The anterior shoulder and pectoralis muscles present great challenges to our postural health as these muscles tend to be chronically tight. Yoga stretches utilizing interlaced fingers can be an effective method of breaking down this muscular tightness and expanding the heart center. However, these chest openers are often performed incorrectly presenting potential injury for the wrists.
The most common chest expanding yoga stretch is where one interlaces the fingers and thumbs behind the lower back. As the hands grasp, one extends the arms drawing the shoulders back and the chest region open. This interlacing of fingers is sometimes called a version of Yoga Mudra.
The most common error performed with this mudra is in how one positions the wrists and fingers. Many participants enter this mudra by interlacing the fingers without closing the hands. As the arms are sent back and away from the chest, this open palm position becomes exacerbated presenting potential injury in the wrist. In particular, this unmindful flexion of the wrists can generate compressive forces in the carpal tunnel and carpal joints of the hands. For those with pre-existing wrist/carpal tissues, this misalignment can easily aggravate wrist conditions further.
Some secondary misaligned hand positions often done in this chest opener:
- Finger Alignment: Rather than fingers interlacing parallel and over grooves of the knuckles, fingers are often interlaced and crossed like lattice work over the other fingers presenting potential torquing motions in the finger joints.
- Lateral Wrist Alignment: When the chest and shoulders are taken into a stretch, the partial action to create the stretch is external (outwards) rotation of the humerus (upper arm). If the anterior shoulder and chest muscles are tight, this resistance will prevent the external rotation from occurring. The result is the hands will have difficulty closing and often creates a compromise by closing only the thumb pad region of the hand. This partial palm closing is often accompanied by a lateral pulling or flexion of the outer wrist. This can be felt as though your thumbs are being pulled in towards your lower back as the arms move away from the body. This imbalanced lateral line can also present chronic conditions to the carpal region and soft tissues of the hand.
To Perform Yoga Chest Openers with Wrist Safety:
- Test Your Flexibility: Before interlacing your fingers, gently test your chest flexibility by first placing your palms flat on your lower back (fingers pointing down). As you exhale, lightly contract your upper back muscles so the shoulder blades retract (close together) and visualize your elbows closing into each other. For many people, this variation of chest opener is plenty. This is also an ideal warming or preparation for deeper variations.
- Align Your Wrists: If your chest flexibility permits you to go further, release your hands down behind the buttocks and slowly interlace your fingers and thumbs. Line up the fingers so they naturally run through the knuckle grooves and not over the other fingers. Keep your arms soft as you comfortably close the inner and outer palm pads. Encourage the front and back of the wrist regions to be long and open (avoiding wrist flexion). Finally, tilt your thumbs slightly down and away from the lower back to insure that the lateral wrists lines are also even and open.
- Ease into the Stretch: With the hands ready, take a slow in inhale, and as you exhale, retract the shoulder blades again without moving the arms away from your back. Instead of pulling the arms and wrists away from the body right away, start your focus at the attachment point of the muscle stretch. Allow the shoulder blade retraction to assist you in externally rotating your upper arm bones. As you feed the shoulders open, take note of how it feels better to draw the shoulders also down from the ears creating elongation in the neck.
- Maintain Full Limb Awareness: With the shoulders opening and arms externally rotating, continue to breathe slowly and then, lightly flow the arms away from the lower back while keeping the initial finger and wrist cues intact. The retraction and rotation preparation will set up your opener such that the stretch is properly targeting the muscles and preventing misaligning energies from acting on the wrists.
This chest opener mudra can be found in a variety of yoga poses in which these alignment principles can be applied:
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Standing Forward Bend Pose (Uttanasana)
Yoga Mudra – Kneeling inversion
Easy Sitting Pose (Sukhasana)
Spinal Lift of Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhasana)
Pigeon Pose variations
Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana)
Plow Pose (Halasana)
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
For Beginners and Chronic Tightness:
For those experiencing excessive muscle tightness in the shoulders and chest, a great modification of the yoga mudra chest opener is to hold onto a small towel or yoga strap behind you as the arms are taken gently away from the body. Key element to this modification is to insure again that the wrists remain completely neutral in all planes as you hold onto the support.
The support will allow you to take the arms into full extension. The disadvantage of this supported variation is the natural hand grip on the support does not provide an ‘as effective’ external rotation in the upper arms.
Another alternative is to work into the chest and shoulders individually with isolated doorway stretches. Stand perpendicular to a doorway and place your hand inside the door frame. Align the hand slightly lower than shoulder height. While maintaining a slight bend in the elbow (to avoid elbow locking and hyperextension), slowly twist the upper body away from the door frame. As you twist and hold onto the door frame, the shoulder and chest naturally open. Play around with the level of the hand to help isolate the stretch and to find the most effective lines for expansion.
Throughout these chest openers, maintain lightness in the elbows. Part of this stretch is generated by the contraction of the triceps muscles (back of the arms). This elbow extension motion can be overdone by many people leading to hyperextension of the elbows.
With patience and awareness, a few extra alignment cues and adjustments can lead to a far more effective chest opening stretch. Take time to set up your mudra properly and respect any resistance coming from the chest and shoulders. Ease into the stretch noting the overall functionality of the yoga pose. Always feel welcome to modify the pose respecting the idea that your body changes day to day, therefore your approach to your practice will change daily as well.