Friday, 22 February 2013

Handy Work, Part 2: Protecting the Wrists in Hand Balances

Generate stability and lift with good hand technique

The Short of It
Bearing the weight of your body (either partially as in down dog or fully as in balances like handstand) requires you to use your hands in a particular way.  The best way I have found that brings stability and creates lift is as follows:

  • place the hands on the floor, middle finger roughly pointing straight ahead with fingers spread
  • hands are flat on the floor but make an action as though you are trying to make a fist with your hands or as though you are trying to pick up the floor.  The fingers might start to claw a bit (good) just make sure the fingertips stay pressing and the mounds of the fingers (beneath the knuckles)--especially at the base of the index finger--keep pressing down
  • attempt to squeeze the wrists inwards towards one another while also attempting to press the knuckles away from one another.  The action is like you are trying to screw the right palm clockwise into the floor and the left palm anti-clockwise into the floor

The Long of It
In my last post I discussed some of the basic movements at the wrists and fingers and how combining movements can bring stability and freedom to the wrist joint as well as either pull energy (blood, nutrients etc) towards the hand or push it away.

Based on the work of the yogis at Yoga Synergy I tried to show how you can create a bandha around the wrist joint complex to do this.

A bandha (around the wrist known as mani bandha) is basically co-activation of opposing muscles around a particular joint.  In this case, opposing muscles might mean activating muscles that flex the wrist (bring palm closer to forearm) while at the same time activating muscles that extend the wrist (back of hand moves closer to forearm).

While it might sound tricky to flex and extend the wrist at the same time it is made much more simple because many of the muscles that flex the fingers also flex the wrists, while many muscles that extend the fingers also extend the wrists.  This means that you can create this co-activation by either trying to flex the wrist and straighten (extend) the fingers or extend the wrist and flex (curl/bend) the fingers.

In the last post I focussed mainly on how to create these co-activations (bandhas) when the hand is not supporting the weight of our bodies.  However, creating mani bandha is vital to maintaining the integrity of your wrist joints when you place them on the floor and bear weight through them.

It is really important to learn how to bear weight through your hands as there are many simple yoga poses that have us on our hands.  Most new students will end up with sore wrists (and so will many of the oldies if they don't work mindfully) if you do not use the muscles of the hands and forearms properly.

In this post I will show you some tips for maintaining the integrity of the wrist when you place your hands on the floor.  For more experienced practitioners you might find that a few little tweaks using these tips will help you lift higher into some of your arm balances as well.

Alignment & Force Transmission Through the Wrist
You have two long bones on your forearm--the radius and ulna.  As these two bones get closer to your wrist the radius gets wider and the ulna gets thinner.

The bone on the thumb side of the forearm (radius) is thicker  towards the wrist, while the other bone (ulna) is narrower towards the wrist.  The opposite is true at the elbow.  
These two bones cross over one another when you pronate your forearm (turn the forearm so that the the underside faces down as it would be in typing or doing down dog or handstand).  They uncross when you supinate (turn the forearm so that the underside faces up as though to look at the palm of the hand).

The fact that one bone is thicker at the wrist end has important implications for bearing weight through your hands.  It means that force transmission from the forearm to the wrist happens mainly on the radius side (thumb side) of the wrist.

In fact, 80 percent of force transmission from the forearm to the wrist is through the radiocarpal joint, which means you should place most of the body weight on the thumb side of the palm while you co-activate the muscles of the forearm (Borg-Olivier and Machliss, 2011).

You also need to make sure you have aligned the wrist properly for the best force transmission.  The axis of movement of the hand runs in a line through one of the small bones of the wrist and out through the middle finger.  What this means is that when you place your hand on the ground you want an alignment of the middle finger pointing straight ahead.

Stretching or spreading the fingers will help give you a wider base of support as well as more actively engage the muscles of the hands.

What this all means: When placing your hand on the ground, align your hand with the fingers spread and the middle finger pointing roughly straight ahead.  More weight should be on the thumb side of the wrist than the baby finger side.

Ha-mani bandha
Now, just placing your hands in correct alignment is not going to save your wrists from feeling compressed (although it is a good start).  What you will need to do is simultaneously co-activate muscles around the wrist joint.

When the hand is outstretched on the floor about to bear weight the best type of co-activation is ha-mani bandha.  This is where you extend the wrist and flex the fingers as though you were trying to make a fist.

Think about this one carefully.  It is one of the yoga tricks of the trade.  While the fingers look like they are extended (they are), the action you are trying to create is the opposite--of flexion.  And when I say 'make a fist into the floor' you won't actually be able to do it.  The floor is stopping you.  But the action persists.

Different people have different instructions for creating a ha-mani bandha.  Instead of thinking about making a fist, you could try to imagine your hands are like suction cups, pressing down through the fingers, the outer edges of the palm, and through the base of the knuckles but sucking up at the same time.

Another visualisation I often come back to is to imagine you were trying to pick up the floor or imagine you were picking up a basketball one-handed from the floor.  Basically, whatever helps you to extend the wrist while at the same time activate wrist/finger flexors.

Imagine trying to pick up the floor or a basketball. You'll have to spread the fingers and press down through the fingertips while sucking up at the same time. 

What this means: When placing your hands on the ground for weight-bearing work, you need to try to 'flex' or bend the fingers to give the wrist stability.

Finishing touches
Having aligned your hand correctly and cultivated ha-mani bandha by trying to make a fist/pick up the floor/flex the fingers, you can bring stability to the elbow and shoulder and create a greater sense of lift by using another trick.

When the hands are on the ground try to squeeze or drag the wrists closer to one another.  They will not actually move because they are pressing down on the floor.  However, the attempt will trigger muscles around the elbow joint to become active, bringing more stability to that joint.

You can also imagine that you are trying to screw the right hand clockwise into the floor and the left hand anti-clockwise.  This has a similar effect but a different visualisation might help.

In summary, whenever you place your hands on the floor, do so mindfully.  Use the following tips to help you bring a greater sense of stability and to help generate lift.

  • place the hands on the floor, middle finger roughly pointing straight ahead with fingers spread
  • hands are flat on the floor but make an action as though you are trying to make a fist with your hands or as though you are trying to pick up the floor.  The fingers might start to claw a bit (good) just make sure the fingertips stay pressing and the mounds of the fingers (beneath the knuckles)--especially at the base of the index finger--keep pressing down
  • attempt to squeeze the wrists inwards towards one another while also attempting to press the knuckles away from one another.  The action is like you are trying to screw the right palm clockwise into the floor and the left palm anti-clockwise into the floor
Take a look at BKS Iyengar's hands in the following iconic images of him in poses like bakasana and it's one legged counterpart, as well as in handstand.

As always, don't just take my word for it (well, it's not really my word but the words passed to me by my teachers).  Try it out. Right now if you can.

Hopefully you found your whole arm became more stable. As always, if you feel compression or discomfort then back off or stop.  If you continue to experience wrist discomfort then talk to your yoga teacher for appropriate modifications.

Otherwise, try using these instructions in a variety of postures where the hands are on the floor.   Of course, the hands are not the whole picture in any posture when the weight is bearing through them.  Yoga is an integrated, whole body practice.  You'll need to be mindful with regard to the rest of your body, in particular the elbow and shoulder joint complexes.  Look out for more posts on these areas.

Happy and safe practicing.


  1. Hi.
    What a great and informative article! I've been trying to adjust the position of my hands in downward dog just the last couple of days. I have experienced some wrist pain before, when I put too much weight on them. But oddly enough, I feel like this new way of positioning my hands hurts more. It's like I tense up and push my hands towards the floor, and when trying to go from downward dog, through plank pose, to cobra pose it hurts quite a bit in my wrists. I understand the practial part of the hand position and I manage to put my weight in the fingerpads and the mounds, but I feel like I get stuck there, locked in the position. Do you have any suggestions or ideas of what I might be doing wrong?
    Thanks for a great blog!

    1. Hi Lisa,
      Glad you found the article informative. If you get the chance please try a course with Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss in Sydney one day!

      You raise a good point that got me thinking. If your hands feel 'stuck' then you might be holding too much tension in them. You should still be able to feel as though you could move them if you wanted to. This applies in every pose. It is the 'freedom' part that is probably the most important part of yoga (to me anyway).

      So, first, try to tense less and see if that helps. Then, make sure you are breathing naturally. Perhaps try to breathe into the belly. That helps relieve tension too.

      One of the important things about hand use is that you want to combine the feeling that you are making a fist on the floor (gripping) but also 'screwing'. It sounds like perhaps you are not able to get the screwing action perhaps because there is too much tension? You want to feel like the wrists are moving towards one another (but not moving) and the knuckles are moving away from one another (but not actually moving). It is as though your hands are on a jam jar lid each. The right one is screwing clockwise and the left is screwing anti-clockwise. Perhaps you can to grab the mat with your hands and actually screw so they actually move. Then, once you get the feeling, do the screwing action without actually moving.

      I hope that makes sense and is helpful. Don't forget it usually helps to put more weight on the inside edge of the wrists given the forearm bone on that side in downdog is thicker.

      As an interesting aside, I sometimes practice down dog without my fingers or palms on the floor at all and just on the outside of my wrists. Now, I am not suggesting everyone do this but the point is, I am basically on the outside edge of my wrists only with no finger pads touching (the opposite of what I wrote in this article!) but I don't feel compression and feel power because I am still making the basic actions (ie, keeping fingers straight but trying to flex them, screwing action, pressing down through inside of wrist in air). I probably couldn't come into most arm balances like this but I do sometimes do pincha mayurasana in that position.

      If you happen to be in Canberra the next 6 Sundays I am doing a basics course and although you sound like you are definitely not a beginner it is a course where I really want to explore some of these 'basic' positions and ideas to help people's practice so it will be a mix of beginners and experienced yogis.

      Anyway, let me know how that works out for you!

  2. Hi again, thank you so much for answering my question.
    I tried to free my hands, but it just won't work. Especially the more I claw the fingers - then when I try to press the mounds of the fingers down I really get that stuck feeling.
    And, I also feel a bit of pain almost in the middle of my hands, below the mounds. I feel the pain mostly when transitioning to plank pose from downward dog and similar. Along with that, it feels like something in the same place (in the middle of the hands) pops/cracks, kind of like joints cracking, if that makes sense? My wrists, too, have a tendency to crack and pop (I have issues with cracking joints over all). Obviously I'm doing something wrong, even though I understand what to do from how you describe it. I do manage to shift some weight from my wrists, but I feel like I'm somehow hurting my hands.

  3. Hi Lisa,
    Hope you got an email I just sent to you. It sounds like there is perhaps too much tension if words like 'stuck' describe your feeling. In general, it is better to tense less. I wonder if the shoulders and shoulderblades are doing their job? I think it would be great if you could go to a class and see your teacher and show them what is going on--if you are in Canberra come along to one of mine. Your teacher should be able to help once they have seen what is happening. The thing about the body is it is hard to talk about it in isolation and I have singled out the wrist here but wrists are related to elbows and shoulders and trunk so there could be other things interacting! Hard to know without seeing! If what you were doing before is better then do that. Don't ever do anything that causes pain! Mettha,

    1. Hi. I never recieved an email. Would you send it again?
      I think one problem is that I sometimes loose contact between the finger mounds and the ground. Though I consciously try to press them down I've actually noticed that they lift up if a bit.
      I do wish I could come to Canberra and take your class, but unfortunately it's not an option right now.
      Thank you for taking the time and answering. I expect I'll be asking more questions later on :)