This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 40 – May 1999
Sandra was 24 and had a slim, lithe, fit body – but a painful one. Her back was giving her trouble, not a good start for an ambitious young dancer. During her case history she told me that she was seeing regularly a chiropractor who diagnosed her as suffering from hypermobility. Somehow, Sandra was a bit proud to have such a label stuck on her body; surely, for a dancer, it’s better to be too flexible than muscle-bound. So, when I told her that, in my view, nobody can be said to be too supple, she was not too happy.
Hypermobility is defined as an abnormally great freedom of movement or flexibility in one or several joints. This condition is said to create instability in joints, leading to stress, overuse, and a tendency to be injury-prone. However, I am of the opinion that excess of flexibility does not exist.
After the initial shock of hearing such heretical assertions, Sandra was keen to prove me wrong. She did what I was expecting, i.e., to exhibit, in situ, her greater than normal flexibility. To do so, she bent forward, legs straight, and put her hands flat on the floor with an ease that would make a toddler jealous, but, to her dismay, I wouldn’t budge.
Then I told her to take the forward bending position again. This time I pointed out to her all the outwards signs that indicated stiffness rather than so-called hyperelasticity. Her legs were leaning backwards so that her hips were not directly above her ankles, as they should have been. This position of the legs meant that her ankle joints were not able to flex to any great extent, a sure sign of stiffness in the calf muscles. Her knees were more than straight, in fact, they were pushed backward, and were seriously turned inward (her kneecaps were cross-eyed), another proof of shortening in the muscles at the back of her legs. Her back too displayed a shape that betrayed stiffness. The lumbar area was protruding while the upper was hollow. The back of her neck was concave and her head pulled backward.
Sandra’s ease in putting the palms of her hands flat on the floor was achieved by compensations that distorted and harmed her body.
These compensatory distortions were the result of muscles refusing to stretch because they had lost their normal elasticity. Only when I started to correct the distortions described above, did Sandra accept my verdict of stiffness. The more success we had in coaxing a joint into its normal position, the more she could feel the unmistakable stretch sensation – a sensation that Sandra would not have felt had she been ‘too supple’.
A correction in one part of her body was achieved at the cost of aggravation in another part. For example, when the rotation of her knees was corrected, i.e., when her kneecaps were looking straight ahead, Sandra had great difficulty to straightening those very knees which before were hyper-extended. Also, the more the legs approximated their natural shape, the more the back curved. The so-called hypermobility had vanished, had been unmasked, only to reveal stiffness.
In the standing position, from the side, the knees should be fully extended. Yet, if you observe a group of people standing up, you will certainly see some of them whose lower legs are shaped in a backwards curve, ‘en fourreau de sabre’ (in the shape of the sheath of a sabre). This shape comes from knees that are recurvate (bent back), a characteristic of ‘hypermobile’ subjects. This reminds me of a little poem from Spike Milligan, called ‘Knees’, here is an extract:
Always keep your knees in front!
Don’t let them slide behind!
Knees that get behind you
Are difficult to find!’
Since you insist, and I am sure you do, let’s come back to serious matters! The scientific name for these kind of knees that bend back to front is genu recurvatum. According to the orthodox view, this condition is caused by weak ligaments. Françoise Mézières has shown conclusively that it is not the case. A close observation will reveal that, in genu recurvatum, the knees are seriously turned inwards.
This is due to an excess of tightness in the muscles in the back of the legs and not to an excess of elasticity. Elbows are similarly prone to the recurvatum shape. And again, the cause is not in lax ligaments but in shortened muscles, but here it is the back muscles that are the culprits.
It is not only the extreme condition of ‘hyper-elasticity’ that passes for suppleness. Common muscle shortening can also masquerade as impressive flexibility. Many are fooled by the various tricks of shortened muscles. For example, the forward bending position is still used as a standard exercise to test suppleness and fitness.
Unfortunately, the focus is only on how far the hands can go relative to the floor. Touching the floor is equated with suppleness. But, as we have seen with Sandra’s case, being able to put the hands flat on the floor should not always be interpreted as flexibility. The irony is that many photos in magazines and books that are supposed to represent examples of suppleness show blatant signs of stiffness.
Finally, Sandra realised that her excessive flexibility was an illusion and accepted the new diagnosis of stiffness. I told her to shun any strengthening exercise or any treatment that does not respect the natural shape of the body. After a series of sessions in the Mézières Method she regained some elasticity and her back stopped bothering her. To obtain a flexible body you have also to keep a supple mind.