Protecting Wrists in Downward Facing Dog and Yoga Poses
I teach Hatha Yoga classes at a variety of Yoga studios, some with carpet and some with hardwood flooring. 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.
Having the proper 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 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 even slightly off-balance, body weight is shifted even more into those sinking points. The wrists are next to fall into this compression and take this uneven energy. 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. Considering how static pressure increases when we decrease the surface area that the pressure is being applied to, 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.
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.
What Really Happens in Hip Openers
One of the most common requests heard in a yoga class is hip openers today please. This request is usually followed by the other half of the class groaning. We love to hate hip openers yet our bodies crave them and often feel lighter and more open after — for good reason. The majority of us sit for most of our days, shortening the hip flexors at the front of the hip (psoas, rectus femoris, sartorius) and tightening the hip rotators (piriformis, obturator internus, gamellus, to name a few).
A Look Inside the Hip
The hip joint itself is a ball and socket type joint with the head of the femur (thigh bone) sitting in the acetabulum or socket of the pelvis. A variety of muscles attach into the femur starting from the pelvis itself, the lumbar spine, the sacrum, or other parts of the femur. Hip openers could affect any of the muscles surrounding the hip depending on the position of the joint at the time of the pose.
In general when we stretch or open a muscle we are lengthening its position, moving the two attachment points away from each other. This is easy to assess with linear muscles like the psoas which attaches from the front of the lumbar spine, crosses through the pelvis and attaches to the head of the femur. If we flex the hip forward we are shortening the psoas, bringing the two attachments of the muscle closer together. If we extend the hip backwards (such as in the back leg of Pigeon pose we are opening and lengthening the psoas. The effect becomes greater in King Pigeon pose if we assume an upright posture with our spine so that we lengthen the upper attachment more. In this example we can also rethink our definition of hip openers. Suddenly, poses with a bent knee where we rotate the hip are not the only way to open our hips. If the psoas attaches into the femur, and a shortened psoas tightens our hip (not to mention the affect it has on our low back) then poses like Warrior / Virabhadrasana or Half Moon / Ardha Chandrasana become hip openers too.
Rotate to Open a Rotator
The rule of how to open a muscle becomes less clear with the hip rotators where the angle of the joint actually affects the action of the muscle. For example, the piriformis muscle attaches from the front of the sacrum to the back of the femur. It acts as an external or outward rotator of the hip. Except if the hip is flexed, then it assists in abduction or sideways movement of the hip. So to follow the rule of opening we would want to internally rotate the femur, flex the hip and adduct or bring the femur towards midline. This can be achieved with the top leg in Marichyasana (sit with your left leg extended, bend your right knee and step the foot across your left thigh so that the femur is flexed, adducted toward midline, and gently internally rotated.) Other hip openers don’t seem to follow the rule of opening. We often externally rotate the hip to stretch the external rotators of the hip. Huh? The reason this works is because we typically flex the hip at the same time.
Use Your X-Ray Vision
To understand how hip openers work we have to picture the position of the muscle. Let’s picture the obturator internus muscle, a close friend of piriformis. It attaches from our sitting bone or ischial tuberosity to the greater trochanter of the femur, a bony outcropping on the side of the hip. We can feel both of these pieces of bony anatomy. Our ischial tuberosities can be felt when sitting, they are the bony bits under the flesh of our buttocks. Our greater trochanter can be felt by first finding the top of our pelvis by by placing our hands at our waist, firmly pressing in and down until we feel a ledge. This is our iliac crest. Slide your hands down and with your thumb you will feel a bony prominence that is the femur. You can feel it move by slowing rotating the hip in and out. So now we can feel the attachment points for the obturator internus, between the ischial tuberosity or sitting bone, and our femur. From this observation we can see that in a neutral position the muscle wraps around the hip. So if were to flex the hip, the ischial tuberosity scoops under thus increasing the space between the two attachment points and increasing the wrapping distance of the muscle – hence lengthening the muscle. This is why a simple squat (using the term simple lightly) can stretch our hip rotators and can be one of the reasons Westerners find it so challenging to achieve.
Opening Our Hips to Open to Possibility
Since there are many muscles in the hip with many functions depending on the demands we place on our body, keeping these muscles supple can help us in ways that may not seem obvious at first. Hip openers may help us attain a standing pose we’ve been struggling with, or they may help us get down on the ground easily to play with our kids or our kitten. Traditional yogic thought attributes many healing properties to hip openers from organ issues to sexual dysfunction. So if you are one of the groaners when hip openers are suggested, perhaps pause to wonder if they could be helping you in ways you weren’t even aware.