Why I talk all the time about keeping hypermobile yoga students safer
I have been in a lot of yoga classes recently, and I have seen, with my own two eyes, hypermobile people doing some wild stuff, and I have seen good, generous, wise yoga teachers not recognize the hypermobility in front of them. If we can’t see a problem, we can’t help students stay more comfortable and supported. We can’t help someone come out of a pattern of movement that causes pain if we can’t see the pattern, maybe even in ourselves.
We hypermobile folks love to take poses to their deepest levels and hang out there, turn each variation up to 11, and zoom between poses, limbs akimbo. I KNOW you yoga teachers have seen this in action because I have been in conversations about how to teach to this, how to help, how to slow folks down so they don’t get hurt. We have seen hypermobility in action, but a lot of us just didn’t know what to call it.
No one wants to be told they have a gap in their knowledge. No teacher wants to think their classes are hurting students, and no one would ever consciously disregard a safety issue if they knew it was there.
Here’s the tough news:
I am here to tell you that students are getting hurt, really hurt, like surgery-level hurt.
Here’s the good news!
You can do something to change that. You can learn about hypermobility! Easy-peasy!
Before you know that you need to learn something, you must become aware that there is something that you need to learn. I shall make it easier for you. I ASSURE you that you are not the only teacher who doesn’t know about this, and here’s how I know this.
I have been hypermobile my whole life, and never once did anyone suggest to me that there might be something wrong, almost certainly because no one knew how to help me, a gangly girl with arms and legs flying off in different directions. Not when gym class hurt my body for days, not when I had severe pain as an adolescent, not when I ripped both of my rotator cuffs nursing my sons. No one said anything as I ended up with injury after injury, and physical and emotional stress galore.
I couldn’t play sports, I was an awkward mover generally, and I was recognized as a world-class gangly, clumsy goofball. Then I found yoga.
My first class, I could do the hard poses! I could touch the floor! I could wrap into fire log pose! I could hang out in frog pose for days! I could put my foot behind my head! For once, I was good at something. No one ever suggested that I slow down a little bit and ease into a pose with wisdom, instead I was commended for my flexibility and praised for advancing so quickly. Finally! I was praised for something physical!
Over and over, teachers saw me in a seated forward fold, with my head to my knees, and they pressed into my back and deepened the pose. It was rare that a teacher helped me align myself a bit more stably, because who doesn’t want to help a student into a snazzier pose if the student doesn’t say it hurts? It didn’t hurt me, at the time, so I loved it. But I would be in delayed-onset pain for days afterwards. Two days later, I couldn’t move. Years later, as a teacher, I would assist the exact same way, thinking this was how you did yoga.
There were auditory clues that something was weird about me, as well. My hips make a noise like a loud and deep cap gun. My shoulders popped and snapped constantly. Only once in my practice did any teacher ever hear my hips snap or my shoulders pop and ask me if I was ok, and that shit was disturbing-my-neighbors-LOUD. I KNOW it was audible, because I hear the same thing from my students in class, and because teachers would look askance at me, probably wondering what the hell I was doing to myself.
Occasionally, I would comment on my pain when it kept me from doing all the poses, and teachers suggested deeper or longer-held stretches or heated classes. Granted, I probably called it soreness or tightness, and would have hesitated to call it pain, because that felt dramatic, as anyone with chronic pain understands. If anyone with knowledge of hypermobility had seen me practice, they would have never recommended heated classes or deeper poses. Never! But I took the suggestion, because heated classes and longer holds seemed like a reasonable thing to suggest to someone complaining of muscle soreness if you don’t know what hypermobility is.
By the time I went to yoga teacher training, I was in constant pain. I had pinched nerves shooting pain down my legs, my hamstrings were torn, my rotator cuffs injuries were reinjured as fast as they healed, and my hip pain woke me up at night. I had constant headaches. I had anxiety because no matter what yoga style I tried, I hurt more. How could that be? Wasn’t yoga supposed to heal you? I showed up at teacher training in pain and confused about my own inability to heal. At teacher training, we were encouraged to try harder and rise above our limitations. Believe you me, I tried so hard that I left teacher training even more injured, limping from several leg injuries, and unable to use my right arm.
Eventually, my arms became so painful that I couldn’t lift them. I woke up with such severe hip pain that I would throw up. I continued to show up in classes taught by teachers who had been teaching for years, some 20+ years, and they all were stumped. I was so flexible in some parts of my body and I was able to do poses, but also clearly not okay. No one suggested any modifications tailored to hypermobility. I usually got suggestions to take the hip openers deeper, or work the shoulders in a slightly different way. . Only when I was visibly in pain, was I told not to do anything to hurt myself. But how do I not hurt myself when I don’t even know why I am hurting?!?
Only one person during this time ever said to me, “wow, your range of motion in your hips is way above normal,” and that was a massage therapist friend. That was the first and only time I ever heard of hypermobility until my body gave out after 8 years of teaching.
You know why no teachers ever said anything to me? Not because they are bad teachers, that isn’t it at all! No one mentioned range of motion or hypermobility to me because we are not taught to know what it is or how to spot it. I don’t think most of us know what a normal and an abnormal range of motion even is! So many of us have been taught to teach yoga to folks who are stiff and who just want to breathe some life into their bodies; or people who are athletic and who are physically tight as a result; or practiced yogis who are flexible, but not wildly so. All of those types of people want to dive into the opening that yoga can give, and that is good for their bodies. Hypermobile people are so open, they almost turn inside out when they dive into a pose without guidance!
Generally speaking, yoga teachers are not taught how to spot the difference between flexibility and hypermobility, nor are we taught how the heck to teach or cue or modify poses for hypermobile people. I am sure there are exceptions to this, but considering that in my 28 years of practicing, no one ever knew how to modify any poses for my very visible hypermobility and in fact offered cues and assists and poses that were wrong for my body, I don’t think there are many exceptions. I didn’t even know to teach about this when I led teacher trainings.
Here’s the good news: hypermobility is visible and easily recognizable, once you know how to see it. It also isn’t hard to learn how to cue slightly differently for they hypermobile students. It also isn’t a hassle to modify flows for hypermobile students. It isn’t difficult at all to open up your learning to a new tool. I am right here, going on and on about it, willing and able to tell anyone about how to help students be more comfortable.
Almost all of us, yoga teachers and movement teachers, have a knowledge gap, and I know we can fix that. We can do it together, and we can do it easily.
Please consider signing up for my workshop this weekend. It’s 4 hours and it will leave you knowing so much more about students who are in every class who honestly do need your help.
If you aren’t in the Madison area and you are interested in learning more, send me an email. Let’s connect and figure out how we can keep more students comfortable.
Much love, ruthie