Since beginning a daily yoga practice, my wrists have been giving me a good amount of grief. Based on my conversations with students and teachers alike, I’m not the only one. Most of your students live most of their lives upright – then all of a sudden in yoga class they are expected to put the full weight of their body on their hands. Repeatedly. Depending on many factors such as genetics, habits, body weight, and frequency of practice, their wrists may not be ready for the stress of so much responsibility.
I’m personally spurred to action because I love yoga and I’m not willing to give up the challenging aspects of my practice. So I set out to learn as much as I can about keeping my (and my students’) wrists safe and happy. This article is designed to alert your attention to the potential issues your students may be experiencing and provide solutions to keep their wrists healthy, and their butts in class. If your students’ wrists are so sensitive that no weight at all can be placed on them without pain or if wrist pain persists despite a period of rest, please advise them to see a physical therapist for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Causes of Wrist Pain in Yoga Class
The most common reason that people experience wrist pain in yoga is that the structure of their body is not used to the loads being placed on them in yoga class. If you spend most of your life with your weight on your lower body, it takes a while for your upper body to adapt to the weight. Once a person starts doing yoga (especially in a group setting) it is easy to push too far too fast without giving your body a chance to catch up. When our brains sense danger to the tissues in our body, they create inflammation as a protective mechanism. The signs of inflammation include: pain, redness, immobility, swelling and heat. If the cause of the inflammation is not determined and taken away the inflammation can become chronic and lead to a wide variety of diseases and conditions. Inflammation is a warning sign. If your wrists are bothering you it’s an indication that you need to back off.
People who are naturally flexible tend to enjoy yoga and ‘excel’ at the poses, pushing their bodies because they can. These same flexible people frequently don’t have adequate strength to support the ‘advanced’ poses they strive for. We (yoga teachers) preach that yoga is about balance, and wrist health is no exception. Read on for modifications and exercises that you can teach your students privately or integrate into your group classes. They are designed to support a balance between strength and mobility in the wrists and improve body awareness.
If working one-on-one with a student (whether in private or within a larger class), it can be helpful to establish a baseline for their experience so that you know whether things are getting better or worse. Julie Gudmestad advises bringing your student into tabletop position with hands under shoulders and knees under hips, pressing the finger pads and knuckles evenly into the floor (Gudmestad, Yogajournal.com). Ask your student what they feel. Some may feel nothing, others may notice pain or discomfort. If the wrists are painful, ask them to choose a number between 1 and 10 for the level of sensation. You can re-visit this test at the end of each session and the beginning and end of subsequent sessions.
If your student’s wrists are tender or painful at all at the beginning of a session in this simple position, you might suggest avoiding all poses that place weight on the wrists. This will give the wrists a chance to heal and reduce inflammation. Also ask your student to be more aware of their wrists through their week, to look at the activities they use their wrists for and the weight they place on their wrists possibly without realizing it. If sensitivity or pain persists after a break from weight bearing poses, strongly encourage them to make an appointment with a physical therapist.
Modifications for Wrist Pain in Yoga
Following are some helpful modifications to help your students continue to practice while taking care of painful wrists. Invite your students to experiment with any or all of these and encourage them to cycle through the different ones that work for them as they each will offer different benefits and limitations.
If your wrists hurt, avoid putting weight on your wrists. Voila. You can offer or practice any of these modifications when your wrists feel painful or tender in yoga class. The best strategy is to cycle through them and use each of them some of the time as long as they feel relatively comfortable.
Many poses are still accessible with forearms on the ground. If being closer to the ground feels weird in a particular pose, a heavy a bolster or blocks underneath the forearms can create a more similar geometry to the original pose. Two blocks stacked on top of each other under each forearm provides a large and stable base, (as opposed to 1 block which can wiggle and easily be knocked over.) Invite your students to experiment with what feels the most natural to them.
When instructed to bring the wrists under the shoulders, students can make their hands into fists and come up onto the knuckles. This is another quick modification that is accessed in many poses where flat palms would normally be on the ground.
Invite students to put their weight on their fingers, while lifting wrists away from the floor. Depending on the student, this may feel easier or more difficult than using fists.
It takes a relatively humble and self-aware student to skip the vinyasas when their wrists hurt, but as a teacher you can help by offering vinyasas as an option rather than an expectation.
Exercises for wrist health
The following exercises are designed to promote body awareness and mobility in the wrists.
Move wrists in gentle circles, first moving in one direction and then the other. Another variation is to intertwine fingers and bring hands into small circles. Notice the difference between the two.
Bring the hands into prayer pose (anjali mudra) in front of the heart. Press each finger and knuckle evenly into it’s matching counterpart. Keep the heel of the hands together and lower the hands down towards the hips, keeping fingers pointed up. Only bring the hands lower if you are not feeling any pain in the wrists. Doing this for only a moment or two each day will slowly stretch your wrists by placing them into extension without placing too much pressure on them according to Ms. Gudmestad at Yogajournal.com.
Upside Down Prayer
To counter pose the prayer bring the backs of the hands together, point the fingers down and bring the wrists up, keeping the tops of the hands together and pressing the hands evenly together.
While in childs pose (balasana) place your hands flat on the mat and move all of the fingers and hands to the left and hold for a breath, back to center, then to the right and hold for a breath. Bring them back to center. Repeat. (Wrist Deviation Exercises, Center for Orthopaedics) This movement of the wrists practices ulna and radial deviation.
Remain in balasana and tuck the thumbs underneath the hands. Hold for a few rounds of breath. This is great to combat phone thumbs, and it’s a great brain exercise and challenge off the mat.
Pronation & Supination
Bring the arms up and extend them out and down so they are parallel with the floor, palms down. Alternate turning the palms up and down, rotating through the forearm and moving with your breath. This brings the wrists into supination (palms facing up) and pronation (palms facing down). (Health.harvard.edu)
While the arms are extended out bring the tips of the fingers in towards the palm and take a slow, deep breath. Gently pull the knuckles into the palms to form a fist, and take another slow, deep breath. Straighten the fingers so they point down to the ground while your palms remain parallel with the ground, inhale fully, and exhale. (Restore Plus Physical Therapy). This encourages tendon gliding in the fingers.
Bonus Exercise: Hanging
This exercise is a bonus because you can’t really work it into a yoga class unless you happen to be in a grove of trees or teaching in a gym with pull up bars. However, it is probably the most important exercise of them all because it counteracts the forces of compression in the wrists. Simply find a tree branch, play structure, or pull up bar and hang from it. That’s all. It’s harder than it sounds, but it is amazing for improving the strength and mobility of your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. You’re welcome.
Hopefully this information will help you support your students who struggle with wrist pain and allow them to safely continue their yoga practice. I’m happy to report that after following the advice in this article, my wrists are on the mend. I even indulge in the occasional vinyasa now and then. Now it’s your turn! I’d love to hear what strategies you use to keep your students’ wrists safe. Please share your modifications and exercises for wrist health in the comments below.
“5 Exercises to Improve Hand Mobility” Harvard Health Publications. Published 29 Sept, 2015. Web accessed 17 Feb, 2016.
Gudmestad, Julie. LPT. “Protecting Your Wrists.” Yoga Journal. Published 28 Aug, 2007. Web accessed 17 Feb, 2016.
“Tendon Gliding Exercise”. Restore Plus Physical Therapy. Published 29 Apr, 2014.Youtube accessed 21 Feb, 2016.
“What Causes Wrist Pain? 14 Possible Conditions.” Healthline.com. Medical reviewed by George Krucik. Web accessed 21 Feb, 2016.
“Wrist Deviation Exercise” pdf. Center for Orthopaedics. Portland, ME. Web accessed 17 Feb, 2016.