Mind and body are interconnected and often mirror one another. Just as our minds can have a tendency to lean towards the hyper, so too can our bodies. This can show up as a tendency to move “too much” into our joints. Meaning, our joints can easily move into a more-than-healthy range of motion. The technical term for this is “hyperextension.”
Not everyone hyperextends, but it is a very common pattern. It is more common in women, but some men hyperextend, too. It has a lot to do with genetics. Awareness is the key to finding balance.
The trouble with hyperextension is—it may not hurt now, but it probably will later. Joints don’t contain copious bundles of sensory nerves inside of them. If they did, being in a body at all would hurt 24/7. So if you can feel a joint at all, you’re probably already hyperextending. Over time, this can lead to arthritis and other pains.
Thank goodness yoga is all about mindful, intelligent, presence— in movement, and in life.
One of the most common hyperextension patterns I see every day is in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog/Updog). Check out the upper body hyperextension here:
The neck is dropping back, causing hyperextension of the neck. The shoulders are far forward of the fronts of the wrists, causing hyperextension of the wrists. The elbows are locked, causing hyperextension of the elbows. The lower back is dumping into its flexibility, causing hyperextension of the lumbar spine. And we aren’t even looking at the hyperextended knees here! Who knew updog was so fraught with peril!?
Keep your shoulders either atop or behind the heels of your hands and the rest is easy. Check out this balanced upper body in updog:
Neck is straight and relaxed. Shoulders are directly atop of heels of hands, so wrists are not hyperextended. Serratus anterior engaged. Elbows are not locked, lower back is supported by abdominals. (Elbow and lumbar hyperextension is more obvious in certain bodies, and less obvious in others. Rather than focusing on how a pose looks, focus on how it feels in your body. One rule of thumb is to imagine a tiny “hair” of a bend in your joint to ensure you aren’t “hanging into” the joint.)
Why We Keep Hyperextending
Shoulders winding up far forward of the hands usually happens when people transition from chaturanga to updog by rolling over the toes. Tight chest muscles, lack of flexibility in the upper spine can limit the ability to thread the chest through the upper arms. There are ways to increase flexibility in the upper back, but some of us may never achieve that due to the bone structure dealt by our genes. That’s why it’s good to look for other ways of getting from point A to Point B safely and happily.
2 Tips for a Happy, Healthy Transition
Alternate Route 1: Lower completely to the floor, get behind the heels of the hands
Alternate Route 2: Push Back Toe Flip
In this video, I pushed with my hands both down and forward into the floor, which caused my body to scoot backwards over the tips of my toes. Then I flipped the toes out, briefly lowering to floor before rising up again into updog. In the end result, I didn’t need to be THAT far back! I was trying to clarify the demonstration of the push-back and toe-flip. If you try this method, you can do a little less. But if you do end up that far back behind the heels of the hands, that’s fine. Remember, the point is avoiding hyperextension and having fun.
One Last Thing Before I Go
These two “Alternate Routes” are also terrific for those days when you can’t summon the muscular control to halt your chaturanga before dipping below the elbow crease. If your sternum or shoulders go lower than the elbow crease, and then you push up into Updog, you risk rotator cuff tears. Wise yogis sense their bodies’ needs and choose the best strategy for the moment. See also Chaturangas Are Made, Not Born
Anatomy of an Updog: Key Alignment Points
Arms straight, but not locked
Shoulders either directly atop heels of hands, or slightly behind (avoids wrist hyperextension)
Thighs engaged, kneecaps lifting towards hips, knees hover off floor, legs not locked.
Tops of feet on earth
Collarbones wide, chest open
Shoulders not rolling in towards chest
Chest threading through arms, depending on level of flexibility
Lower back lengthening
Abdominals lifting in and up as though zipping up jeans
Neck straight, not hyperextended
Chintamani teaches classic and specialty yoga in New York City. She is a longtime Teacher Trainer in the mang’Oh 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Program, and the Director of Core Yoga at mang’Oh. She continues to study yoga, yoga therapy and other healing modalities, including Anatomy, Pilates and Mindfulness Meditation. Chintamani is certified in Embodied Anatomy and Yoga and Kane School Pilates.
Chintamani’s classes blend mindfulness, alignment and joyful movement; encouraging safety and skillfulness, as well as freedom and expression. Chintamani’s mission is to get us all to move, breathe, find our joy, and feel connected and smart.