When I first sat down to write this review of Libby Hinsley’s book: Yoga for Bendy People, I was overwhelmed. I had written so many notes during my late night, COVID-insomnia fueled reading sessions. I knew this article threatened to be way too long, but how could I possibly shorten it!? Libby had so many poignant insights; not just about yoga, but about life with hypermobility in general. There was so many interesting anecdotes, and so much well-researched information.
However, on second look, I realised that the majority of the things I had deemed note-worthy all pointed to the same thing: Libby Hinsley knows her stuff. Every time I hoped for more information about something, I got it, every time I wished for a practical example of something, it was there. Every time I was moved by a personal story, it was backed up by useful information and research. More importantly, her book contains an extremely healthy appendix of references, and there is not one example of her reaching or misappropriating information (something we often see with complex and poorly understood conditions like the Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes and Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders).
So, having realised that my job is to review this book, not to summarise it; I will begin by telling you, as succinctly as possible, what this book is about and why I think it is one of the best modern resources for hypermobile people in existence. Then, if you choose to read on, I will go into more detail about what specifically can be gained from reading Yoga for Bendy People, referring to some of my favourite examples as I go.
What is Yoga for Bendy People? (and why is Libby wearing a zebra onesie!?)
Yoga for Bendy People describes itself as a book “for yoga teachers and practitioners who want a deeper understanding of hypermobility syndromes and how to optimize the benefits of yoga for people who have them.”
The hypermobility syndromes include the Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders (HSD) and the Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes (EDS); connective tissue disorders which feature joint hypermobility as a key diagnostic feature, but can also affect patients’ lives in a variety of other ways. They are notoriously difficult to diagnose, in part due to the fact that they are complex, systemic illnesses, but also due to a lack of awareness in the medical profession, and a misconception that all variants of the disorders are extremely rare. Medical students are often told: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” This well-meaning maxim was intended to avoid unnecessary over-complication of the diagnostic process, but has unfortunately contributed to many patients with hypermobility syndromes being misdiagnosed or completely abandoned by the medical system. As such, the zebra has become a proud symbol of our community, reflected in Libby’s fabulous onesie!
Yoga for Bendy People is quite accessible; it is available as a paperback or e-book, and an audio-book is currently in development. It is easy-to-read, both in terms of print size and language choice, and in the instances where complex information is presented, it is paired with useful analogies.
Libby has certainly accomplished what she set out to do; having created a clear guide on how to adapt all aspects of yoga for people with hypermobile bodies. She also explains the different pillars of yoga and their benefits extremely well, but doesn’t shy away from touching on some of the cultural problems within the industry that can make it hard for hypermobile people to maintain their practice without injury or despondency. Her insights are applicable to practitioners with any amount of experience, and contain several gems that could be useful when developing other any type of exercise habit.
It is really the expertly woven combination of scientific research and personal experience that makes the book really shine. Libby has created not just a specialised guide to yoga, but one of the best modern resources for understanding the overall impact of life with a hypermobility syndrome. She not only explains the challenges of life with joint hypermobility, but examines the other symptoms and co-morbidities associated with EDS and HSD with such compassion and attention to detail. I believe this book will not only be extremely validating to the people who live with these syndromes, but also an excellent guide for their loved ones.
What is Yoga?
Yoga for Bendy People begins with a foreword from Jill Miller – yoga practitioner, and fellow bendy person. She recounts her experience of stretching vigorously in order to achieve aesthetic pursuits like the splits – hoping it would held her make the “Flag Girls” (something which I, as an Australian, definitely had to google!). Not long after, we see one of the first major themes of the book emerging: the problem with yoga being used as a means to look a certain way or do certain things, rather than as an act of self-care and acceptance. The rest of Jill’s story will be relatable to many bendy readers. My heart shattered when she went on to describe becoming very active in her 20’s, only to eventually uncover her hypermobile body’s instability- leading to years of pain and surgeries, all the while “playing whack-a-mole with a growing list of odd symptoms.”
Unlike Jill, who became known for her flexibility and “party tricks” at school, Libby recalls chronic pain from early adulthood, and having extreme wide-spread muscle tightness from her undiagnosed joint laxity. While she was eventually diagnosed with hypermobility, and found that it made her extremely “good” at yoga, she quickly found herself in terrible pain after her practice.
What these women do have in common is that they both lament the somewhat extremist way in which they participated in yoga in their youth, wishing that they had found a practice that was adapted to the hypermobile body earlier in life. Both have now hearkened back to the true origins of yoga as a source of peace, wisdom, and living in the present moment – before its surge in popularity with western practitioners lead to a much greater focus on the aesthetic poses of Asana (the physical, pose-holding part of yoga that most of us are familiar with).
In fact, the first chapter of this book, “What is Yoga?” goes on to highlight the resistance that Libby has felt from yoga teachers when encouraging them to step back from identifying Asana as yoga itself.
Libby then goes to explain yoga as a full practice in greater detail, with a great explanation of the eight limbs of yoga. I found myself particularly taken with the comments on meditation and mindfulness. I was in the early stages of developing a yoga practice with the help of a friend when I started reading, and found many of her insights rang true. Libby describes the mindfulness aspect of yoga as a means to understand ourselves and make decisions in line with our values. While it keeps us attentive to our (sometimes destructive) habits, it does so in a non-judgemental way.
Personally, yogic breathing as been a huge help in making progress with my symptoms of medical trauma. While therapy is also important, there is often too much focus on re-living painful memories from the past, or challenging “incorrect” thoughts and behaviours in a confrontational way. For me, yoga has been the perfect companion to therapy, balancing analysis and critical thinking about my life and choices, with the use of my intuition and connection to my self in the present moment.
What is Hypermobility?
In the following chapter, “Hypermobility 101,” Libby neatly lays out all the foundational knowledge needed to understand the hypermobility syndromes. She explains the difference with mobility and flexibility (a commonly misunderstood concept!), the different points on the hypermobility spectrum (including hypermobile EDS) and the key symptoms of EDS as a whole. She explains the current diagnostic criteria for these conditions and notes their limitations; stressing the importance of understanding a patient’s history, rather than just how their body is presenting in the here and now.
Importantly, she also explains the ongoing disagreement about the differences between the clinical diagnoses of Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. HSDers will be happy to know that Libby attests to the fact that unfortunately, a hEDS diagnosis still carries far more weight with doctors (especially those who are not up to date with current research), even though HSD can have equally debilitating symptoms and similar comorbidities.
The next couple of chapters (my favourite part of the book!) beautifully summarise the absolute clusterf*ck that is life with a connective tissue disorder. This section strikes an impressive balance between educating those that have no prior knowledge of the hyermobility syndromes, whilst still offering some new insights for the well-initiated. These chapters are my new go-to reading material when someone asks me for more information about the challenges I face living with Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS/type III EDS). I believe they are a great resource for loved ones who want to learn more about their Zebra, and frankly, plenty of medical professionals could learn a thing or two from this book too!
Aside from the obvious joint dislocations and other musculoskeletal complications, Libby explains the high prevalence of other conditions like Chiari Malformation, Cranio-Cervical Instability, and Mast Cell Disease in the hypermobility syndromes population. I was also particularly impressed with her explanation of the different manifestations of Dysautonomia, and while I initially wished that she had explained how difficult these can be to treat when there are multiple comorbidities with competing needs; Libby goes on to touch on this in one of her later chapters.
Something that struck me as particularly interesting in this chapter was the emerging evidence as to why anxiety and panic disorders are so common among the hypermobile people. While I don’t want to give too much away, I was fascinated to read that hypermobile people tend to have larger amygdalas, and smaller somatosensory cortexes (tell THAT to the next doctor who tells you that you must be too fixated on physical sensation!).
The only thing that disappointed me about this section was the explanation of Fibromyalgia. I recognise that whilst I have a particular stake in the issue (it’s my most debilitating condition) that this is not the focus of the book. However, I found the assertion that it is caused by a “broken pain alarm system” to be too reductive. While it is true that central sensitisation is a factor that is linked to the development of this condition, there is not yet conclusive evidence that it is purely a neurological condition. Furthermore, there is evidence that people with Fibromyalgia have a much higher number of microtears in their muscles than the general population, and emerging evidence that the condition is also linked to Mast Cell Activation. Libby also says that Fibromyalgia pain can’t be explained by tissue damage, but that up to 80% of Fibromyalgia patients also have joint hypermobility. I found this confusing, as I would have thought if anything, this would have made Fibromyalgia patients very likely to have sustained multiple types of tissue damage over an extended period of time.
With the huge overlap between these two groups, and the fact that Fibromyalgia is another grossly under-served condition (in my experience, even more so than EDS), I just wish that it had been treated with a little more generousity in this book.
(You can read more about the research surrounding Fibromyalgia and my personal journey with it here)
Is Yoga for Bendy People?
This section suggests a cautious but systematic approach to developing an Asana practice for the hypermobile body. Libby stresses the importance of taking a slow, individualistic approach, and prepares us for common problems like maladaptive muscle recruitment (to compensate for physical weakness or poor neuromuscular patterns) during exercise. There is information about developing superior motor control through slower and smaller movements, the different types of stretching, and the hot debate about whether stretching is good or bad for the hypermobile body. There is also some very validating information about society’s obsession with “good posture” and how this has to be carefully used as a tool to help, rather than further harm hypermobile people.
As this will be the heart of the book for most people, I don’t want to spoil too much more, but one of the highlights for me was the explanation of the difference between strength and stability, and the different types of muscle contractions – now I understand why I can pop a squat like a pro but still cry over household tasks that require repetitive fine motor skills!
These chapters also contain significantly more information about the types of postures that can help or exacerbate certain hypermobility related complaints, provide examples of adaptations (with images!) and suggests ways that classes can be structured to avoid common pitfalls – I will leave it to Libby as the expert to explain the rest!
While the following chapters of the book are more geared towards yoga professionals, I believe there is still something to be gained from this section by every practitioner.
One of the first things that Libby does, is question some of the overarching assumptions about the correct or safe ways of performing yoga postures. She encourages teachers to question the “why” of Asana alignment principles, with the goal of better guiding students to listen to their bodies, all the while maintaining the underlying assumption “that they are adaptable and resilient.”
She also discusses students’ reluctance to “go against” their teachers instructions when adapting exercises for their individual needs. She suggests they try adding an internal verbal cue such as “…except for hypermobile people” to help avoid the mental struggle that comes with the perception of doing something “different or not well enough.”
This section also includes a chapter about hands on assists. When I read this title, my mind immediately swung back to the time that my very first yoga teacher pulled my shoulder partially out of its socket during a posture correction. I was angered to read a similar story in Libby’s book that had far more serious consequences. Libby questions the necessity of certain hands on assists, and also stresses the need for both teachers and students to make informed decisions and have the opportunity to give consent in this situation.
Ultimately, the these chapters are about encouraging people to honour their bodies and individual needs, and the need to eliminate the underlying ableism that runs through some modern yoga circles. In my opinion, it will be an encouraging read for anyone who has tried yoga but has been made to feel that it wasn’t “for them” or that they could not advance to the level that they thought they were “supposed to.” As Libby says at the start of her book: “there is no remedial yoga.”
The final chapters cover several interesting topics, including self-massage, calming the central nervous system, and focusing the mind. I was interested to see what Libby had to say about self-massage in particular, as I strongly believe in this as a tool for self-management. However, massaging can be painful for hypermobile hands, and holding oneself up on a foam roller for any length of time can be exhausting!
Amusingly, her stories of using everyday objects like tennis rackets reminded me of when I used to press the painful spots of my back into our school’s chapel pews during long services. I also appreciated her focus on using therapy balls, as I have found these to be one of the most accessible tools available.
When it comes to massage, Libby focuses a lot on the idea of finding a level of sensation that is right for you. She explains that there is a relationship between the sensory experience and the outcome on the nervous system, ie. if something induces too much pain and stress in the body, it may not respond to the exercise in a positive/restorative way. I’ll admit that her suggestion of leaning into certain sensations for several minutes at a time sounded like torture to me…but I suppose that just means I haven’t found the right level of sensation yet!
This idea is expanded upon in the following chapter with an explanation of the central nervous system and a recap of the factors that can contribute to its disregulation in hypermobile people. Libby covers a number of basic breathing principles (from Pranayama) that are used to calm the nervous system. I know first hand how effective these practices can be, and while this chapter certainly provides a good introduction, I would definitely recommend learning them with a qualified teacher alongside some of the other guiding principles of yoga for best results.
There is also mention of restorative postures with body props, and the use of deep pressure therapy, both things that I was interested to try after reading!
The final paragraphs about focusing the mind bring together the other limbs of yoga, and explain how Asana and Pranayama can be used to work towards the central goals of yoga, such as a deeper understanding of oneself, being present in the moment, and a sense of connection to something greater than oneself. This chapter does cover some more abstract concepts that could be a little more difficult to fully absorb if you have no yoga experience. However, mindfulness and meditation are difficult skills and it is logical that readers would need to re-visit certain sections of this book multiple times, given the breadth of information covered.
Up until a few years ago, I was still very skeptical about the benefits of meditation, having been told by many doctors and therapists that I should be doing it, but being left with nothing but app recommendations and no real guidance. This chapter provided more concrete suggestions as for the “how” of mindfulness, whilst acknowledging how challenging this can be in our modern world, and echoing useful sentiments from earlier in the book, such as finding a technique that is right for you and committing to consistent practice over time.
“Yoga for Bendy People” leaves readers with many life lessons that can be used not only in the context of yoga, but as an overall approach to how we can take care of ourselves in a world that frankly, doesn’t function with people like us in mind. Libby is a brilliant writer who has managed to condense a huge amount of useful information into a small, easy-to-read book, that is well researched and full of heart. She encourages us to a be life-long learners, not only about the world around us, but also about ourselves; leaving us with questions that we can ask in order to determine our values and needs, and how our approach to the practice of yoga can best reflect that, be that as a teacher, student or both.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about the hypermobile body, the challenges that come with it, and practical suggestions as to how the holistic practice of yoga can be a useful tool in life with these conditions, sans any BS.