When most people look at this photo of me in Samakonasana (lateral splits) they exclaim, “Wow, you are really flexible!” followed by, “Were you always this flexible?” Well, no. And yes. Let me explain:
When I first started practicing yoga around age 12, I could not touch my toes, nor had even a remote possibility of doing “the splits.” So no, I was not always that flexible because my muscles and connective tissues at that time were tight and weak. I was a bookworm, did my homework like a good girl, and for recreation, I was like many sedentary American children and watched a lot of TV.
But that all changed one day when my mom brought home the Jane Fonda workout and the Raquel Welch yoga videos. They became my new obsession and launched me into my body for the first time. Those first few months were brutal; I was out of shape and SORE after every practice!
My persistence paid off, the combination of dedicated daily practice of the strengthening I did with Jane, and the stretching I did with Raquel eventually carved out the native physique buried beneath my pre-adolescent tension. I was actually really flexible, as my connective tissues loosened, it exposed massive range of motion and a cat-like agility due to the fluid movement in my joints.
When is flexibility a liability?
This flexibility may look great in pictures, but it comes with its share of difficulties. As I practiced more and eliminated the tension, I actually also lost the ability to feel where I was inside my own body, almost like I was slippery on the inside, unable to feel my positions when I was in yoga class or dancing. I had dropped all the strengthening work (bye-bye, Jane) in favor of a pure yoga life, and all that stretching and overstretching left me totally hypermobile — my joints had no strong muscles to hold them in place correctly. I was like a jellyfish on the inside, and while I “looked great” in poses, I was an accident waiting to happen.
Hypermobile people are often masking gross imbalances in their joints and movement patterns. This is largely because they are not getting a lot of feedback in the form of tension from their maximum range of motion. Our bodies are loaded with proprioceptors — nerve endings that serve as our own inner GPS system, telling us where we are within our own skins. They are especially prevalent in and near our joints. Unstable joints will not provide a concrete map to that inner GPS.
But before the proprioceptors within the joints even start to fire, muscle spindles — another set of sensory nerves within the muscle itself — will shoot off information to prevent a muscle from stretching too far. Highly mobile people sometimes have difficulty perceiving an overstretch because their muscle spindles are too stretched out to send prompt messages to the nervous system.
In truth, TENSION is not all that bad; when a muscle tightens or restricts, it’s trying to protect a joint from going too far. But when soft tissues such as muscles, ligaments and tendons are too loose, the feedback loop is compromised. So you might look good in a yoga pose, but what about the health of the joints and tissues?
PNF Rescue: A stretching style that helps the overflexible
There is a wonderful technique called PNF or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation that can help super flexible people to gain information about their inner location AND build more strength to boot. The technique is useful for everyone, as it helps to increase joint mobility in inflexible students while giving flexible students the ability to feel their internal architecture. This clip shows an example of PNF stretching in a variation on a runner’s lunge:
It is very simple to add a PNF component to a stretch. You actually try to contract the very muscle you are stretching (which also helps to strengthen it). For example, in the pose above, Samakonasana, if the inner thighs are being contracted while they are being stretched, this will prevent the hypermobile student from just flopping to the floor unconsciously. He or she will experience the tension in the inner thighs, and will have to proceed much more slowly into the pose. This action signals the proprioceptors called the golgi tendon organs located in the muscle’s tendons to relax, resulting in a wonderful stretch that was derived from a contraction!
The end result is still the same: Samakonasana will “look marvelous” but the practitioner will actually be able to feel the joints lining up correctly instead of askew. And the super tight student will also be able to, at last, deepen the stretch instead of trying to force the legs apart, as the PNF will take the stretch one phase deeper!
Intuitively I guess my body knew that I needed both Jane and Raquel for overall health and balance. Over time, this is why I developed Yoga Tune Up®, which consciously addresses the vital integration between suppleness and stability in any body type. STRENGTH and STRETCH are the natural experiences of any muscle. But for those of us whose flexibility is off the chart, we need to take extra care to draw upon them both at the same time to ensure that our practice will last a lifetime.