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It’s a familiar scenario: A stressed-out office worker is bent over her work station, typing away at a keyboard over hours, days, weeks, and years, resulting in tension, pain, or repetitive stress injury to her neck, shoulders, and wrists. A well-meaning colleague tells her yoga can help and invites the sufferer to his favorite yoga class. Unfortunately, depending on the class, this new student might be asked to do a dozen Chaturangas, Downward-Facing Dogs, and Upward-Facing Dogs in quick succession, putting even more strain on her already-inflamed upper extremities. The good intentions of her colleague not withstanding, this is, of course, the last thing our hypothetical office worker needs!
A Perfect Storm for Injury
The last several decades have seen tremendous changes in the way people use their bodies, both on and off the mat. On the mat, the popularity of vinyasa, or flow, styles has transformed the way students and teachers approach yoga. The Sun Salutation is no longer just a warm-up at the beginning of class—it’s often the backbone of an entire class sequence. Off the mat, many of us spend more time than ever hunched over keyboards and pecking at our smartphones, placing extraordinary demands on the hands, wrists, shoulders, and neck. These two trends collide to produce a perfect storm of potential injury to the upper extremities and upper spine.
A flowing vinyasa practice has many joys: It coordinates body, breath, and mind. It promotes strength, heat, and energy. It leaves you in a blissful, post-exertion state of deep relaxation. But if you suffer from tightness, pain, or injury in your neck, shoulders, or wrists, or if you repeatedly practice poses like Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) without proper alignment, a traditional vinyasa practice—where most of the weight-bearing work is done by the hands and arms —can put you at potential risk for injury or inflammation.
A Hands-free Yoga Flow
The hands-free Warrior sequence below is an alternative to vinyasa sequences in which you bear weight in your hands. It offers many of the benefits of a flowing practice without the drawbacks of prolonged or repeated weight-bearing in the upper body. It’s a flowing, breath-centered vinyasa that challenges and stretches the legs, strengthens the core, frees the pelvis, and moves the spine in all directions. It promotes stability in the lower body, which—unlike the upper extremities—is designed to support the body’s weight. Freed from having to support weight, the arms move in a cyclical flowing pattern in coordination with the breath, promoting mobility in the structures of the upper body—the neck, chest, shoulders, and ribcage—allowing you to breathe fully and freely and releasing tension in the upper spine, neck, and shoulders.
If you have tension or pain in your neck, shoulders, or wrists, this sequence will allow you to experience the benefits of a strong flowing vinyasa practice. But even if you’re not in pain, consider it as cross-training for your vinyasa practice. In the same way you might take time off from running and do a related activity to give muscles that have been used repetitively a break, this sequence changes things up.
Finding a Stable Stance
The poses in this series share the same base of support, a stance that’s shorter and wider than what you’re probably used to. You begin by centering your heels under your sitting bones. Once you step forward into the stance for Warrior I, you flow from one pose to the next without shifting the feet. You might be tempted to lengthen or narrow the stance in order to make the poses feel more familiar or “correct,” but resist the urge and notice how it feels to move from this wider, shorter—and more stable—base.
It takes a surprising amount of strength to move through these poses without the help of the arms. You’ll feel the muscles of your core, your legs, and the arches of your feet working more than you might be used to, but you should not experience joint pain. If you feel discomfort or strain in your ankles, knees, or hips, stop and experiment with minor adjustments to the placement of your feet and the alignment of your pelvis.
It’s a powerfully liberating thought: You can do a strong, invigorating, flowing sequence without placing strain on your neck, shoulders, and wrists in the process. Practice this sequence regularly, and the next time you do a Sun Salutation-based vinyasa, you’ll have gained a new perspective—an intuitive, sensory awareness of what it feels like to move from a place of stable support. When it comes to weight-bearing, the legs and feet are the best teachers the arms and hands could hope to have.
Hands-Free Warrior Series
In this sequence, your feet should be in a stance as wide as your sitting bones and short enough lengthwise that you can step out of it without using upper-body momentum. (Resist the urge to line up your feet up along your mat’s center line or heel to heel.)
Move With the Breath
The breathing technique used in this practice is directly inspired by the methods of T.K.V. Desikachar and his father T. Krishnamacharya, whose teachings emphasize the subtleties of how the spine moves with the breath. The technique involves initiating backbending with an inhale that starts at the top of your system and flows downward toward the navel. Exhaling and forward-bending move the opposite way, originating as a contraction from below the navel and moving upward toward the head. If this breath pattern seems unnatural to you, just relax, forget about it, and focus on the quality of your spinal movements. You might notice that your breath naturally follows this pattern after a while.
1. Stand at the back of your mat with your feet as wide apart as your sitting bones.
2. Step your right foot forward, knee bent. Turn your left foot out at 45 degrees. On an exhale, spiral your arms inward, drop your sternum, and look down.
3. Inhale. Lift your arms and sternum and look up. Spiral your arms outward. Exhale and inhale from pose 2 to pose 3, three times. After your third inhale, exhale to pose 4.
4. On your exhale, fold forward. Inhale and exhale from pose 3 to pose 4, 3 times.
5. Inhale. Lift up your torso. Raise your arms parallel to floor; spiral your arms outward.
6. Exhale. Drop your sternum and gaze; spiral arms inward. Inhale and exhale from pose 5 to pose 6, 3 times. After third inhale, exhale to pose 7.
7. On your exhale, keeping the upper arms externally rotated, spiral the forearms inward, palms facing floor. Look straight ahead and take 3 breaths. After your third inhale, exhale to pose 8.
8. On your exhale, turn your pelvis, torso, and arms toward the back leg. Take 3 breaths. After third inhale, exhale to pose 9.
9. On your exhale, wrap your left arm behind the back and bring your right hand to the inside of your right shin.
10. Inhale. Lift your left arm. Exhale and inhale from pose 9 to pose 10, 3 times. After the third exhale, inhale to pose 11.
11. On your inhale, lift your sternum. Exhale; straighten your right leg.
12. Inhale Lift your left arm and look up. Take 3 breaths here. After your third inhale, exhale to pose 13.
13. On your exhale, bend your right knee and fold forward. Take 3 breaths. After your third inhale, exhale to pose 14.
14. On your exhale, with right knee bent, bring the left hand to the outside of the right shin. Wrap right arm behind back; look toward the floor.
15. Inhale. Gaze up and lift your right arm. Exhale and inhale from pose 14 to pose 15, 3 times. After the third exhale, inhale to pose 16.
16. On your inhale, lift the sternum and wrap the right arm around the back. Exhale; straighten front leg.
17. Inhale. Lift your right arm. Take 3 breaths here. After your third inhale, exhale to pose 18.
18. On your exhale, bend your right knee and fold forward. Take 3 full breaths here.
19. Inhale. Lift left heel and extend through torso. Take 3 breaths. After your third inhale, exhale to pose 20.
20. On your exhale, raise your left leg. Inhale; extend through the crown of the head. Take 3 breaths.
21. Inhale. Drop your back foot to the floor, lift your arms, and gaze up. Exhale and lower your arms.
22. Take a wide stance, feet parallel. Inhale; raise arms. Exhale; fold forward. Take 3 full breaths.
23. Return to standing and take 3 full breaths. Repeat entire sequence on the left side. When finished, take Savasana.
Leslie Kaminoff is the co-author of Yoga Anatomy and the founder of The Breathing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to the teaching of individualized breath-centered yoga in New York City.