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.
Yoga Anatomy: Reducing Shoulder Impingement
Our wonderful shoulders are the most mobile joints in the body and, for anyone who has done any amount of Hatha Yoga flow, we can appreciate how much the shoulders are engaged and challenged in our practices. Given how frequently we load and stress the shoulders in yoga, it is ideal to move the shoulders with intelligence, mindfulness, and attentive care. One aspect of mindful movement and engagement is reducing the onset of shoulder impingement.
Our shoulder joints are made from a ‘ball and socket’ design. The upper arm bone (humerus) has defined structures at its proximal end (closest point to the center of the body). At the proximal end of the shaft, we see that the humerus has boney processes (called tubercles where tendons attach). Moving towards the shoulder joint, the humerus has a neck that transitions into a ‘head’ or the ball portion of the joint. The humeral head inserts into the socket (glenoid fossa or cavity) forming this highly moveable joint. The socket is part of the shoulder blade (scapula bone). There is another part of the shoulder blade with a boney projection called the acromion process which is positioned above the humerus. You call feel the acromion process on yourself by taking one hand over and to the back of the shoulder blade. Run your fingers along the shoulder blade to find a horizontal line of bone – this the spine of the scapula. Run your fingers all the way to the end into your shoulder – where this ends is your acromion process.
Between the acromion process and the tubercle region of the humerus is the ‘subacromial space.’ This is where our attention goes regarding shoulder impingement considerations. Deep above the spine of the scapula runs one of your rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus muscle), which has its tendon traveling through the subacromial space and attaching onto the greater tubercle of the humerus. To offer some protection to this tendon, there is a small sac of fluid (bursa sac) between the tendon and the acromion process.
When we stand in Mountain pose (arms relaxed), there is ample space in the subacromial space for the supraspinatus tendon and the bursa sac. When we lift our upper arm bone outwards (abduction) or towards certain angles of significant forward movement (flexion), the humerus closes into the subacromial space. For some people, due to bone structure and reduced subacromial space, they are more prone to having the tendon and/or bursa sac being compressed and stressed (aka shoulder impingement). With frequent compression, the tendon and/or bursa sac may develop conditions of inflammation. As with any acute or chronic development of shoulder impingement conditions, you will want to consult a qualified health professional for proper assessment and therapeutic treatment.