I’m seriously questioning why I signed up for a Sun Salutation Lab at Yoga Journal LIVE! in San Diego. I’ve hardly practiced Surya Namaskar since I injured my rotator cuff in those very poses. And, as exhilarated as I used to feel after flowing, my wrists just plain hurt. I blamed it on thin bones, maybe age, and switched to Iyengar.
Here comes Annie Carpenter, a master vinyasa teacher with a personality as bright as the sun and a stature slender like a flamingo. There goes my theory. She asks the class if we have sensitive wrists, elbows or shoulders. Hands fly into the air.
“Perhaps even after four or five days of vinyasa in a row there’s fatigue or strong sensation in some of these joints,” says Carpenter, the creator of SmartFLOW Yoga. “Once you pass, let’s be general and say 30, I think that’s true. I don’t mean to imply you should stop doing vinyasa. I’m only 56 and I do it most days of the week!”
I’m in the right place. The key, she says, starts with cupcake hands. Really, straight from the mouth of Annie Carpenter who’s instructing us to do Child’s Pose on our fingertips like we have two giant cupcakes in our palms.
“It’s a tall cupcake!” she says to a chorus of muffled laughs. “Oh no! There’s smashing of cupcakes.”
Who wants to smash a cupcake? Carpenter says she borrowed the tantalizing term from another teacher because it highlights an important reality; if we don’t have the ability to do a vinyasa on cupcake hands, we’re not getting proper lift of the forearms, armpits and core. If the front body doesn’t have that support we’re dumping on our wrists and shoulders. Check. We venture into Downward-Facing Dog—cradling those cupcakes. (Try it—it’s fun!) Then we move on to a more sustainable hand lock.
Hasta Bandha: While I’d previously been trying to press my palms flat on the mat, in Hasta Banda we suction up from the center palm so it’s no longer touching the mat. (Insert Carpenter’s suctioning sound effects here, closely related to the slurp.) Fingers are still pressing down and forward. Now we bring the mouth of the thumb and the mouth of the pinky in a tad to create a little canal between the two mounds of the hand. (The carpal tunnel to be exact.) Okay, keeping the canal open, stretch through the index finger. Feel the tendons in your forearms come online? If so, you’re having the lightbulb moment I did as my wrists become buoyant.
Not that it’s easy. “We’re tired already!” one student says before we’ve started flowing. Carpenter’s strategy is to get the foundation down before the weightier poses.
So next up is the shoulder girdle. She says it doesn’t change one iota between Standing Forward Bend and Upward-Facing Dog in your Sun Salutation. As Carpenter guides us through a round, a new horizon opens for my wrists and shoulders. Here are some tips that helped.
Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend): Carpenter says if she could fix one Sun Salutation pose, this would be it! The main thing I was doing wrong is putting my fingertips on the earth, with a rounded back. Carpenter told those of us with rounded backs to bend our knees and place our hands on the side of the shins so the back flattens. (Putting hands on the fronts of the shins encourages legs to hyperextend.) Now, widen across the collarbones, extend through the heart, and pull the shoulder blades down so the neck lengthens. As those shoulder blades push into the chest, lift from the bottom of the sternum, and extend the top of the sternum forward. Keep the shoulders on the back where they belong.
Plank Pose: Bend your knees enough to place your hands on the floor and step into plank without changing your shoulders. At this point, Carpenter adjusts me by lifting my bottom sternum up so my torso rises. I’m out of my wrists and into my core power! (Shaking and all.)
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose): Shift slightly forward into Chaturanga keeping the same shoulderactions: widen across collarbones, lift bottom ribs and bottom sternum up and back, slide shoulder blades down back. I’m doing a pose I’d avoided for the past year—pain-free! My hand lock is on and my core is solid.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog): Flowing into Upward Dog, Carpenter instructs us to move our feet back to keep the shoulders over the wrists, not in front of them. Reach back through the legs, she says, which both stacks the arms and keeps us out of the lower back. Now, pull the chest forward and push the floor away. Carpenter is tugging back on the feet of one yogi now sporting perfect Upward Dog form and a bright red face. Like I said, this is work—but it feels good.
“That’s why we do workshops like this, because you have old hawk eyes catching every little thing,” Carpenter says. "It’s nitpicky but if you get this, flowing is fun for many years to come.”
Carpenter is a shining example. I leave feeling a new dawn of Sun Salutations and gratitude for the sweetness of cupcake hands.