If you suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), the idea of subjecting your aching wrists to the rigors of yoga might seem out of the question. But according to a number of Iyengar Yoga teachers, the practice can offer just the healing you need.
A study led by Marianne Garfinkel, Ed.D., a faculty lecturer at Hahnemann University in Philadelphia and a yoga practitioner, has given credence to the idea that certain asanas can facilitate wrist rejuvenation.
Published in 1998 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study tracked 42 people with CTS who practiced a yoga-based regimen comprised of 11 postures for strengthening, stretching, and balancing upper body joints, as well as relaxation, twice weekly for two months. Compared to a control group who did not practice yoga, the yoga group showed better grip strength and a reduction in pain.
Judith Lasater, Ph.D., a physical therapist and San Francisco-based Iyengar Yoga instructor for nearly 30 years, isn't surprised by the findings. "One of the most unique aspects of the Iyengar approach is the amount of focus paid to proper alignment in the poses," she explains. "Because CTS is often made worse by improper alignment, Iyengar Yoga can be an aid to prevention and cure."
Sandy Blaine, an Iyengar-influenced yoga instructor who runs CTS-preventive yoga workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area, says that combating mild to moderate CTS symptoms is primarily a matter of "counteracting the repetitive movements that created them. That means stretching out the upper back, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and wrists." Her 75-minute class includes movements that prevent the nerve channels in the forearms from closing off, such as the upper body part of Garudasana (Eagle Pose) and the hand position of anjali mudra, or namaste, in front and in back of the torso. She recommends that "desk potatoes" spend 30 minutes a day stretching out those areas, ideally in two 15-minute segments. "The more flexible and strong those muscles are, the more they're going to reap the benefits," she explains.
Lasater highlights Tadasana (Mountain Pose) as a key posture. "It brings awareness of the perfect standing position, which can then be transferred to the sitting position. When you sit or stand with the perfect spinal curves, you minimize the strain on the soft tissues of the head, neck, and arms which can lead to CTS." In addition, a simple backbending pose such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) "helps to counteract the forward-looking and forward-reaching posture many of us adopt when we sit all day at a desk," she adds.
CTS healing really comes down to two key factors, says Lasater—awareness and postural alignment. "All types of yoga are centered on teaching students to be aware of their posture, breathing, and thoughts. This helps increase awareness of postural habits, which can contribute to injury. And learning specifically how to sit, how to lift, and how to stretch during breaks at work can also be very useful. For this, yoga is the perfect teacher."