The popularity of arm balances such as handstand, plank, crow, peacock, firefly, side plank, and side crow may inspire us to attend workshops and build our core strength—all to make possible the variation du jour. But what if you experience pain or numbness in your wrists after yoga class, or wake up in the night with a prickly feeling in your hands? Or what if you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, and certain poses may be aggravating the condition? Even less “fancy” poses like planks and upward and downward dogs place a lot of pressure on the wrists. Should you give up these poses completely?
In many cases, it may simply be the way in which you habitually bear weight on your hands that makes the poses difficult or uncomfortable. Many of us tend to roll a bit to the outer edges of the hands and to the heels of the palms, overusing muscles that are already tired from computer work or food prep. If we continue this habit it can lead to repetitive strain injury (RSI), such as carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s why it’s important to look at your weight-bearing in poses like downward dog. It’s even more important in the transition to plank or upward dog, when we tend to “buckle” the hand and lose support across the knuckle pads of the fingers. If working toward even distribution in the hands doesn’t work, a wedge or rolled mat supporting the heel of the palm may help change the habit and build some strength in weaker muscles.
But there are also times when we just need to back away from a pose that’s hurting us, as in the following case. A very fit yoga teacher who was in her late 40s recently approached me for help. Her hope was that yoga therapy could help her master some of the challenging arm balances that caused her pain, but that her students were eager to learn. She was also recently diagnosed with some arthritis in her wrists and shoulders. Most hand balances (minus a wedge) require a 90-degree extension of the wrist. (For a point of reference, downward dog requires about 50 degrees.) My client’s full wrist extension was 40 degrees, as it had been since she was a child. She was not just weak or tight in her wrists—this was her bone structure. Yet she had been trying to force her wrists in the poses by bending her elbows in straight arm poses like plank and side plank, or by adding more height to a wedge by precariously stacking wedges, causing more pain and aggravating her arthritis. She had similar mobility issues with her shoulders. When she reached her arms forward and up (think urdhva hastasana—reaching up like you might at the beginning of a sun salute), her forearms only came in line with her chin.
My question to her was this: “Why do you need these asanas in your repertoire?” to which she expressed a deep sense of relief. “Thank you,” she replied. “You just reminded me of what I already knew.” She was not a bad teacher if she skipped an asana that did not benefit her. Speaking to my client, and to all yoga teachers out there: your practice is just that—a practice. It does not require that you be master of all poses. As long as you commit to an understanding of the biomechanics of poses, you can still effectively teach the asanas to your students, even if these shapes are not ones that work in your own body.
In the case of my client, she did want the fun and exhilaration of inversions like handstand, forearmstand, and headstand, which she could attain by using a headstander or by practicing the headstand supported on two chairs—modifications that do not require extreme wrist extension or shoulder flexion. She modified the ever-present downward dog with a variation of dolphin pose. Tabletop pose was done with her hands well ahead of her shoulders (in lieu of the traditional “shoulder over wrist” alignment), and she practiced planks and side planks on her forearms. While she did not have the experience of lifting off into an eka pada koundinyasana, she was able to develop a different relationship with hand-balancing asanas, enabling her to teach them safely and confidently. Most arm balances can be practiced upside down to improve core strength; crow pose, for instance, becomes a very active happy baby pose. With such adjustments to the poses, my client’s practice became an exploration of healthy movements for her joints, rather than an effort to “look like the picture.”
The point is, look at the real, long-term benefits of the pose, and focus on how it helps you move through your day with more strength, comfort, and alignment. If arm balancing is good only for those few seconds you’re airborne and then causes problems in your structure, keep shopping. There are a lot of yoga poses and practices out there. Find the postures and movements that help you to heal. And get creative about how to safely modify poses that are not right for your body at this time.