Protecting Wrists in Our Yoga Practice

Having taught Hatha Yoga classes at a variety of Yoga studios with carpet and others with hardwood flooring, I have become more in tune with how the floor surface can impact one’s wrists in key yoga poses. Regardless of the flooring type, I often see common hand-placement errors in wrist-loading Yoga poses like Downward Facing Dog that can chronically lead to compression injuries in the wrists.

Establishing proper hand placement and understanding of how to manipulate the surface area of the hands can significantly reduce the incidence of wrist injuries in your Yoga practice. The first issue to address is the floor type that we practice Yoga on. Most people find practicing on hardwood floors hard for the knees and other pressure points on the body. To create cushioning, many people practice in studios on two Yoga mats. This doubling of mats creates a similar problem comparable to practicing with a Yoga mat on a carpet. The thickness of two mats or of a mat on carpet causes the hands to sink into the soft support. When hand positions are off-balance, body weight is shifted more into those sinking points with the likely result of localized wrist compression. What causes this uneven compression?

Notice what happens to the connection points in the hands the next time you do Downward Facing Dog, Cat pose, Plank pose, Cobra pose or any other pose that positions your hands forward of the shoulders and applies pressure. As you move away from your hands in Downward Facing Dog or in the exhaled phase of Cat pose, do the inner regions of the hands (proximal index finger and knuckle) lift off the ground? Is there space flowing from the inner hand into the palm?

When the inner hand lifts in these loaded poses and when we practice on thick surfaces, body weight transfers heavily to the outer wrist joints. These outer joints become easily compressed and, for some, result in acute or prolonged pain. Consider how static pressure (Pressure = Force / Area) increases when we decrease the surface area on which the pressure is being applied.  We can easily decrease this damaging pressure by bringing attention to how we apply energy into the hands. Before loading the hands in Yoga poses, align the wrists so the middle and index fingers roughly point forward or parallel with your mat. Send a gentle spread across the fingers without tension going into the wrists and arms. Allow a pause to lightly ground the proximal end of the index fingers and the index knuckles. Feel that you are already distributing your body forward out of the wrists and more evenly over the hands. Rather than the weight going into a small portion of the hands (high pressure), the weight is fanned out over a greater area (less pressure). As you set up the rest of the pose, keep applying this gentle, inner grounding of the index region. You may feel as though you are slightly spiraling the forearm inwards.

In Downward Facing Dog and Plank poses, this inwards spiral of the forearms may draw the upper arm bones and shoulder blades forward. Therefore, a countering motion is required. A slight outwards spiral of the upper arms should be applied along with a light hugging of the shoulder blades back and down into the upper ribs. There are various Yoga equipment products that can aid in reducing wrist compression as well. But I first recommend exploring how you can change hand placement and energy applications. If possible, practice with only one mat and thinner cushioning under the hands.  If you prefer using two mats (as do I), stagger the mats so there is about 1 foot of single mat at the front to place your hands (and forward foot in standing poses).

Be more aware of the surfaces you practice on and add additional care to protecting the wrists in loading Yoga poses. As our practice is life-long, we need to perform Yoga poses mindfully to sustain the vitality of joints.

Image credit: © Steve Stearns All Rights Reserved.

Create Integrity with Arm Spirals in Downward Facing Dog Yoga pose

Downward Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) comes across as basic forward bending Yoga pose – simple in its application and benefits. However, many yoga participants draw most of their attention to the lower half of the body in trying to achieve flexibility in the posterior lines (hamstring and calf muscles). The lack of attention on the placement and alignment of the upper body often dilutes the integrity and initial function of the pose.

Like all Yoga postures, Downward Facing Dog pose is meant to nourish the spine (and the energy channels traveling) with a qualitative forward bend. In terms of being qualitative, this means the spine should enjoy renewed space, balance, and mobility. This includes all portions from the sacrum to the cervical spine (neck).

When one places all the emphasis on “pushing back” into the lower body’s posterior line stretch, one tends to overuse the shoulder muscles (deltoids and supraspinatus). The unmindful contraction of these shoulder muscles draws the shoulder girdle (scapula bones) and the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) inwards towards the neck and ears.

The result of this inward motion of the shoulder girdle and arm bones is a crowding of the cervical vertebrae and the brachial nerve plexus. The brachial plexi are complex branches of nerves traveling from the neck and over the collar bone regions. This branch of nerves gives rise to virtually all the nerves that innervate the upper limbs.

This inwards crowding from the shoulder girdle also transmits a closing motion of the upper trapezius muscles (upper back) that often mirrors an unnecessary contraction of the trapezius and other extensor muscles along the back of the neck. This echoing contraction of these muscles causes the head to lift and move into a back arching motion – counter productive to the aim of being in a forward bend. The neck also does not take advantage of gravity and the natural elongation of the vertebrae that occurs when the head floats towards the ground.

Take note the next time you perform Downward Facing Dog pose. Are the shoulders pulling into the neck? If so, also notice the usage of your hands, the alignment of the head, and the relative situation of the shoulder blades to the ribs. With this awareness, you can then explore upper arm spirals to improve the quality of the posture.

Applying Upper Body Integrity:

An effective and subtle engagement of energy in the arms in the form of spirals can add significant space and mobility into the neck and upper spine. This space and integrity immediately transmits into more stability in the shoulder girdles and balanced loading of the shoulders and hands. Together, this creates a more restful, qualitative Downward Facing Dog.

Spiral 1: Forearms

As you set up your pose, position your hands roughly the distance of the outer edge of the shoulders (people often have the hands inside the width of the shoulders adding to the crowding of the neck). Feel the fingers lightly spread, but not so much that you feel the tendons in the hands vigorously shortening. Line up the middle and index fingers forward so the hand is neutral with the wrist and forearm (and not turned inwards or excessively outwards). Then gently ground down through the index finger as though you are reaching out through that finger-tip. You will feel a slight pressure into the index finger pad as well as a subtle INWARDS rotation of the forearms. This is spiral 1. With this energetic spiral, you will draw compressive loading away from the outer wrist tissues and distribute the weight more evenly into the finger pads.

With this spiral, one MUST then apply spiral 2. Without spiral 2, the inwards rotation of the forearms, rotates the upper arm inwards as well adding even more crowding and compression into the neck and brachial plexi.

Spiral 2: Upper Arms

With the lower spirals set, visualize the shoulder blades hugging the ribs like suction cups and sliding up and away from the ears. A beautiful muscular connection occurs underneath and around the shoulder blades building strength and integrity for other poses. You will feel a very minute, but effective OUTWARDS rotation of the upper arms. Again, this is subtle. If it is overdone, this upper spiral will pull against the forearm spirals sending pressure into the outer wrists.

With this upper spiral, the trapezius muscles and upper back spread like wings and the brachial plexus regions become more open. The resistance of the trapezius and extensor muscles dissipates allowing the head to release and flow away from the pelvis. The spine enjoys freedom and balance, and the pose shifts from a pushing ego to a therapeutic expansion.

The key word in these spirals is “natural”-not forced or exaggerated. A final sensation to add and become aware with these spirals is the reduction in shoulder muscle contraction combined with an additional use of the hip flexors. The shoulders must reduce their hold to allow for the spirals to occur, therefore the hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus fermoris) compensate and engage. This engagement of the hip flexor muscles improves the forward bending motion at the hips, generates a more effective lift of the sit bones (ischial tuberosities), and creates a more effective expansion of the hamstrings.

In summary, play with the spirals together in your Downward Facing Dog pose. One spiral must be accompanied by the other. Maintain a holistic approach keeping the spine your first priority. Let this holistic intention then flow out through the pelvis and shoulders ending with the limbs.