Updated: Aug 24, 2022
by Libby Hinsley
As a physical therapist, long-time yoga instructor, and person living with hEDS, I get this question a lot. Like so many of my fellow zebras, my hEDS went undiagnosed for over two decades. During that time, I searched for answers to explain why my body seemed different from my peers’, and I was drawn to yoga in part to find relief from my laundry list of challenges.
I’m certainly not alone. People with hypermobility come to yoga in droves. Bendy people often feel a sense of achievement and physical mastery in yoga spaces, especially in forms of practice that glorify and encourage ever-increasing mobility.
On the whole, yoga has always been a blessing in my life. But like many other bendy people, I also suffered for years with chronic injuries, aches and pains directly related to my yoga practice. While bendy people are certainly at increased risk for injury in certain styles of yoga, a well-designed practice that takes into account the unique features and needs of bendy bodies has the potential for profound healing.
Unfortunately, in many modern Western yoga spaces, yoga is stripped-down and presented as simply a practice of asanas, or physical postures. What’s more, the practice of asana is often presented as a fitness program interested in fast-paced movement in a heated room, aimed at the never-ending quest for more mobility.
But yoga is a vast wisdom tradition that offers many avenues for personal transformation. All the tools of yoga — asana (postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), meditative practices, and ethical principles — are designed to promote self-understanding, integration, and personal transformation, and ultimately, freedom from suffering. Yoga isn’t that interested in splits and handstands at all.
When it comes to yoga for bendy people, a few wise modifications to any asana practice can dramatically reduce injury risk. But too often, that’s where the conversation ends. I’m more interested in shedding light on the ways yoga is uniquely suited to support thriving for bendy people, not just avoid injury.
The following elements will support the needs of the bendy practitioner in asana practice:
Smaller movements. If we consider yoga postures as fluid movements instead of static shapes, we can vary our range of motion in asanas to explore the in-between places. This gives us an opportunity to develop stability throughout our range and establish motor control. Over time, we can expand the range of motion that we can control.
Slower movements. Slowing down helps us learn to notice more subtle physical sensations as we move through space. Bendy people love momentum because it’s easier. Slow movement supports improved motor control and proprioceptive awareness.
Postural awareness. Yoga asana is uniquely suited to help us develop awareness of our postural habits and practice more comfortable and efficient ways to relate to gravity.
Stability. Asana is a fabulous format to cultivate stability in a variety of ways. Stability in motion (motor control), joint stability, and core stability.
Stretching. Is stretching evil? No, it’s not. But replacing prolonged passive end range stretching with more dynamic and active forms of stretching can be useful.
Curiosity. With a mindset of inquiry and curiosity instead of performance, we can use asana practice to study sensation, our response to it, and learn about ourselves so that we can tailor the practice to suit our unique needs.
Beyond asana, yoga has much to offer to support bendy practitioners:
Pranayama. Breathing practices can help us learn to regulate the autonomic nervous system and calm our often overactive sympathetic arousal. Skills we learn in yoga are directly transferable to daily life, where regulation matters even more.
Relaxation. Restorative yoga, guided imagery, and the use of weighted objects can promote relaxation and offer opportunities for much needed rest. Shifting gears into a parasympathetic state can help us recuperate from chronic overstimulation.
Meditative practices. Withdrawal of the senses, concentration, and meditation practices can help cultivate a sense of calm and mental clarity, and bolster our ability to direct and sustain our attention. Meditation also gives us access to a deeper understanding of ourselves so that we can align our actions with our highest values.
Ethical principles. The yamas (non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, moderation, and non-hoarding) and niyamas (cleanliness, contentment, inner effort, self-study, and surrender to the Divine) offer an ethical framework for choosing actions that reduce suffering for ourselves and others. They also offer direction for self care for anyone with a chronic health condition. Through reflection on these principles, we can understand and accept our unique experience, communicate honestly about our needs, prioritize lifestyle habits that promote health, manage limited energy, and set clear boundaries that help us show up for what matters most in life.
Taken as a whole, yoga shines in its ability to help practitioners cultivate a relationship with themselves, understand their condition, and learn tools to not only manage physical discomfort and improve structural integrity, but also to promote nervous system regulation, mental focus, and clarity of purpose.
Libby Hinsley is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Yoga Therapist with over 10 years of clinical experience specializing in the treatment of chronic pain, hypermobility disorders, and yoga-related injuries. She has taught yoga for 18 years and has been training teachers for over a decade. She finds satisfaction in combining her love of anatomy and biomechanics with her commitment to the inner experience of yoga. Libby is the author of Yoga for Bendy People and the founder of Anatomy Bites, a monthly anatomy education membership for yoga teachers. As a person living with Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, she is passionate about raising awareness about hypermobility syndromes in the yoga community and beyond.
To get in touch or find out how to order her new book, Yoga for Bendy People, go to www.LibbyHinsley.com. You can follow her on IG @libbyhinsleypt and join her email list to receive regular updates. https://www.anatomybites.com/anatomy-bites-waitlist