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When you push yourself up into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose), do your wrists ache and your thoughts race because you feel like you’re going to collapse?
That’s your body’s way of compensating for tightness in your shoulders. And unless you address this one thing, these same issues will continue to happen each time you attempt to come into any pose that takes your arms overhead and forces your wrists to support your body weight.
Knowing this, the solution becomes simple: Take actions to address your lack of flexibility.
The one muscle that adversely affects your Wheel Pose
When you explore which shoulder muscles are activated by Wheel Pose, you’ll find the usual suspects: deltoids, trapezius, triceps, and pectoral muscles. But there’s another muscle at play.
The serratus anterior is your “pushing muscle.” Located along your upper ribs right beneath your armpit, it is most pronounced in Chaturanga Dandasana, where it helps you push the floor away and stabilize your shoulder blades. The muscle functions the same way in any pose that brings your arms overhead to help keep you aloft. Its supportive role as an essential stabilizer is even more essential in weight-bearing backbends and high-risk yoga postures including Handstand Scorpion, Forearm Scorpion, and any pose in which you practice Hollow Back.
A lot of times we think that we’re engaging certain muscles in our postures, but actually those muscles are either weakly engaged or not engaged at all. And it’s really difficult to tell what’s happening in a muscle unless we physically touch it and feel for tension. You can do this by palpating, or touching, your serratus anterior when you’re practicing so that you start to recognize the feeling of that muscle being engaged.
The relationship between tight shoulders and sore wrists
Typically, when we feel strain or pain during our yoga practice, we look to the place we’re experiencing discomfort to alleviate it. But the sensations you experience in your wrists during Wheel Pose often originate in your shoulders, much in the way knee pain can arise as a result of something happening in your hips or feet.
The achiness you experience in Wheel happens because your shoulders and wrists are supporting your body weight. But the more you bring your shoulders directly over your wrists, the less your wrists will be in a compromised state of hyperextension.
This means that the solution to creating less wrist strain in Wheel Pose isn’t necessarily stretching your wrists for a few seconds before you attempt the backbend. It’s addressing the tightness in your shoulders. Because no amount of positive vibes or affirmations or trying will get you to a flexible and painless state when you straighten your arms in Wheel. Not unless you also look at what’s physically compromising your ability to stack your shoulders over our wrists.
3 exercises to help you prep for Wheel Pose
The following exercises enhance your ability to come into shoulder flexion and external rotation so you can more easily reach your arms overhead. Because you’re not bearing weight on your shoulders or wrists during these exercises, they’re safe to practice no matter where you are in your practice of Wheel Pose.
You won’t experience these movements in a typical yoga practice, but when you regularly incorporate them into your warm-up or even your flow, you’ll experience an unprecedented sense of strength and confidence when you attempt Wheel Pose.
The drills are surprisingly easy and subtle movements, but the more awareness you can bring to engaging your muscles and your awareness, the stronger and more supported you’ll feel when you bring these actions together in Urdhva Dhanurasana. When you practice these exercises, stay on alert for falling into your old actions, including letting your elbows splay, jutting your lower ribs out, and arching your lower back. Understanding how to engage particular muscles without coming into any of these compensatory actions helps you know the safe limit to your range of motion (known as your active end-range mobility) in your shoulder joint.
The video below demonstrates the drills and explains the anatomy in more detail. Whether you’re practicing Wheel Pose or teaching it, you’ll benefit from the additional instructions below.
1. Dynamic Internal Rotation Drill
How it helps: This dynamic stretch targets and stretches the internal rotators of your shoulders. “But wait,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t we supposed to be working on our external rotators for Wheel Pose?” And that’s correct. But stretching your internal rotators helps you better engage your external rotator muscles. This is especially noticeable in weight-bearing backbends such as Wheel.
How to: Come to standing. Try to keep your shoulder blades down as you bend your elbows at your sides and “flap your wings.” Keep your back and head straight and in alignment with one another to ensure the integrity of the stretch in your shoulders. Repeat 10 to 20 times.
2. External Rotation and Elevation Drill
How it helps: This drill works on scapular elevation, which prevents you from dumping, or collapsing, into your shoulders when you’re bearing weight on your wrists. In this drill, you’re focusing on the serratus anterior. The main takeaway here is learning to palpate, or touch, your muscles to check for engagement. It’s really difficult to tell what’s happening in a muscle unless we physically touch it. This was one of the most helpful things I brought from medical school into my yoga practice and teaching.
How to: Come to standing. Extend one arm straight in front of your shoulder and then externally rotate your arm as far as you can by turning your arm so the crease of your elbow faces the ceiling. Then slowly reach that arm alongside your head without trying to keep your shoulder blade down until your body starts to introduce compensatory actions like arching in your lower back or side-bending in your spine. Notice the point where you start to compensate. Use your other hand to palpate your serratus anterior muscle, found just beneath your armpit, to ensure it’s taut and engaged. Pause here and notice what it feels like for your muscle to engage. Stay here for 3-5 breaths. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.
3. Dolphin Scapular Elevations Drill
How it helps: This drill is based on Dolphin Pose and practices the muscular engagement you need to come into and hold Wheel Pose. It applies the same principles as the previous drills while adding a little body weight. You’re keeping your external rotators fired up while you push the ground away to protect your shoulder from impingement (elevating and upwardly rotating your shoulder blades). This helps you protect your shoulders when you come into Wheel Pose.
Bear in mind, this isn’t about how deep you can go into Dolphin. It’s about how much control you have in your end-range mobility, or how strong and steady you can remain in the pose without dumping, or collapsing, into your shoulder joints. This would be the equivalent of learning how to not dump into your standing hip joint in Virabhradrasana III (Warrior 3). The same kind of integration and lift you want to feel from your standing leg in that pose is the same sensation that you want to feel practicing scapular elevation lifts in this drill.
How to: Start to set up for Dolphin Pose with your elbows shoulder-width apart. Externally rotate your arms to the same degree as in the previous exercise. Press down firmly through your hands and elbows as you walk your feet toward your hands, stopping when you notice most of your focus turns to the stretch in your hamstrings and ease up a little. Then pulse your shoulder blades into and out of scapular elevation. I usually cue this as lifting your head away from the ground. You want to maintain the external rotation in your arms as much as possible as you pulse. Push into the ground with your arms harder each time you elevate your shoulders.
If you notice your arms internally rotating or collapsing, you’re probably too deep in your Dolphin Pose, so ease up on the intensity by bending your knees or not lifting your hips so high. Remember, the shape isn’t the goal in this drill. The proper engagement of the external rotators and scapular elevation is what you’re practicing.
About our contributor
Hiro Landazuri is the founder of Body Smart Yoga. He empowers others with the necessary tools to grow into their ideal selves. He regularly teaches in-person and online workshops and shares teaching videos on Instagram.