Do your wrists hurt during or after handstand, bakasana, other arm balances, or even chaturanga dandasana? Tightness in the wrists and forearms is a common cause of pain and injury to the hand and wrist, and it also leads to alignment problems cascading up the arms to the shoulders and back. When the arches of the hands collapse, weight goes into the joint. Proper alignment, working the arches of the hands, and doing some direct wrist openers will go a long way to preventing injury and making your wrists happier!
In plank pose, the shoulders come directly over the wrists with the wrist creases parallel to the front of the yoga mat. If the hands are too close to the feet, the shoulders will come forward of the wrists, decreasing the angle between forearm and hand, and crunching the wrist joint. In order to bring this angle back to 90 degrees, draw the shoulders back by stepping the feet back or moving the hands forward, and make sure to draw the heels strongly back rather than rocking onto the toes in plank. You can also try a wedge or a thin blanket under the wrists but not the hands. Both of these options will increase the hand-forearm angle.
If your hands are angled inward so that your pinky or ring fingers are the ones pointing forward, the outer hands will tend to lift off the mat, rocking weight into the wrist joints. Instead, point your middle or even index fingers forward, ground the outer hands, and then work on grounding the index knuckles, making a firm arch. These alignment principles go for most arm balances as well.
There are three arches in the hands. One runs across the heads of the finger bones, lifting the middle and ring knuckles and grounding the index and pinky knuckles (the distal transverse arch). Another runs from those knuckles to the heel of the hand, lifting the palm (the longitudinal arch). A third runs across the heel of the hand between the ends of the two arm bone (the proximal transverse arch).
We’ve already talked about the action of the distal transverse arch – ground the outer hands as well as the index knuckles. In order to activate the longitudinal arch, press firmly into the fingertips. This is especially key in arm balances like handstand. The proximal transverse arch is activated by drawing the bases of the thumb and pinky together and down.
One issue that makes tight wrists more tricky to deal with is tight thumbs. I’ve noticed that laptop users are particularly susceptible. When the thumbs are tight, it becomes much more difficult to ground the index knuckle, which wants to lift to come closer to the thumb and relieve the stretch. One thing that helps is to allow the thumbs to roll internally, facing the thumb nails in toward the midline rather than up.
• Take your hands together in prayer position. Press the right hand into the left, shifting the whole arrangement to the left. Press evenly into the index knuckle, pinky knuckle, outer heel of the hand, and base of the thumb. Gently tip the right ear toward the right shoulder. Breathe into the opening from the wrist to the elbow to the shoulder to the skull. Repeat on the other side.
• Lie on your back, bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. Take your arms out to the sides. Extend your hands, pointing your fingers up toward your shoulders. Moving with your breath, roll the arms out, touching the pinky edge to the floor, then roll the arms in, bringing the thumb to the floor. Next, flex your hands, pointing your fingers down toward your armpits. Play with rolling your head to one side then the other. Keep your elbows on the floor throughout.
• Take your hands in prayer. Turn the right hand forward 45 degrees so that the right fingers point slightly away from you. Keeping the meat of your thumbs together, wrap your left fingers around onto the top of your right knuckles. Firmly extending your right fingers, squeeze your right hand with your left. Press the base of your left thumb into the base of the right (the meaty first bone). Press the left thumb away from the midline while squeezing the index and middle knuckles toward the midline. To deepen the stretch, roll the right fingers up toward vertical.
• After deep wrist stretches like the above, from prayer position, interlace your fingers, separate your hands, and roll your wrists gently in each direction.
Do a few wrist stretches before your first plank and you’ll find the arches of your hands much more ready to work. Proper alignment will make the work easier. But above all, work within your means to gradually open and strengthen instead of learning the hard way with a wrist injury. Bring awareness to your hands so that you can tell when the arches are collapsing, and if they just won’t arch, put less weight on them!