Most yoga injuries aren’t severe and are easy to ignore. Maybe you stretched just a little too much and your hamstring is sore the next day. Wrist injuries, on the other hand, are a bitch, and you can damage your wrists easily if you don’t take care. That’s certainly not something you want. When your wrists are injured, it can be hard to do even the smallest tasks, let alone yoga.
At some point during your practice you’re going to encounter arm balances or other poses that require your weight to be on your hands. The fear of injuring your wrists may stop you from attempting them. Even worse, you might proceed anyway with improper alignment, and build up permanent damage to your wrists.
This was a big concern of mine when I started practicing yoga. I have had carpal tunnel syndrome since I was a young teenager, and I was worried about making it worse. Even though I have since learned how to prevent wrist injuries in my own yoga practice, I did it the hard way: trial and error.
Here is what expert yoga instructors have to say about preventing wrist injuries in yoga.
1. Don’t be afraid of modifications
“I broke my wrist in 2003. I learned to modify all poses — except downward dog — with my forearms on the floor,” Beth Shaw, owner of YogaFit explains. “You can modify the downward dog into a quarter dog by placing your forearms on the ground. But many poses — including downward dog — can also be done with the fists to protect the wrists and create stability.
“If you do end up putting all your weight on your hands in a pose, like a handstand, spread your fingers as wide as you can and concentrate on pressing into your fingertips so that it takes pressure off your wrists,” Shaw continues. “Or you can do a handstand by placing blocks under each hand and gripping them. It also helps to get someone to lift you into the handstand position.”
2. Connect with your body
“One of the key pieces of knowledge that you learn by practicing yoga is the ability to become connected to your physical self,” says Jamie Martin Wilson, a freelance Hatha/Iyengar instructor. “Since yoga is a practice that requires gradual building upon and mindful strengthening, you will know your time. It is by this interaction with yourself that you become able to acknowledge your capabilities, strengths, limitations, or injuries for the present moment.
“As you practice your asanas, for example downward facing dog, you will learn to distribute the weight within your palms and fingers and as the pose presents a weight bearing action, one will eventually strengthen their wrists. Always working to the edge: where you feel your limit without pain. It is helpful to work with a teacher that you feel comfortable and trust that will guide you with support,” concludes Jamie.
3. Warm Up
“To prevent wrist injuries in yoga one must ‘warm up’ the area/body to prepare for the pose,” says Lily Eslahjou, instructor at BodyHoliday LeSport in St. Lucia. “Specifically for arm balances it is important to stretch the wrists. Kneeling on the mat and fingers pointing back to knees on the mat, hold the position for 5 -10 breaths, stretch the tops of the wrists as well by making fists arms straight out and dropping fists down. Circle wrists in both directions.
“If kneeling down to stretch wrists is a problem because of knee injuries then wrists can be stretched by placing hands on the wall, arms straight out, shoulders aligned with wrists,” Eslahjou suggests. “At least 5-8 sun salutations to warm up the body and wrists through plank, chaturanga will be enough to move into arm balances safely.”
4. Learn Proper Alignment
“When learning arm balances, there are two important things to remember to keep your wrists strong and avoid wrist pain,” Montreal-based instructor Jennifer Kruidbos begins. “The first is alignment. In the vast majority of arm balancing poses, it’s best to align the center of the wrist with the outside of the shoulder, making sure the index fingers are parallel to one another. This prevents bending sideways, which can strain the wrists.
“The second thing to remember is strength,” Kruidbos continues. “When doing arm balancing posing, press down through the knuckles at the base of the index and middle fingers, and grip the mat with the tips of all four fingers and the thumb. This will cause the arch of the hand to lift, distributing your weight evenly so it’s not on the heel of the hand, which is what tends to cause wrist pain.”
5. Distribute your weight equally
“There are a few keys to preventing wrist injuries during arm balances,” says Laura Calcaterra, owner and instructor at Big Yoga in Houston. “Equal weight distribution throughout your hands, stacking your elbow joints directly on top of your wrist joints before putting weight on your wrists, and also using your core to lift your body weight up instead of dumping your weight into your arms and wrists. It is also important to set your ego aside and come out of the pose if you start to feel pain in your wrist. Have fun playing with arm balances rather than pushing toward a desired outcome!”
6. Set the foundation
“Avoid wrist injury by turning the hand outward,” says Sid McNairy, owner and founder of Sid Yoga. “This sets the foundation for shoulders to be open and elevate pain in the wrist. Placing blocks under hand is another way to elevate the tension in the wrist. Another way is to keep the wrist straight. This can be performed by practicing on their fist. These few modifications will aid a practitioner in prevention of wrist problems.”
7. Be ready to adjust your energy
“The general rule of thumb I give to my students is to listen to their bodies,” explains Natascha Bohmann, 200RYT and owner of Udana Yoga and Wellness in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. “If something hurts, your body is telling you that an adjustment is needed – whether physically or energetically. Self-awareness is really the foundation for addressing or preventing wrist pain. By understanding both physical and energetic alignment, one can easily modify or correct a pose and, ultimately, find and build the strength in the pose.
“For example, in plank pose, the alignment over the shoulders is key (and helps make the pose feel noticeably better),” Bohmann says. “Someone with carpal tunnel or weak wrists can access the pose through a modified plank (placing the knees and tops of the feet on the ground), by coming into a dolphin plank (forearms to the ground), or by adding additional support under the hands (such as folding the mat for extra cushion or using a towel).
“In terms of energetic alignment,” continues Bohmann, “it’s important to understand proper distribution of energy throughout the hands. One should avoid collapsing weight into the wrists. The energy should be even across the four corners of the hand while creating a sense of lifting through the center of the hand.
“A simple way to experiment with this is in table top pose. Try shifting the energy in the hands and notice the difference between putting pressure into the wrists (with the weight primarily at the base of your hand) versus distributing the energy throughout the hand. Building strength in the wrists takes time, but with awareness of alignment in both the physical body and from an energetic perspective, one can step onto the mat and meet their practice with renewed confidence.”
8. Be mindful
Dana Santas, a yoga instructor who works with major league sports teams, advises, “Avoid mindless collapse straight down into the wrist joint with a flat palm. Set your stance with a conscious distribution of weight and force through the hand that begins under the thumb and first finger (and space between) and spreads out across the other fingers (without putting too much pressure on the outside). Pressing down with the pads of the fingers–almost as though you are sliding them inward towards your palm–helps to avoid a flattening collapse into the palm and wrist joint.
9. Stretch, strengthen, and support
“Our wrists are something that we often take for granted,” yoga teacher and Lululemon Ambassador Vanessa Van Noy tells us. “Keeping them safe and injury-free is not something often contemplated until we find ourselves injured. When practicing, a few simple considerations can keep our wrists strong, supple, and intact.
“Stretch. The wrists often get tight and we don’t even notice. Limited range of motion is often a cause of injury. Strengthen. Doing poses in which you bear your own body weight are important to keep them healthy long term. Poses that keep the wrist at a right angle or greater like Downward Facing Dog and Plank are a good place to start. Making sure the shoulders don’t move past the wrists,” cautions Van Noy. “And support them in the process. Always be willing to let your wrists rest if they feel sore or wrap them if you feel that they could use some reinforcement.”
10. Remember it’s only yoga
“The best tip I can give to prevent wrist injuries in yoga is to really think about spreading your fingers wide on your yoga mat, to distribute your weight evenly throughout your hands,” says Nathalie Croix, founder of Shanti Yoga Shala in New Orleans. “We put so much weight on our hands during practice that is important to be very aware about weight distribution. For example, in a pose like downward facing dog it’s ideal to think about pressing your heels down as you move your thighs back and lift your hips and simultaneously spread all fingers of your hands and feel all knuckles of the fingers grounding and pressing into the mat, grounding the pose.
“If a student cannot bear weight try dropping the elbows on the mat, and modifying with a dolphin pose instead of the traditional downward facing dog. Please remember to take rest as much as needed during practice. It’s OK to skip a pose or two. It’s only yoga! We are doing yoga as a life long practice not just for today,” Croix reminds us.