Anna Clarke

Anatomy 101 - hypermobile joints

BALANCING FLEXIBILITY & STRENGTH
You see a lot of bendy elbows and knees in a typical yoga class. Flexible people tend to like yoga. We probably enjoy the fact that, in the beginning, we seem to be good at the physical aspect of it. There may be other factors to consider. Often, people who are less flexible think that they are at a disadvantage in a yoga class. How wrong they are!

Many people who seem to be very flexible (and plenty of people who don’t think of themselves as being flexible) have one or more hypermobile joint. A hypermobile joint moves beyond the normal range of motion. Knees turn inside out; elbows make strange angles when fully extended; thumbs bend to meet wrists; palms easily meet the floor in forward folds. For the majority of people, if you take care of your joints they won’t cause too many problems. Occasionally hypermobility can be more serious. Hypermobile joints are more susceptible to dislocate. Sometimes they can dislocate multiple times – then you really notice it.

POSES DON’T HAVE ALIGNMENT
Yoga is many things, one of which is a search for balance. In our asana practice, we balance right with left, effort with ease, and we aim to find a balance between strength and flexibility.

Recently, I read an article that quoted Leslie Kaminoff (Yoga Anatomy), as saying “poses don’t have alignment, people do”. Put simply, there is no perfect pose, there’s only the perfect pose for you. It follows that the alignment cues that are beneficial for one person may not be suitable for another. This is particularly relevant when it comes to yoga students who have one or more hypermobile joints.

HYPERMOBILITY IN YOUR PRACTICE
In the case of flexibility, you really can have too much of a good thing. Joints that are supported by strong muscles are less likely to be injured in sports and in yoga practice. Joints that move beyond the normal range of motion, and that aren’t supported by adequate muscle are much more likely to be injured.

In Tadasana/Mountain or Parsvottanasana/intense side stretch a micro bend at the knee can be helpful for lots of people, particularly those who have hypermobility in the knee joint. If your knee moves beyond the normal range of motion, a cue to straighten your leg might lead you to extend beyond straight. Instead, take a micro bend at the knee – a bend so slight that it is barely visible, but one that causes the muscles around your knee to engage and support the joint.

The same applies to the elbows in Vasisthasana/Side Plank. When weight is taken in the arms, a slight bend can help to activate the muscles that support the elbows so that the weight of the body isn’t “dumped” into the joints. In a pose like Vasisthasana/Side Plank, where you aim to balance on one hand, that tiny bend also makes it easier to soften the shoulder blade down the back into a safer position.  

In Adho Mukha Svanasana/Downward Facing Dog, we’re often instructed to melt the chest towards the thighs. If you have very mobile shoulders this cue might encourage you to drop low through your shoulders, putting an enormous amount of pressure into a joint, that is not terribly stable at the best of times. Instead, it can help to lift through the forearms as if pressing away through the front of the forearm, rotate the eyes of the elbows slightly towards each other and lift from the arm pits. With these slight adjustments, it becomes easier to support the shoulder joints with their muscles.

What is amazing is just how much difference these tiny bends and lifts make. Muscles that were rarely used are switched on and strength can be built. As a result, it often becomes easier to find a more comfortable and energised pose.

JOINT HYPERMOBILITY SYNDROME
Some of us bendy folk, myself included, have more than one hypermobile joint. In my case, after a period of ongoing pain and discomfort, I was diagnosed by a physiotherapist as having joint hypermobility syndrome. Several members of my family have it too.

In class I see a lot of people who have hypermobility in their joints, and some of them probably have joint hypermobility syndrome. Sometimes they don’t want to bend their knees or pull back from the full expression of the pose, to the gradual detriment of their joints.

I am particularly interested by the fact that many hypermobile people seem to find it difficult to stay still. There is a theory that we seek comfort from the feedback we get from a joint, and that people who have a hypermobility syndrome find it difficult to find that feedback – hence they want to stretch and lengthen their bodies, often moving more than other people do, in a search for comfort.

There are other symptoms associated with widespread joint hypermobility including – pain, anxiety, heart palpitations, an over active fight or flight response, feelings of faintness, sleeplessness and digestive problems similar to IBS. It’s a topic that has been widely studied within the medical community, and more is being learned all the time about hypermobility and conditions associated with it.

YOGA & HYPERMOBILITY
I've now come to believe that yoga classes see more than their fair share of flexible folk because yoga helps us to calm ourselves rather than because of any boost it might give to our egos. If we can resist using our practice to increase the flexibility in our bodies, and instead practice with care and kindness for our joints, with an awareness to muscle engagement, yoga can be the best medicine for the bendiest of bodies!

Click on this link if you’d like to learn more about hypermobility.


ANNA CLARKE
The majority of Anna’s weekly classes take place within the mental health departments of Dublin hospitals. In addition, Anna teaches pregnancy yoga and post-natal yoga (for mums with babies) at Init Yoga, Ringsend. She also regularly covers classes at The Yoga Room, Ballsbridge.

To contact Anna email annamclarke@gmail.com or find her on Facebook.

Anatomy 101 - the psoas

LEARN TO LOVE THE PSOAS - THE MUSCLE OF THE SOUL
At our very core, deep within layers of organ and outer muscle, a muscle that is almost as thick as a wrist provides support on each side of the spine. This muscle, the psoas (pronounced so-as), is the only muscle that connects the upper and lower body. It is so vital to our ability to move freely and effectively, and to how we feel, that some researchers have suggested that it should be referred to as an organ of perception. Within the Taoist tradition it is known as the muscle of the soul.

The psoas originates at T12, and each of the lumbar vertebrae, before passing through the pelvis and inserts onto the head of the femur. Along the way it joins the iliacus, with which its action is so intimately connected that they are often referred to as one - the iliapsoas.

The psoas major is the most significant of a group of muscles called the hip flexors, which are responsible for moving the upper and lower body towards one another. However, the psoas is involved with much more than just hip flexion.

It plays a role in stabilising the spine and rotating the hip; it’s the reason why what you do with your legs can affect how your back feels.

If you spend much of your day sitting, or if you cycle or run frequently, it’s quite likely that you’ll have a tight psoas. Stress can also lead to a tight psoas, if you are startled or feel anxious, your psoas will contract. If your psoas is tight you may experience spasms, lower back pain or general imbalance in your spine. A chronically tight psoas can convince your endocrine system that you should prepare for “fight or flight”; this can cause the adrenal glands to produce more adrenalin than you require and play a role in adrenal fatigue, which can leave you feeling exhausted.

So, we all need a long and stretchy psoas, right? Well... yes and no. Our aim should be to build and maintain a toned and long psoas. To begin, we need to develop an understanding of what it feels like when our psoas is working. Then, we should work on contracting the psoas in order to bring blood flow to the area and only then should we lengthen it.

PART I - GETTING TO KNOW YOUR PSOAS
To start with we’ll look at a version of Supta Padangusthasana/Reclining Hand to Big Toe Take a strap. Make a loop in your strap and place it around the ball of your right foot. Lie on your back on the floor with both legs extended, hip width distance apart, toes pointing towards the ceiling or sky. Holding the strap in one or both hands, begin to raise your right leg off the ground. Stop before your leg comes to 90 degrees. At this point, your psoas is holding your leg up against gravity in an isometric contraction. Continue to hold your leg here and if you are finding it quite easy to do so, loosen your grip on the strap until you feel your hip flexors beginning to tire. Notice any desire to arch your back or neck. This will demonstrate how these muscles impact upon the entire length of the spine. Slowly lower your leg, using the strap to control the movement. Repeat on the left side.

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PART II - CONTRACTING YOUR PSOAS
In Part I, we explored an isometric contraction but we allowed it to progress to a point where we put a lot of pressure on the psoas to continue to hold the leg up. In this pose, we will seek only to contract the psoas.

Come into Ardha-Navasana/Half Boat, starting by sitting on the tops of the sitting bones, with the feet flat on the floor. Take your index and middle finger into the crease of each knee, with elbows pointing outwards, upper chest open. Maintaining length in your spine, lean your upper body back, making a V shape between your legs and torso. Keep your feet on the ground throughout. After a few breaths and before your feel your spine over arching, return to an upright seated position.

PART III - LENGTHENING YOUR PSOAS
Now we are ready to lengthen and release the psoas.

Practising Virabhadrasana I/Warrior I, is a great way to lengthen the psoas. However, if we want to lengthen the psoas effectively we must pay particular attention to the position of our hips in this pose.

You can choose to step back into Virabhadrasana I/Warrior I  by stepping the left foot back from standing, or by stepping your right foot up towards your hands from down dog, if that’s what you prefer. In either case, ensure that your feet are hip width distance apart and that you can ground down effectively through your back heel.  

Take your hands onto your hips and notice their position. If your back leg has drawn your back hip back towards it, soften your front hip back to rotate your back hip forward. Aim to take your hips level but without forcing your body into the pose. When you feel that your hips are as level as you can comfortably bring them (think about the points of your hips as being like the headlights on a car), inhale and raise your arms, reaching upwards with the palms turned in but keeping your shoulders soft and away from your ears. Draw your tailbone down and think about bringing your tailbone and public bone towards each other. Draw in your lower belly, as if you were zipping up a muscle below your navel where you would zip up your jeans. Maintain the pose for five breaths, or longer if you have the time and energy, then change to the left side, either taking weight on the front foot and stepping the back foot up to meet it or taking a vinyasa and coming back through Adho Mukha Svanasana/Dwonward Facing Dog.

At the conclusion of a sequence including these poses, when you relax into your Savasana/Corpse Pose you will do so with greater ease through your body and a sense of connection to your deepest core.


ANNA CLARKE
The majority of Anna’s weekly classes take place within the mental health departments of Dublin hospitals. In addition, Anna teaches pregnancy yoga and post-natal yoga (for mums with babies) at Init Yoga, Ringsend. She also regularly covers classes at The Yoga Room, Ballsbridge.

To contact Anna email annamclarke@gmail.com or find her on Facebook.