Flexibility vs Hypermobility
November 7, 2014
After each yoga class, I inevitably get a few comments from either instructors or my classmates going “Wow, you’re so flexible”.
(this was what we use to do before ballet)
While flexibility and hypermobility may be everyone’s goal – and I do get a lot of questions about how I am so flexible, I’m here to tell you the the story from the other side.
I’ve always been hypermobile my whole life, and I did choose the word hypermobile instead of flexible. I can bend my fingers backwards till they are parallel to my wrist. I’ve always been able to bring my legs over my head since I was young, do over splits, back bends and what not. On the Beighton score of hyperlaxity I score a perfect 9. While it was fun at first, what it has resulted in are a lot of injuries and pains.
What then is the difference between hypermobility and flexibility? Flexbility refers to muscles and fascia while hypermobility refers to ligaments. A muscle is a contractile tissue which cross over one or more joints in your body. When a muscle contracts, it exerts a pulling force on the bones to which it attaches. Ligaments, on the other hand, are short bands of fibrous connective tissue which connect bone-to-bone and act as “seat belts” to hold our joints together. Unlike muscles, ligaments don’t contract, generate force or create movement in the body. They stabilize our joints if our body moves in a way that could otherwise take a joint beyond it’s normal range of motion.
When we stretch, our intention should be to elongate our muscles and not our ligaments. When muscles stretch, they return to their original length after the stretch is released – a tissue property called elasticity. But when ligaments stretch, they behave elastically during just the first tiny bit of the stretch, and if they’re stretched beyond that point, they will permanently stay at that new length and are referred to as lax. Lax ligaments can no longer stabilize our joints for us and are a source of chronic pain and injury for many people.
The worse part for someone with hypermobility is that our bodies often like to take the path of least resistance. So if someone with lax ligaments attempt to stretch their actual muscles, their body will sneakily rearrange itself into familiar hypermobility, passing the intended muscle stretch and loading the ligaments instead. Breaking this cycle requires body awareness and willingness to take a step back. In reality someone who is hypermobile can actually have very tight muscles as they have always been achieving range with ligament laxity instead of actual muscle length.
(An example of a dyanmic stretch done on the reformer)
Pilates has been great in helping me deal with hyperlaxity with it’s focus on dynamic/loaded stretches instead of passive/static ones. With dynamic stretches, there is resistance against the stretch, forcing me to activate my muscles instead of just letting it all hang out in my joints.
Taking this concept of flexibility and hypermobility this to my yoga practice and ballet classes was definitely a lot more challenging. It required tons of body awareness as well as the willingness to leave my ego at the door. Also try explaining to your ballet teacher why your extensions fell a good 50% in height or explaining to your yoga teacher that you just didn’t want to do backbends because of the lumbar instability you were having.
(she may be smiling but my teacher and I most definitely weren’t when my extension derriere was at this height)
It was occasionally frustrating to say the least because it was so much easier to just DO THE POSES AND MOVES while reverting to my bad habits. It took discipline, control, patience and humility to work on true flexibility instead of relying solely on my hypermobility.
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