One of the first things we are taught in our physical yoga practice is how to activate the muscles in our feet to create a more stable foundation. Teachers commonly rely on cues such as “anchor your weight evenly among the four corners of your feet,” “spread your toes,” and “lift your arches” to help us take action in ways that steady ourselves in all manner of standing and balancing poses. This includes Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), and balancing poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose).
We don’t often think about it, but similar actions are equally essential when it comes to poses in which we bear weight on our hands, including Plank Pose, Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), arm balances such as Bakasana (Crow or Crane Pose), and inversions including Handstand. Because we are relatively unaccustomed to this orientation, we’re unfamiliar with what’s required to create a balanced base. Instead, we tend to use the supporting muscles and skeletal system inefficiently, which means we end up tiring quickly.
This is perhaps most obvious in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), in which our arms are overhead, our gaze is toward our feet, and our hands are out of sight. Ideally, we would activate our hands in poses like Down Dog in the same way we engage our feet in yoga standing poses: sharing the load among a larger number of bones and muscles to make our base more stable.
Instead, we tend to focus instead on the effort in our shoulders, the tilt of our sit bones, or the tension in our hamstrings to the exclusion of what our hands are doing. As a result, it’s common for our hands to be passive, our knuckles to lift, and the index finger side of our hand to release from the mat. And this is a problem.
Why you need to support your wrists in Down Dog
There are two potentially negative consequences from not equally distributing the weight throughout our hands in any sort of inversion, including Downward-Facing Dog:
1. Excess neck and shoulder tension
First, sitting heavily in the outer wrist sends our weight toward the smaller forearm bone, the ulna, rather than the larger forearm bone, the radius. In this weight-bearing pathway, there’s less contact area between the bones at the wrist and elbow, meaning more muscle engagement is required to maintain a stable position.
It helps to visualize the anatomy of the arms and hands. The ulna is on the underside of the forearm. You can feel one end as the bony knob on the little finger edge of your wrist and the other end as the “funny bone” at the tip of your elbow. The ulna almost floats to the outer edge of the wrist, with very limited surface area in contact with the weight-bearing bones of the hand.
At the elbow, the ulna cups around the end of the upper arm bone, or humerus. This joint shape creates a lot of contact between the ulna and humerus when we bear weight with our elbows bent or on our forearms, but much less contact when our arms are straight. The limited bone-to-bone contact means our arm and shoulder muscles have to work a lot harder to hold us up. Repeated pose after pose, class after class, that can result in excess tension, not just in our arms, but also further up in our shoulders and neck.
When we anchor the index finger side of our hands, we transfer the load directly from our hands to the radius. As well as being a larger, and therefore stronger, bone, the radius has more joint surface area at the wrist, and more direct contact with the humerus at the elbow when our arms are straight. All of this means that supporting the majority of our weight through the radius is more efficient, requiring less energy and muscular effort than overloading the ulna.
2. Irritation of the carpal tunnel
Sitting heavy on our wrists also has the potential to impact the carpal tunnel, a small hollow formed by the shape of the wrist bones, or carpals, that contains key nerves and tendons that supply the hands. The index finger and thumb create the bulk of our grip strength; failing to utilize these digits leaves us heavy on the heel pad of the palm, which decreases the space available for the carpal tunnel and can put pressure on vital structures. Over time, this pressure can cause irritation, especially to the nerves running through the carpal tunnel, potentially leading to pain or numbness.
When we ground through our index fingers, we disperse our body weight more evenly among the bones of the hands and relieve the carpal tunnel. Also, when we tap into the strength of the index finger and thumb by pressing them actively into the mat, we create an arch under the palm of the hand and the centre of the wrist, similar to the arch of the foot, further decreasing the load on the carpal tunnel.
The one cue to help support your wrists in Down Dog
The most effective cue to counteract this tendency is simply “press into your index fingers” or “ground through your index fingers and thumbs.” This simple action creates less of a burden on structures that are less suited to carrying weight, such as the carpal tunnel, and more efficiently transfers the load to the larger muscles of your torso.
These cues are exactly what we need to leave us feeling stronger, more stable, and safer in poses like Down Dog.
About our contributor
Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.