Friday, 15 February 2013

Handy Work, Part I: Cultivating strength, stability, and energy flow through the wrist joint

If you find your wrists aching during a yoga class, it is a sign you are not using your hands properly

So much attention is paid to the larger muscles of our bodies that it is easy to forget the small muscles around our wrists, forearms, and hands.   But neglecting these muscles will make it difficult, if not impossible, to practice most of the arm balancing or (hand) weight-bearing postures of yoga.

This includes your ability to maintain a relatively 'simple' pose like kneeling on all fours, along with more difficult ones like adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), bakasana (crow) and adho mukha vrksasana (handstand).

However, even if you are not bearing weight on your hands, you can still practice and energise the wrists and hands to prepare you for when you do.  

It is also important to remember that even if you never do any poses on your hands, the actions and movements you create in your wrists and hands in non-weight bearing postures can either enhance the flow of blood, nutrients, nerve impulses and other forms of energy through the body or constrain it.  

While many of us are focussed on building strength and flexibility, one of the purposes and benefits of yoga is that an intelligent practice should help the movement of energy through your body so that you move more freely, think more clearly, and reduce stress.  

In this first of a two-part post I want to describe ways to use your hands when you are not bearing weight through them. In the second post I will describe ways to use your hands when you are bearing weight through them.  

It's always a good idea to explore the movements of your body before bearing weight on them although you are likely to only truly understand the importance of consciously activating the hands when you are required to support your body weight--partially or entirely--with them.  

First, let's look at the basic movements of the hand.  For simplicity, and following from the work of Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss, we will look at the movements and muscles of the hand as the 'wrist joint complex'.  If you are really interested in what I am writing about and you want to learn more, go straight to the source (follow the link to Simon and Bianca above) or come along to class.

I also want to mention that while I am talking about anatomy here, be mindful that you don't get so caught up in technicalities and anatomical descriptions that you forget to feel what your body is doing.

For me the best yoga practice is always when I poke around from the inside, trying a bit of this and trying a bit of that so that I get a sense of what it feels like in my body to move (or be still).  My first and greatest yoga teacher, Paddy McGrath, is a master at getting you to walk around under the skin and her way of teaching inspires the same sense of freedom and stability without ever needing to mention the name of a muscle at all!

Ultimately, while it can be helpful to deconstruct a pose into its anatomical parts it is of little use to you at all if you are not continually sensing what is going on inside.  And I suspect for some of us who get too caught up in the 'thinking' about yoga, it might be more helpful to leave thinking mind behind and tune into feeling mind.  Some of the best backbends I have ever done have been when I stop thinking about them and just do them.

I guess is my way of saying look at the anatomy so you can understand component parts that will help you to practice safely and perhaps with greater ease while being mindful that you are more than muscles and joints and your body has an amazing intelligence all of its own if you let it be your guide.

Basic movements at the wrist joint complex
Without getting overly complicated, it is enough for most people's yoga practice to remember that your wrist can either flex (palm of the hand moves towards the forearm) or extend (back of the hand moves closer to the forearm).  It can also move sideways, i.e., the whole hand can move in the direction of the thumb (abduction or radial deviation) or the whole hand can move in the direction of the baby finger (adduction or ulnar deviation).  

It is also enough for your average yoga practitioner to think of your fingers as a unit that can either flex (bend in towards the palm as though making a fist) or extend (straighten).  You can also spread your fingers apart from one another and the thumb, in particular, is capable of making many more movements (one of the reasons humans can use so many tools).

Many of the muscles that flex the fingers also cross the wrist joint.  Likewise, many of the muscles that extend the fingers also extend the wrist. 

Having said this, it is important to note that the fingers can move independently of the wrist.  That is, you can flex the wrist while extending the fingers and vice versa.  Of course you can also flex the wrist and the fingers at the same time as well as simultaneously extend both the wrist and the fingers. 

Strength, stability, and energy movement at the wrist joint complex: Mani Bandha
One of the things we want to do before we start weight bearing through the wrists is to make sure we understand how to create strength and stability across the joint as well as how our movements can either enhance the flow of energy (blood, nutrients, nerve signals etc) or reduce it.  

Careful co-activation of opposing muscles across that joint (creating a bandha) is one way to create strength and stability.  This basically means activating muscles that both flex and extend (the wrist or fingers) at the same time.  

There are bandhas at all the major joint complexes.  Mani (meaning hand) bandha (co-activation of opposing muscle groups) is the co-activation of opposing muscles across the wrist joint complex.  I'll be talking a lot about this and other types of bandhas in other posts.  

Captain Shazam (red) with tha-mani bandha and Captain America (blue) with ha-mani bandha
There are two main types of mani banhda: an expansive one that can draw blood and energy towards the hand and a compressive one that will push blood and other energy away from it towards the body.  

Tha-mani bandha typically looks like an outstretched hand while ha-mani bandha typically looks like a closed fist.  

Open hand or opening hand: Tha-mani bandha
In most non(hand)-weight bearing postures the hand will be open.  This includes the numerous standing poses where the arms are out to the side or overhead.  

Uktatasana--chair pose with arms overhead and fingers outstretched

When the arms are overhead or around shoulder height it is usually best to cultivate a hand position that will help draw blood and other energy upwards towards the hands, which will help create a feeling of lightness in the hands and arms rather than heaviness.  

Now, don't just believe everything I write.  Experiment for yourself.  Take your arms overhead and hold a closed fist for a few seconds and notice how your arms and hands feel.  Then, open the hand and stretch the fingers and see if you can feel a difference.  

I call this the 'abracadabra' hand position as it reminds me of comics  I used to read as a kid where there was a wizard casting a spell.  I couldn't find any wizards but I did see a picture of Captain Shazam doing the same thing (superhero in red suit above).

In this type of hand position you try to slightly flex (bend) at the wrist while extending (straightening) the fingers.  It is important to remember that if your aim is to bring stability to the joint then you don't want a limp limp wrist and loose fingers!  However, you don't want to over-tense either.  So try to achieve this position with as minimal effort as possible so that the whole hand does not feel tense. 

The reason you stabilise the wrist joint complex in this position is because you are activating finger extensors (which also have an action in wrist extension) while you are activating wrist flexors.  Thus, there is both wrist extensor and wrist flexor activity across the joint, bringing stability and--because it is an expansive co-activation--pulling energy towards the hand. 

Closed or closing hand: Ha-mani bandha
There are certain positions were the hand is not open but not weight bearing either.  Gomukhasana is an    example of this.  In some versions of trikonasana (triangle) the bottom hand grasps the lower shin, as seen in the picture below.

Trikonasana with ha-mani bandha of the bottom hand

When the hand is grasping or making a closed fist you can bring stability to the wrist joint complex by extending the wrist slightly and flexing the fingers--as though you were trying to make a closed fist.  

This cultivates the compressive ha-mani bandha because the finger flexors are also wrist flexors.  The action of these flexor muscles, which cross both joints, opposes the action of the wrist extensors since the wrist is actively in slight extension.  

Perhaps more importantly than bringing stability in non-weight bearing postures, this type of mani bandha is probably more useful for its role in helping to push blood and energy towards the body.  

You can imagine this might be useful for the bottom arm in trikonasana given the effects of gravity are likely to pool energy (blood and lymph at least) in the hand.  Making a closed fist with the bottom hand in trikonasana will help push the energy upwards.  

Another way you could try ha-mani bandha is in postures where the hands come into 'namaste' for instance.  In this hand posture, although the fingers look extended you can try to actively cultivate ha-mani bandha by trying to flex them.  

Here the fingers will not flex because they are pressing together.  However, the action of trying to make a fist with them will help bring stability to the wrist joint, which is in significant extension.  It is always a good idea to create stronger bandhas at the more extreme ends of joint movement, which--in this position--creates almost maximal extension at the wrist joint. 

This is a very important concept to understand when you begin to bear weight through the hands.  That is, while the fingers look like they are extended (straightened) the internal effort is in trying to flex them (as though you were making a fist)

To increase stability across the joint when it is almost maximally extended, try to flex the fingers.  This can also help relax the finger/wrist flexors once the pose is released. 
Try it for yourself and see what happens.  I know that for me I feel more space around the joint, less strain, and far less compression when I co-activate the extensors and the flexors.  

Additionally, trying to actively flex the fingers while these muscles are stretched will help induce a relaxation reflex (called the reciprocal relaxation reflex) that should help the wrist/finger flexors to relax more once the pose is released.   

  • Most finger flexors (benders) are also wrist flexors, while most finger extensors (straighteners) are also wrist extensors. 
  • Co-activation (simultaneous tensing) of opposing muscles (in this case extensors and flexors) helps bring stability to the joint.  
  • Activating muscles across the front (flexors) and back (extensors) of the wrist at the same time will help stabilise the joint (co-activation).
  • You can pull blood and energy towards the hands (tha-mani bandha) or push it away (ha-mani bandha) depending on how you position the wrists and fingers.
  • Slight wrist flexion combined with finger extension (tha-mani bandha) helps draw energy towards the hands and is useful when the hands are up in the air, out to the side, or out in front of the body without weight or pressure on the hands.
  • Slight wrist extension combined with finger flexion (ha-mani bandha) helps push energy towards the body (away from the hands) and is useful when the hand is below the level of the heart or grabbing something.  It is also the most useful position of the hand for weight-bearing postures (more on that in part II of this post)
  • In some poses it is possible that the fingers look like they are in extension but the action is as though you are trying to flex them.  Understanding this concept is essential when weight-bearing through the hands. 

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