Is there yoga for people who can't do yoga?

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We can't all be Eunice The Yoga Unicorn (by Etsy seller GottaHaveAPlan).
We can't all be Eunice The Yoga Unicorn (by Etsy seller GottaHaveAPlan).
I was diagnosed with benign hypermobility syndrome (AKA double-jointedness) at age 15, and have had it my entire adult life. On my rheumatologist's recommendation, I don't do yoga, because if I stretch too far I'll damage my joints. However, I would really like to find something else that combines meditativeness with motion; I run and bike regularly and find physical activity calming.

I can't be the only person who loves the idea of yoga but can't handle it physically. Is there a "yoga for people who can't do yoga"?

We put this question out to the Homies on Facebook, and here's what they suggested…

Hey, I am hypermobile too! Lots of hypermobile people have very flexible joints but very tight muscles (this is very much the case for me, I could never touch my toes but my knees will dislocate if I twist the wrong way, thumbs bend back to wrist etc).

I have just started yoga this year and its amazing (for me). No dislocations or injuries as yet. But I do know my body pretty well, and I always drop out a of a pose when it feels like it is stretching my joints too far. So yoga for me has been about loosening my muscles while protecting my joints. They are the poses I concentrate on, and to understand which ones might be putting stress my joints, I do research and speak to the teacher. I find the breathing and strengthening techniques to be amazing — pilates may be a similar option.

I also do this class called deep water running — its aqua arobics in the deep end of the pool. No stress on any joints. Lots of people use flotation devices but I want a harder workout so I tread water while doing the moves. -Jess


I'm a bendy Wendy too. Pilates works with your limitations without the expectation that you over stretch. It's not my bag, but I've tried it and it's less strenuous than yoga. Swimming is also good… If it's the mantras and affirmations you find useful, I guess you could apply that to any form of exercise. Doesn't have to be one that's guided. -Vicki


I love yoga, but I have to be super picky about the kind of yoga I do. Ashtanga, which emphasizes strength and holds poses for a few minutes instead of flowing from one to another, was amazing for me. But you HAVE to know the proper limits for your body's range of motion and respect them and not go into the more extreme forms or you risk serious damage and dislocation. -Teresa


When I went to pain rehab for my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, they had us in the pool doing slow aerobics with flotation devises. It helps if the pool is above average temp though as we need to stay warm when exercising. I can't do yoga without assistance as I have really poor proprioception and usually end up doing myself harm by accident. -Beth


There is a book called "Yoga, My Bed, & M.E." — the author has M.E/CFS, so all the poses are easy on the body. I haven't read the book, but I follow her on Instagram. Anything that involves a lot of bending or stretching, I'd recommend just limiting the range of movement. -Elizabeth


I am in the same boat. I just started "gentle, mindful yoga," and I am finding it manageable and does not stress my joints too much. I have also found that it actually helps me be more aware of my body's limits so that I have more control of my movements (ie, I don't just fling my arm out and sublux my elbow, now there is some strength and control behind it.) I do notice if I do it more than two times a week my joints start to give me issues so I hope that doesn't excluded me from it in the future. -Janelle


Hey! I was diagnosed at 14, swimming is my favourite thing, though I don't do it as often as I'd like. I also find gardening to be a great mix of meditation and movement; it's my main form of exercise at the moment. -Michelle


HoopYogini — a combination of mindful meditation, hatha yoga (all standing poses, very little stress on joints) and modern hoop dance! -Genevieve


Tai chi or qi gong maybe? Qi gong can be a little faster and feel more like a yoga session. -Rebekah

I know a lot of people enjoy Tai Chi. -Marissa

Thirding Tai Chi for mindfulness + motion. -Nikole


There is a video series called Chair Aerobics for Everybody. They include chair yoga. The exercises are designed for people with limited mobility, so I'm not sure if this meets your specific needs. -Alexis


What about "slacklining" — meditation in motion! -Tahnee

Anyone else have suggestions of yoga for people who can't do yoga?

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  1. As soon as I saw this I thought of Feldenkrais http://www.feldenkrais.com/whatis — I took classes for a couple years and it's very strange but wonderful. It teaches you to be aware of your body and to refine tiny movements to be less painful, more efficient, and stronger. It's great for people with injuries or physical limitations because the movements are so small and gentle, and it can be adapted to whatever you need. It isn't what you'd call a workout, but it helps you move better for sure. And it's amazing how much you can learn about your own body. My teacher used to start each class by showing us what we were about to do with a full-scale skeleton. Very cool.

  2. I agree that Tai Chi or Qi gong might be useful. I'd also recommend talking to your Dr. (and insurance company) about a referral to a good physical therapist who can show you exercises you can do. You might also look for a fitness club that has a physical therapist on staff. I've noticed that seems to be catching on in my part of the country. Several of the gyms around here have them. Even one of the physical therapy offices here has opened up a small fitness center with all of the classes (including yoga) designed especially for people with range of motion issues and some of the costs can be billed to insurance.

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  3. I'm also super bendy. What really helped me when I was first starting in dance and yoga was to have a wall of mirrors. I could watch myself in the mirror to see my angles – how far was I bent, how straight was I – so I knew where to stop. After a while, I learned my body well enough that I can feel when I'm hyperextended and pull myself back. Good luck!

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  4. You could try mindful walking. Finding a local labyrinth might help you focus on meditating.

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  5. Also voting for Tai Chi and/or Qi Gong. It gives you the meditative movements without *ever* hyper-extending anything (with Tai Chi you should only move within 70% of your range).
    It will help you build body-awareness, strength, flexibility and balance.

    With those attributes firmly in place, you could then move onto a light, slow-flow yoga class and see how it works for you (always inform a yoga instructor of physical limitations, or lack thereof)

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  6. Hi! Yoga instructor here. I think when people (perhaps including your doctor) think "yoga" they usually think of a certain style of yoga, that is, a fast-paced flow. That's called "vinyasa," but what a lot of people don't know is that is only one type of asana (yoga pose) practice. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may have more success with one of these types:
    1. Alignment-based yoga. This is called different things at different studios, and is kind of a mash-up of different styles. Typically (but your mileage may vary), these classes are slower-paced with a focus on alignment principles to keep your joints safe. This may be too much still, but you know your body.
    2. Yin yoga. Long holds without the "flow" of vinyasa. More of a gentle cooling practice. Yin actually targets the joints and connective tissues, so this could be either a wonderful or terrible choice for you depending on what your body needs.
    3. Restorative yoga. This is a relaxing, cooling practice where you hold poses for long periods of time with the support of props such as blankets and bolsters. Ideally, the props take any pressure off your joints and muscles and allow your body to relax without strain.
    4. Yoga Nidra. This translates directly to "yogic sleep," but you aren't actually sleeping. In this practice, you basically lay in savasana and the instructor guides you through meditation. It's hard to describe, but it can be very healing. (Side note: this practice is especially helpful for people working through issues like insomnia, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. It can even help you dream more!)
    5. Adaptive yoga. This is yoga for people with mobility challenges and can be fairly individualized. It is not only chair yoga (though some poses are done in a chair) and it is NOT easy, either. If you want a more active practice that can be adapted for your needs and goals, this may be an option for you. Different adaptive classes target different populations (e.g., veterans) so see what's available in your area.

    In general, no matter what you choose, ALWAYS speak to the instructor first so they know and can help to keep you safe. Try to choose experienced instructors if possible. Don't go as far as you can in poses, and always try to keep a small bend in your joints to avoid hyper-extending (especially in balancing poses). Listen to your body and never do a pose if it feels unsafe. It should also go without saying, if an instructor makes you feel unsafe, find a new instructor.

    Yoga is great for strengthening the muscles that support your joints, so as long as you stay safe in the process (so, don't disregard your doctor's advice!), I think it's a great choice. ­čÖé

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    • I was just going to say "go to a yoga instructor/studio that actually know what they are doing and talk to them". I had one instructor who was VERY good about modifying poses for people with mobility/health issues. I've also gone to a few of the trendier places that are more about fitness than actual yoga, and they don't always know how to change things which is fine for most people, but not all. And maybe taking a private lesson or two to have the instructor really be hands on might help as well to learn limits.

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  7. I recently trained to be a yoga instructor and I highly recommend a teacher training to get the inside dish on how to do yoga without hurting yourself. The main key is using muscles to hold poses without hyper-extending (vs. stretching to your max capacity or relying on joints as a stopping point), moving very slowly, listening to your body, not your ego that tells you to do what everyone else in the room is doing, and practicing strength and proper alignment over "sticking the pose" or pushing yourself. If teacher training seems extreme, take some private lessons with someone who understand injuries, perhaps has a history in dance or gymnastics (there are many hyper-mobile dancers and gymnasts out there who understand the importance of caution over "goals" in yoga). If you do do teacher training, also let your instructors know about the hyper-mobility the first day. I have a history of injuries from yoga and other strains over the last decade, but have not hurt myself once since I did training. It's SO worth it. Yoga is amazing when you figure out how to make it work for you. I take Vinyasa classes (often fast paced and injury-prone) and I just skip repetitions if I start to get fatigued or strained. There is NEVER any shame in taking down dog or child's pose when your body asks for it. Walk out on anyone who tells you different. Best of luck!

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