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Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and Yoga & Pilates

author image Andrea Cespedes
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.
Joint Hypermobility Syndrome and Yoga & Pilates
Sinking far into Downward Dog may be a liability. Photo Credit LightFieldStudios/iStock/Getty Images

If you go into the bendiest of yoga postures with ease and no prior training, it's not always beginner's luck. You may suffer from hypermobility syndrome, a condition in which your joints move far past the normal range of motion experienced by most people. Often, the syndrome is accompanied by muscle stiffness and pain, even though you've got lots of mobility in your joints.

It's not just that your joints are overly flexible, they're also unstable. This puts you at risk of serious issues, including TMJ, scoliosis, chronic headaches, flat feet and spinal disc problems.

You might naturally gravitate to mind-body exercises, such as yoga and Pilates, which use your natural flexibility assets. However, if you just sink into your mobility, you're at risk for aggravating pain and causing injury. Use the practices instead to build muscle strength, which supports your joints and can help reduce pain.

Read More: What are the Benefits of Stretching and Yoga?

Precautions for Hypermobile Yogis and Pilates Practitioners

Good alignment is key to those with joint hypermobility syndrome. You may have a tendency to over extend — i.e., let your knees lock out and bend backward in Triangle or sink too much into your elbows or shoulders in Downward-Facing Dog. After all, yoga practices often emphasize finding your fullest range of motion.

Even if you can find extreme range of motion easily, it's not always best for your body.
Even if you can find extreme range of motion easily, it's not always best for your body. Photo Credit fizkes/iStock/Getty Images

For those with joint hypermobility syndrome, sinking doesn't support the joints' surrounding musculature. You must learn to hold back from your fullest range of motion when you feel yourself hyperextend to learn how to stabilize your joints.

Heavy resistance can also be tough on your sensitive joints. Gradually work your way up to poses that ask you to bear much of your body weight, such as Chaturanga or Crow. You might skip that yoga push-up entirely, or use your knees to support some of your body weight, for example.

In Pilates, spine stretches, such as swan, or moves that combine stability with functional strength, such as the saw, are opportunities to be mindful. Instead of going to your full range of motion, pay attention to the breath and feel where your muscles — not your limber joints — can take you.

Read More: What are the Benefits of Good Flexibility?

Gravitate to the Reformer

A Pilates reformer is extremely helpful in supporting the exercise of people with joint hypermobility syndrome. When you have such an enormous range of motion, you might lack proprioception, which is the knowledge of exactly where you are in space. Your body awareness is possibly deficient and you don't know exactly how to brace your muscles to become stable.

The cables and spring-based resistance of the reformer gives you feedback so you feel the connection between your core and your extremities. This helps you learn how to operate your body as a whole, rather than sinking into your flexibility in some joints and bracing too fiercely in others.

The reformer helps teach you how to engage your muscles.
The reformer helps teach you how to engage your muscles. Photo Credit LUNAMARINA/iStock/Getty Images

Learn to Connect to the Breath

In both yoga and Pilates, breath work plays an important role. Breathing helps you maintain concentration, so you focus on activating overall strength and not relying on your flexible joints.

Alignment is important to keeping you safe in yoga poses.
Alignment is important to keeping you safe in yoga poses. Photo Credit fizkes/iStock/Getty Images

In Pilates, deep diaphragmatic breathing helps you understand the relationship between the different aspects of the core, particularly the spine, abdomen and pelvic floor. In yoga, it serves as a barometer of your practice — if you aren't focusing on the breath, you aren't focusing on the alignment of your poses.

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