretch" or even directing students to "go further"?
What I've come to understand is the value of balance and stability. Functionality. Does being more flexible offer me more freedom in my day-to-day activities? Does it allow me to lead a healthier and happier life? The same with strength and cardiovascular exercise. If yes, fabulous! If not, I'm no longer as concerned. Notice the word "as." Yes, my ego still drives me to push harder, faster and stronger in cycling class. But I like to think it's the overcoming an obstacle and weakness that appeals to me more than the destination of greatness and victory over Pincha Mayurasana.
Ironically, now that I place a bigger priority on mobility rather than flexibility, I'm more "flexible." Or at least my forward folds feel better. While I know much of this is due to the effort and work I've put into stabilizing my body and creating more balance, I can't help but wonder, did the mental "letting go" of my Gumby obsession have something to do with the letting go of my hamstrings?