So there are lots and lots of posts and blogs and instagrams out there about circus mobility. There are entire businesses devoted to the idea of getting more flexible, or more flexible in specific ways (and there are some horrifying videos about essentially torturing children into over-splits). For those of us who have hypermobility conditions–like Ehlers Danlos or Hypermobile Spectrum Disorder–flexibility is a dangerous thing.
This is true for two reasons. 1) We are already super flexible, but not in a way that is supported by our joint or muscle structures, so we go from flexible to broken in a flash. We have absolutely no idea what a normal range of motion is or should be, so we have a hard time controlling and supporting and stabilizing our mobility. 2) This leads to other people praising hypermobility as “great splits” or “awesome shoulder flexibility,” not realizing or recognizing that what we are doing is unsupported and thus actively doing damage to those joints.
A few weeks back, I was working on something in Pilates and I said to Lovely Pilates Instructor (LPI) that it felt weird. It was like my muscles in a particular spot were both sore and weirdly open at the same time. It didn’t hurt, exactly, but it was weird.
LPI stared at me. “That’s… stretching.“
I stared back. “Wait… that weird pulling coldness isn’t stretching?”
I proceeded to explain what I thought was stretching, and demonstrated. LPI: “You are… taking your limb out of its socket.”
Me: “So I’m… trying to overstretch my tendons?”
LPI: “Yes. Stop that.”
So what I thought was stretching, for years, as it turns out, was literally trying to extend my ligaments and tendons, not stretching my muscles. This explains why I would go from “stretching” to “sprain” in a few seconds–because I was hyperextending my ligaments rather than stretching tight muscles.
I also want to note that it took me 38 years to figure out what a stretch is actually supposed to feel like. That is why flexibility training for hypermobile folks is dangerous. What is better for us–and I’ve said this and linked to CircusStrong before–is active stability training. I cannot even begin to stress how important strength is for hypermobility. There are not enough words. It’s that important.
My plea to folks out there who are interested in circus (or gymnastics or dance) is to stop judging the quality of your performance based on whether you can shove your leg behind your head. Some people can do that. Some people can’t–and shouldn’t. It isn’t just about getting flexier.
Flexibility needs to be supported by stability. It needs to come from a place of strength and control. So if you want to work on your (or your students’) flexibility, that’s fine (I’m working on my splits, because being hypermobile doesn’t mean all your joints are hypermobile). Work on your flexibility, but do it actively and as part of strength training, not with passive, forcing-your-body-into-horrible-places torture. If you can only get into a split by having someone shove you there, or using chairs, or by falling into it–you’re doing it wrong.
In order to have good flexibility, you need to be able to both get into and get out of it with slow and deliberate control. Otherwise, it’s not flexibility, and it certainly isn’t stable.
So if you’re hypermobile or have hypermobile students, focus on stability, not on flexibility. Keep your students from letting their splits happen without control, from rolling into a skin-the-cat without stability, from doing anything that they can’t get into and out of on purpose. And remember, too, that some bodies shouldn’t be pushed into places of flexibility–and some shouldn’t be pushed yet.
And please stop judging someone’s talent based on their flexibility. Praise them for their control, their stability, their grace–whether or not that includes flexibility. Because when we encourage bendiness for its own sake–without stability and control–we’re almost asking for our students to hurt themselves trying to get there, and we’re not encouraging those students who are hypermobile to get that mobility under control.