June 26’s New York Times Science section had a fascinating article about evolution and how it affects genetic development. It discussed research on how fins evolved into wrists (or ankles), so that fish could begin to walk on land. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about wrists and their crucial role in facilitating terrestrial movement—altho I guess if you’ve ever broken that joint, you’ve been keenly aware of the role that joint plays.
So, I did some reading. The wrist is an impressive mechanism with a wide range of movement that assists the hands in doing all of their complex tasks. The joint is made up of the two big bones of the forearm (radius and ulna) and a group of smaller bones called the carpals. It is easy to foul up this part of the skeletal system, because its purpose is primarily motion rather than weight-bearing. And yet, we ask this joint to take a lot of stress in most of the inverted yoga positions and arm balances.
It’s important to be aware of the fragile nature of this crucial set of bones, tendons, and ligaments when practicing yoga. Strengthening the wrists is really strengthening the muscles of the forearms (flexors and extensors). You can make your hands stronger and more flexible by working with the fingers (ever had a massage from a potter? ouch!), but it is your arms, chest and abdominals that lift and support the torso in inversions and the wrists and hands are merely the base.
Listen to what your wrists are telling you. Just because they have wide range of motion, doesn’t mean you should twist or bend them as far as they will go. Try to keep the rotation of the forearm neutral when you are pressing onto the hands (inner elbows face each other, not forwards or back). Don’t force the angle of forearm to wrist past 90 degrees, and if you can open the joint even more than that, all the better.
If it hurts to press the palm flat in inversions, try increasing the angle of the wrist with a prop. A foam wedge, or even a rolled blanket under the heel of the hand, can relieve some of the pressure on the wrist and make Adho/Urdha Mukha Svanasana (Down/ Up Dog) or Plank Pose more comfortable; you can lengthen the arms and straighten the elbows more if you aren’t trying to accommodate for a sharp angle at the wrist. Many arm balances are easier if you lift yourself up on blocks, with the fingers curled over the edge. I find that I can balance more solidly on the palm of my hand in Bakasana (Crane) if the fingers aren’t stretched flat on the floor.
I’ve been in some classes where people wear wrist braces to protect themselves. I wonder about the wisdom of continuing a practice that can cause such violence to this important joint. Arm balances are such beautiful poses, but they can be very damaging and need to be practiced with great caution. Don’t force a pose on your wrists. Their delicate mechanism takes a long time to heal so if you do injure yourself, all inversions will be out-of-reach for a while, even the less challenging ones.
Think of those ancient creatures slapping their fins onto a rock to get out of the ooze and appreciate the marvel at the end of your arm. Anyway, you don’t want to be on Down Dog restriction, do you? ©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved
P.S. If you haven't already, check out the comments from the last two postings. There are some really interesting thoughts from teachers and students about their preferences in yoga instructors. Look at their blogs, too, you might find a good recipe for granola!