How often to do you walk on your hands? Do you spend time crawling around the office, or traveling from couch to fridge on your hands? If you’re like most people, the answer is never. Yoga may be the first place many of us are asked to put weight on our wrists, hands, or shoulders, and we are so unaccustomed to it that—surprise!—a shoulder or wrist injury appears.
I’ve had one myself, after working for a long time with improper alignment. I see them a lot in class, too, painful wrists, tweaked upper backs, and frozen shoulders. Arming ourselves (pardon the pun!) with some knowledge about shoulder alignment can help to prevent these kinds of injuries and also help to heal them.
Check with your doctor if you have a specific injury, but in general it’s better to move and gently strengthen an injured area as quickly as you can rather than letting things hang out of alignment, compensate, and atrophy, creating even more issues down the line. Train your muscles to heal in the right direction, and they will take good care of that injured area. Keep in mind that muscles heal relatively quickly, but bursitis and joint inflammation can take longer and may need a gentler approach.
I’ve seen many students working with an injury get excited when they see some improvement, and then overdo it and sometimes reinjure themselves (okay, I’ve done this too). One of the reasons yoga is generally so safe is because we move with the breath. This means we move more slowly, and generally ease in and out of our poses. Jarring transitions and sudden movements are the injury zones, so go slow, and no jumping for your shoulder’s sake if you are injured. Move in and out of the poses with intention and breath and you should be a cool cucumber.
Downward dog is one of the most common postures in most styles of asana (physical) yoga. Take a look at your hands in this pose. Look to see if your palms are curled up a bit, putting all your weight on your delicate wrist bones. This is gonna hurt, with time. You want your fingers spread pretty wide, and to press down into the ball of your hand and your fingertips to spread the weight over your whole hand. This takes effort and a bit of brain rewiring: look at your hands often when you are in Downward Dog and keep working at it: it will come, and your wrists and shoulders will thank you.
Another common habit in Downward Dog is that we tend to fall into our bones rather than using underdeveloped arm and shoulder muscles to hold us up. Using our muscles is harder, but supports the joints and helps keep strain out of the neck, which can create headaches. Try a micro bend at the elbows to turn the muscles on, and then roll the eyes of the elbows toward each other or even slightly forward to help roll the shoulders outward, creating more space for the neck to relax.
Keep all of this engaged as you come forward into a Plank pose. Press the hands energetically away from each other, which will engage the muscles that stabilize the shoulder blades onto the back. Look for evenness in the shoulders and a soft neck and jaw. It’s okay if it’s hard, if it feels like work, but if it’s painful or awkward, back off slowly and rest.
Above all, if you do have an injury, don’t get discouraged. A teacher of mine, Jesse Enright, used to say, “Pain is an excellent teacher. It forces you to change something.” Thank your body for talking to you, take your time, and ask for help when you need it. Empower yourself with information and you’ll have all the tools you need to choose the road toward health and healing.