Anatomy of the Wrist

Welcome to this month's installment of my anatomy content!  Hopefully you are finding this information interesting and relatable to your yoga practice!  In a vinyasa flow class, we spend a lot of time on our hands, so wrist strength and flexibility is important.  Read more below to learn how to strengthen your wrists, warm them up for practice, and engage muscles surrounding the wrist during your practice!

Our wrists are a very important part of a yoga practice, but many of us do not give them much thought, unless they start to hurt.  And I often see people who are new to yoga struggle with wrist pain.  If you think about it, a yoga practice places demands on our wrists that most of us do not encounter in every day life.  So, of course, we need to ease into a practice to develop flexibility and strength.  

But even before we address a yoga practice, it is important to consider how you use your wrists in your daily life.  Consider your daily routines that impact your wrists, such as spending most of the day at a computer, or completing tasks that require repetitive motion.  I actually developed pain in my right wrist several years ago due to my crocheting addiction!  You're probably laughing right now, but think about the repetitive motion that crocheting requires.  My yoga practice, over time, has actually helped me reduce pain caused by crocheting, but I had to be patient and learn more about my habits.  

Now that you have given some thought to your daily habits, let's talk a little about the anatomy of the wrist.  The wrist is actually multiple joints, because multiple bones intersect.  The two forearm bones, the radius on the thumb side of your arm, and the ulna on the pinky side of your arm, intersect with bones in the hand (see the picture above).  However, the radius is the only forearm bone that articulates with the bones of the hand.  This means that the pinky edge of the wrist is more susceptible to weakness and injury.  We'll talk more about that later.  

So, how are the bones held together?  The wrist has ligaments that connect the bones, as well as muscles and tendons above and below the bones to move the wrists and the fingers.  Muscles on the palm side of the forearm flex the wrist and muscles on the back side of the forearm extend the wrist.  Just like with the shoulder, injury to this soft tissue can occur with imbalance, weakness, or repetitive stress.  So, preparing your wrist for your yoga practice is important, which is why we often warm up the wrists in my classes, especially if I know we will be spending a lot of times on your hands!  

Since warming up your wrists is important, you can do it on your own before class if you have time!  In a seated position, try any of the following:

  1. Start with your hands in prayer.  Spin your fingers away from your body and down towards the floor.  Then bring the backs of the hands together and spin your fingers towards you and up.  Return the hands to prayer and continue making these circles.  
  2. Interlace your fingers and move your hands in a figure eight position.
  3. Stretch your arms in front of you with the palms facing each other.  Tuck your thumbs and wrap your fingers around them.  Slowly tilt your fists down to stretch the thumb side of the wrist.

To warm up the wrists in a weight bearing position, come to a table top position and try any of the following:

  1. Start with your shoulders over your wrists.  Then take your shoulders toward the front edge of your mat a couple inches, lean the shoulders to the right, back and to the left, gently making circles with your shoulders around hands.
  2. Take the backs of the hands to mat with fingers facing the thighs and hold.
  3. Take the palms of the hands to the mat with the fingers spun away from each other and and maybe back toward thighs.
  4. Take the palms of the hands to mat with fingers spun toward each other and maybe back toward thighs.
  5. Lift one palm, while keeping fingers on floor.  Then lift the other palm.  Continue to alternate.

Now that your wrists are warm, you can do the following exercises to strengthen your wrists:

  1. Stand with your arms by your sides and your palms facing forward, just as you would for a bicep curl.  Then do wrist curls.  Start with no weight and slowly add weight as you get stronger.  This will strengthen the flexor muscles of the forearm, which are typically weaker than the extensor muscles.
  2. Squeeze a stress ball.  If you don't have a stress ball, be creative and find something around your house that you can use!

Finally, paying attention and engaging your muscles in your yoga practice will also help strengthen the muscles and stabilize the joint.  And the first step to doing this is to focus on your hands and realize they are your foundation for many poses.  Being mindful of this will help you consider your hand placement in weight bearing poses, such as downward facing dog.  I hate to give absolutes for hand placement, because I believe that every body is different; however, in general, having your hands about as wide as your shoulders in weight bearing poses, such as plank and downward facing dog, seems to work for most people.  Also, having your pointer or middle fingers roughly parallel to the long edges of your mat is a general rule.  

So, now that you've thought about placement of your hands, how do you engage the muscles?  To practice, start in child's pose and do the following:

  1. Spread your fingers wide without overdoing it.  Press equally through all parts of your hand, paying special attention to your thumb and pointer finger.  For most people, weight typically distributes to the pinky side of the hand, which if you remember from above, puts weight in the most vulnerable part of the wrist.  
    1. I've heard many different cues from teachers over the years about which parts of the hand to press down, and for me, my weight distribution honestly depends on the pose I am  doing.  If I'm practicing arm balances and inversions, I typically press into my finger tips and the base of my hand while lifting the inner part of my hand like a suction cup; however, for the rest of my practice, such as routine poses like downward facing dog, I tend to press more evenly through all parts of my hand.  The best way to learn what works for you is to experiment and play and see what feels good!
  2. Lift your forearms away from the floor.
  3. Energetically draw your wrists towards each other to engage biceps, which helps to protect the elbow.
  4. Hug your armpits in towards each other as you broaden your upper back.
  5. Maintain all those actions in your upper body and come into downward facing dog.  

Now that you understand the actions to protect the joint, let's talk about common poses and considerations for the wrist.  

  1. Chaturanga - when coming into this position, teachers typically cue to bring your shoulders slightly forward of your wrist in order to protect the elbow as you lower down, which can potentially cause wrist compression due to the angle caused by this action.  So, flexibility is important! In addition, this may come as a surprise, but developing a strong core is also important.  If your core is weak, your torso and shoulders will typically sag and create extra pressure on the wrists.  I'll address ways to strengthen your core some other time.
  2. Upward facing dog - just like down dog, wrist compression can happen in this pose if shoulders are too far in front of wrists, so in general, ensuring your shoulders are directly over your wrist will keep the angle of your wrist in a more comfortable position.
  3. Down dog - the angle of the wrist in this pose is similar to the previous two and can cause discomfort.  One way to redistribute your body weight and take pressure off your wrists is to engage your legs!  By pressing your thighs to the wall behind you and actively pressing your heels down towards the mat (they don't have to touch), your body weight becomes more evenly distributed between your feet and hands.  In addition, the position of your shoulder impacts your wrists and hands.  Practicing the engagement that you learned above in child's post engages the muscles around the shoulder and down the arm.   

If you experience wrist pain, one of the best things you can do is take a break to see if that helps.  But if you still want to practice, you can make certain modifications:

  1. Do all weight bearing postures on your fists or on your forearms.
  2. Use a yoga wedge, which reduces the angle of wrist.  Not all studios have a wedge, so you could also use a blanket with a very small fold.  Just place the palms of your hands either on the  wedge or blanket with your fingers on the mat when practicing poses like down dog.
  3. Skip any pose that requires extreme weight bearing, such as arm balances and inversions.  I know those poses are fun, and many of us like the challenge, but protect your wrists first and when they feel better, you can practice these poses.
  4. Massage your forearms after your practice.  Come to a table top position with one forearm on the mat.  Use your other forearm to massage the forearm on the mat, starting at the wrist and making your way up the elbow.  

I hope you try some of these things for yourself!  And next time you practice, pay more attention to your hands and wrists.  Experiment and play to see what feels best for you!