Yoga for Flexible Backs

How Much is Too Much?

Woman doing a lunge.
The lunge position or exercise can help stretch tight quads. AmeliaFox

Many people who do yoga, whether for pain relief or some other reason, have an abundance of flexibility  — even before they step on their mat.  

Reasons for the attraction to yoga may include that it works in harmony with natural tendencies towards bendability (making extreme postures easy to achieve as we will talk about below,) and/or that this form of exercise provides a number of inroads to feeling better. As far as these inroads go, the aware use of breath, as well as an emphasis on developing a calming, heart-centered presence inherent in most types of yoga experiences come to mind.

Too Much Stretch in Yoga?

Problem is, when you’ve got extra stretchability in your joints and tissues, it can be all too easy to get deep into the poses. You may, in fact, believe you need to push yourself to the max just so you can feel like you’re “doing something.” This is part and parcel of a joint laxity condition found in many people.

Practicing deeply when you have loose joints can work against you.

If you routinely hold your yoga poses towards or at the end range (this is where the joints simply can't go anymore,) you may be adding to the laxity by emphasizing stretch at the expense of strength.

Benign Joint Hypermobility Syndrome

Joint laxity historically has been “swept under the rug” by the powers that be in the medical establishment. The good news is that 21st century researchers, as well as members of the general population, are starting to take interest in this subject. One reason: It's possible that many more people have a loose joint condition (called benign joint hypermobility syndrome) than previously thought.

While the authoritative site (for doctors) UpToDate says no one really knows how many people have joint laxity, they do report on one large study (about 25,000 subjects) that found joint laxity in 3 percent of the population.

But a 2011 study from France that was smaller (about 365 subjects) put the number much higher, at 39.5 percent.

Joint Laxity May Underlie Many Painful Conditions

A 2013 study published in the journal Rheumatic Disease Clinics suggests that hypermobility of joints may underlie a startling number of "functional somatic syndromes," or constellations of symptoms that interrupt the way your body works for you. These include persistent daily headaches, pelvic organ prolapse, chronic widespread pain, chronic fatigue syndrome and more.

All this to say that whether you realize it or not, you may be dealing with ligament (and therefore joint) looseness. If this is the case, and if flexibility is one of your goals, you may be doing yourself a disservice by doing yoga. 

Now I know that the above data is likely not enough to pull you away from your yoga practice. So let’s talk a bit about how to add an emphasis on stability, and enable you to do yoga without damaging the structures of your back in the long run.

3 Strategies to Put Stability into Your Yoga Practice

Chances are there's not much you can do to alter the physiological constitution of your connective tissue. You were likely born with lax ligaments, which in turn affects your joints. But strategy can be helpful. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. Reconsider flow yoga, yin yoga and other styles that are all about release and letting go. These practices can feel great but they do little to get you strong and stable. If you really like them, one idea may be to use them as accents to either a strength training routine or a strengthening type of yoga practice.
  2. Adjust your position so that you're working in mid range. This is less stressful to your joints and it also gives you a chance to develop proprioception, which is something people with lax joints often lack — at least to some extent. Proprioception is your ability to sense the position of your parts, what's happening at your joints and how much stretch or tension is going on in your muscles. It's a very handy capacity to have, especially if you do yoga with loose joints!
  3. Choose or modify poses so that your limbs are pressing against something — the floor, the wall or both. This is called closed kinetic chain exercise, and it is helpful for building joint stability. Down dog, standing poses, the plank, the bridge and wall push ups are but a few examples of closed kinetic chain yoga poses.



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