How and Why to Not Hyperextend in Yoga

By Stephen | October 10, 2015

don't hyperextend in yoga

As a travelling yoga teacher I like to make an attempt at teaching part of my class in the local language, even if it’s just a few words. It’s always good for a laugh, and people appreciate my attempt at taking part in the local culture.

I have been teaching regularly in China for the past couple of years, but one of the few phrases I have learned to say in Mandarin (a notoriously difficult language) is:

I do not want hyperextension of the elbow. I do not want hyperextension of the knee.

In Mandarin that’s 不要 手肘超伸. 不要 膝盖超伸. (Bùyào shǒu zhǒu chāo shēn. Bùyào xigai chāo shēn.), in case you’re interested.

Most of my Chinese students have long, thin bones, covered in long, lean muscles. This body shape, but not only this body shape, lends itself to the tendency to hyperextend in yoga in their elbows and knees.

Most of these students don’t know they hyperextend, they don’t know they shouldn’t hyperextend, and they don’t know how to not hyperextend in yoga. Though it’s possible to hyperextend other joints, the most common cause of injury is from some of the most mobile joints, your elbows and knees, so let’s focus there.

Do You Hyperextend?

  • When you do plank pose (Phalakasana) do you lock your elbows so that they actually curve in under your chest a little?
  • When you are in triangle pose (Trikonasana) do you lock your back leg so that the back of your knee is curving out behind you a little?
  • In downward facing dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) do your elbows pushing towards each other, causing your arms to curve in?
  • When in a forward fold (Uttanasana) do you push your knees back, so your legs curve backwards a little (or a lot)?
  • Have you been doing yoga for a long time but your upper arms aren’t getting any stronger?
  • Do you wonder why lowering from plank to cobra (Phalakasana to Chaturanga Dandasana to Bhujangasana) isn’t getting any easier?

If any of this sounds familiar, watch this quick video and read on to learn how to stop hyperextending.

Why Shouldn’t I Hyperextend?

When you hyperextend (also known as ‘locking the joint’) you use fewer muscles, so it is easier to hold poses for longer. This is one of the main reasons people do it and often they aren’t ever told not to.

Here are the three main reasons to work against hyperextension:

Avoid Injury

  • Hyperextending while a joint is supporting your body weight is dangerous for the joint.
  • A hyperextended elbow or knee can damage ligaments, cartilage and other stabilizing structures in and around the joint.
  • Not today (well, hopefully not today), but over time the repetition of hyperextending can lead to pain, injury, possibly surgery.
  • Engaging your muscles around the joint (ie. not hyperextending) protects the joint by spreading the weight to your muscles.

Achieve Proper Alignment

  • When you hyperextend, the work of holding you up is all being done by your elbow joint, or knees.
  • Unlocking the joint helps to bring your body into proper, optimal alignment.
  • Muscles that support your joints can now work in ways impossible when you hyperextend.
  • Hyperextending can have a telegraph effect through your body, leading to poor alignment in hips, ankles, shoulders, lower and upper back.
  • As you build muscles and move towards proper alignment, you might amaze yourself as aches and pains you thought were chronic slowly disappear.

Increase Your Strength

  • By unlocking your joints you unlock the power in your arms and legs.
  • By learning to engage smaller, supportive muscles you build strength and stability throughout your body.
  • No, building strength does not mean you will suddenly get giant manly biceps and thighs, it means your arms and legs will grow strong and be able to support you as you move through life. Isn’t that part of the reason why you go to yoga?

What Can I Do To Stop Hyperextending?

My next post will include a video to demonstrate a few things you can do to help counter hyperextending.

Until then, if you hyperextend:

  • Practice locking and unlocking (by adding a slight bend) your elbows and/or knees.
  • Learn to notice the difference between locked and straight.
  • Practice not locking while you are practicing yoga. It will be very difficult at first
  • Practice patience. (See: “It will be very difficult at first.”) It will take time for your new supportive muscles to get used to the new way of doing things.
  • You will likely want to bring you knees to the ground in plank pose for a while. Do it.

Yoga is a practice of conscious action, in all that you do. This includes what your arms are doing in downward facing dog, and what your legs are doing in tree pose (Vrksasana). Only you can start to do the work needed to stop hyperextending.

If you’re not sure if you hyperextend, or need more help, there are two things you should do:

  • First, talk to your local yoga teacher. Tell them you think you are hyperextending and would like to work on building the awareness and strength to not do it anymore. Ask them for their advice. Maybe you will inspire a few classes based around this very work.
  • Second, I will gladly offer some guidance if you post a picture or video on my Facebook page.

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