I recently worked my way though a difficult and probably all too common yoga injury: very sore, achy wrists, sometimes accompanied by mild shooting pain-like sensations all the way up my forearms. Clearly, something was not right in my practice or in my body, so I made some serious modifications to my practice and started paying a lot more attention to alignment in certain poses.
A surprising number of people approached me during my battle with this injury to ask me about my modifications and to tell me about their own problems with wrist pain, soreness, etc. My sense is that quite a few yogis who practice regularly eventually suffer from some kind of wrist ailment. I’ll try to share some details of my own experience, for whatever that might be worth to others suffering from similar injuries. (Of course, I am not a doctor, so my comments here shouldn’t be taken as instructions on how to deal with your own personal case, no matter how similar it may be to my own. If you do have soreness or pain in your wrists or forearms, seek professional advice. For starters, you can check out these handy tips on this very topic written by an MD over at Yoga Journal.)
The first modification I made was to use a wedge at the top of my mat, angled away from me. The wedge is supposed to be placed under the mat (otherwise it will slip away) and is supposed to alleviate pressure on the wrists by allowing you to take Down-Dog, Plank, and other poses without fully bending the wrist joint. Personally, I didn’t find this modification helpful at all, and trying to keep the dang wedge in place underneath the mat was too much of a hassle.
The next modification I made that was actually quite helpful was to make fists with my hands when doing Plank, Chaturanga, and Up-Dog. This allowed me to do vinyasas without bending the wrists at all. I think it may have also helped to strengthen my forearms. In fact, I liked this modification so much that I sometimes still throw it into my practice.
Another modification that was helpful to me was doing Down-Dog on my fingertips. This helped to strengthen the subtle muscles in the fingers and hands, and probably was also helpful in that my wrists did not need to bend at all in Down-Dog. You can’t really do vinyasas like this, though, so I used this modification mostly when resting in Down-Dog, not during an active asana sequence.
Another great modification for me was to drop onto my forearms in Down-Dog, coming into what is otherwise known as Dolphin Pose. You can also do Plank on your forearms. A nice side benefit of doing these poses on the forearms was that my shoulders started to open up considerably. Also, I think I started to build strength in places that were perhaps being neglected by my normal practice.
In terms of alignment, there were three things in particular that I started paying a lot more attention to. First, and most importantly, I started to pay close attention to my elbows when lowering from Plank to Chaturanga. Most people, including myself, tend to let their elbows splay outwards when they lower into Chaturanga, and the tendency to do this becomes more pronounced the faster one moves through a vinyasa and the more tired one is as the practice wears on. The reason, I suspect, that you don’t want to allow the elbows to stick out is that this puts undue pressure on the outer wrists. (For more on Chaturanga, check out my recent posting on this asana.)
A similar issue comes up for me in lowering down from Handstand into Chaturanga. If you can do a freestanding Handstand (i.e. without the aid of a wall or another person), and you’ve ever tried lowering down to Chaturanga, you have a good idea of the tremendous amount of pressure being transferring into and through your wrists when you are making the transition. In Handstand, your entire bonestructure is helping to bear the weight. As soon as you start lowering yourself down, however, this gets all thrown out of whack, and, I suspect, a lot more pressure is borne directly by your hands and wrists. It is especially imporant then to keep the elbows from splaying out when making this transition. This applies to any similar transitions (e.g. lowering from Handstand into Bakasana, lowering from Scorpion II into Gandha Bherundasana, etc.).
As my doctor reminded me, our wrists, shoulders, and elbows are not evolutionarily evolved to bear our entire body weight. They are designed better for hanging (from tree branches, for instance), so when we do yoga and incorporate an excessive number of arm balances and inversions into our practice, we tax our bodies in ways that they are just not meant to handle. I think this is a good example of when it is good to “listen to your body.” Working through such a debilitating injury to my wrist has really been a humbling experience for me, and it has encouraged me to be more balanced in my own personal practice.
Disclaimer: I am not a certified yoga instructor, and the ideas and opinions expressed here are not intended to be formal instruction on yoga poses. If you plan to start up a yoga practice, or if you have one and plan to do any of the yoga poses described in this blog, please seek out an experienced, living, breathing yoga teacher to guide you with hands-on instruction.