Newcomers to yoga are often surprised by how much attention teachers pay to their feet during class. After all, our feet are our connection to the Earth, and the foundation from which our standing poses grow. But what about hands? They, too, form a foundation for poses like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and the other arm balances. Just like the feet, the way your students use their hands will affect their balance and set the stage for the pose to grow from its roots in the Earth.
With a little knowledge about the structure of the hands and wrists, teachers could also inform students about how to correctly use their hands. Not only will the pose's foundation be more stable, but the whole pose will be better aligned. And probably most important, they'll reduce their chances of acquiring the nagging hand and wrist problems that are increasingly prevalent with more weight bearing on the hands and arms.
Hands vs. Feet
Hands and feet share similar bones and muscles, and the hands, like the feet, even have arches. There are differences, of course, that reflect the specialized functions of each. The structures of the foot, for example, are considerably stronger and thicker in order to bear weight, and the hand has nothing like the big, strong calcaneus (heel bone) that's designed to absorb the impact of the heel striking the ground when walking. In addition, the phalanges (finger and toe bones) are short in the toes but long in the fingers, allowing humans to perform finely-coordinated activities like playing the piano and drawing.
Most of us can't readily write or paint a picture with our feet, but we know that with special training, humans can learn. Similarly, bearing weight on the hands doesn't come naturally, and can cause painful problems in the hands and wrists, especially when students suddenly start spending a lot of time on their hands. That explains why complaints about wrist pain are common after a student who's relatively new to yoga starts practicing many cycles of Sun Salutations every day. As in any new activity, advise your students to start bearing weight on the hands and arms gradually, beginning with a few minutes every other day. That 48-hour interval allows the body to repair and build stronger structures, including muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
The way you use and position your hands while bearing weight on them makes a difference, too. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) is a good pose in which to work on hand awareness with your students. Begin by asking them to simply notice which part, or parts, of the hand and fingers are bearing most of the weight. Unless they've already worked attentively with their hand action, chances are good that they're bearing more weight on the heels of your hands than the metacarpal heads (base of the fingers where they join the palms). This tendency to lean into the heels of the hands will add more compression, and eventually discomfort, in the wrists.
Then, invite them to come to hands and knees, with the heels of their hands under their shoulders. Prompt them to look down at their hands and spread their fingers so that they have the same amount of space between each finger. Their fingers should be out straight and long from the palm of their hands and be actively pressing down the base of each finger where it joins the palm. (One of the gifts of Downward-Facing Dog is stretching the fingers out of their habitually flexed, or curled, position.) From the base of the little finger to the base of the thumb these knuckle joints form a half-circle of contact points, and inside that arc is the natural arch of the hand, which should be light and lifted off the floor.
Instruct your students to keep those contact points pressed down firmly as they lift their knees up and come into Downward-Facing Dog. From the grounded finger bases, remind them to keep stretching each finger out of the palm, and at the same time they should feel that they're lifting their forearms up out of their wrists. If the bases of the fingers share part of the weight, less weight (and compression) will rest on the heels of the hands and wrists. From the lift of the arch of the hand, it's possible to lift and lengthen all the way up to the hips, uncompressing your wrists, elbows, shoulders, and spine along the way.
Build upon the Foundation
When your students have learned how to distribute weight more evenly through the hands, they will be able to begin apply that knowledge to more challenging poses like Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and other arm balances. These poses are more challenging than Adho Mukha Svanasana because there is more weight on the hands, and the wrists are at 90 degrees instead of the more open angle of Downward-Facing Dog.
Keeping grounded around the periphery of the palm, and lifting from the arch, can bring a new lightness and better balance to these challenging poses.
Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.