Certain yoga poses require your hands to support your weight. Many of these poses have modifications, so if you have arthritis or inflammation and pain in your wrists, you can find a variation of the pose that’s safer for you. Downward-facing dog, for instance, can be practiced at a chair or at the wall. Some poses, though, aren’t as easily modified to take weight out of your hands. Plank pose requires your hands to be on the ground, and in the pose, your wrists help support your body weight. If your wrist ailment gets exacerbated by use, you can skip poses that aggravate your condition. There are often substitute poses that challenge or stretch in a similar way. In lieu of plank, a pose like roll down is a good alternative.
If discomfort in your wrists isn’t linked to a chronic condition, it might just be a matter of building strength. Over time as you practice plank or downward-facing dog (in its traditional orientation), your upper body will get stronger and your wrists will feel more supported by the muscles in your upper arms, shoulders, and back. But in the interim, it’s important to care for your wrists.
As you build strength in your upper body, caring for your wrists is important. If you experience any wrist pain, how do you protect your wrists and still practice poses like plank and downward-facing dog?
First, anytime you’re on your hands, be sure to spread your fingers wide, so you can see mat between your fingers. Engage the muscles in your whole hand, pressing each finger down on to the mat. This will help distribute the weight, so your wrists aren’t bearing all the work. Another easy fix is to add padding under your hands. You can do this by using a blanket under the base of your palms or by double (or triple) folding your mat. In either case, the padding changes the angle of your wrists and alleviates some of the pressure.
Finally, you can always make fists and balance your weight on your knuckles, if that feels better. The bottom line: if you have wrist concerns, explore your options. There may be a perfect fix that will keep your wrists supported and allow you to do hands-on-the-mat poses.
When we think about strength in our lower body, we should think first about the most superficial muscle of the glutes: gluteus maximus. But strengthening your seat isn’t the only important focus for hip stability. In fact, there are some smaller muscles of the outer hip (the abductors) that keep you stable in balance poses and sports such as running, tennis, hockey, and skiing. Yoga offers some good poses for abductor stretching, but the quick move offered in the video here is a strength-building variation on a Pilates movement. You can do it just about anywhere: all you need is a wall or chair for a little stability, and you’ll be on your way to stronger outer hips. This two minute video will get you started:
A common cue you may hear in a yoga class is to “roll up to standing” as you move from a forward-folded position back to standing. But for those of us with athletic builds or aging bodies, there are better and safer ways to return to a standing position.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about osteoporosis and yoga, and we looked at the poses and movements you might want to avoid if you have low bone density. In particular, forward folds should be avoided by anyone with osteopenia or osteoporosis. But even if your bones are healthy and you practice forward folds, you should still avoid rolling up.
Rolling up to a standing position creates disc compression and stresses the back of the pelvis and sacrum. Rolling up also requires the lumbar spine (five vertebrae, located between the ribcage and the pelvis) to support the entire upper body for the duration of the roll up, with very little support from the relaxed abdominal muscles.
Rolling up probably won’t result in acute, instant injury, but over time it can cause disc problems and pain. When your instructor cues the class to “roll up,” here’s what you should do instead:
In your forward-folded position, bend your knees, and slide your hands onto your thighs. Lengthen your spine. Keeping your knees bent, begin to ascend to standing, leading with your chest.
When I discussed this in a recent class, many of my students lamented the loss of rolling up because it feels like a pleasant way to stretch the muscles of the low back. There are safer and more effective ways to get that stretch. Look for future posts on that!
Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” This week, the pose to try is paused roll down. This variation on the Pilates roll down doesn’t rely on upper-body support, so if you’re recovering from a shoulder, elbow, or wrist injury, it’s the perfect core-focused pose.
If you want to continue to run, bike, and play for the whole of your life, having strong abdominal muscles is key. You can explore plank pose as a stabilizing pose to build core strength. In plank, the spine stays long. In paused roll down, the spine articulates. This is another important way to build core strength and maintain spinal health, and it’s a good alternative to plank when your upper body needs rest.
Sit with your legs extended. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and reach your arms forward. Take a breath in and deeply engage your core. (Not sure what “engage your core” means? Check out Core Engagement 101.) Moving with a neutral spine, start to roll down toward the ground. Pause about halfway to the earth—or when it starts to feel a little challenging. Stay here and breathe. Keep your core engaged and deepen the engagement on every exhalation. The “work” of the pose should happen in the front and sides of your body, not in your back. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
If you have tight hamstrings or hip flexors: Bend your knees. This will give your hip flexors and hamstrings a reprieve, and you’ll still get the benefit of core work.
For more support: Hold on to your legs. This will lessen the load on your core.
For more spice: Pause with your body closer to the earth. Things may get a little shaky!
If you have disc concerns or stenosis: Instead of rolling down, lean back with a long spine. Don’t lean back very far: pause just a few degrees back. If this pose still doesn’t feel right for you with that change, simply don’t do it. (Not all poses are for every body, but that’s another post.)
Our “Just One Pose” posts answer the question: “If I have time to do just one pose, what should it be?” Plank always wins this category for me: it’s simple to do, you can do it anywhere (you just need a comfortable spot for your hands), and the payoff is big. Not only does plank help strengthen your core in a major way, it also encourages strong posture, helps keep your back pain-free, and is a great pose to do before you get moving.
Core strength is crucial to aging well. It’s also crucial to good performance in your sport. Having strong abdominal muscles means you’ll have less back pain. But core strength isn’t the only benefit of this pose: holding plank is a balance challenge and provides good work for your arms and upper body. It also has the added benefit of gently stretching the backs of your legs.
Come to hands and knees and then lift your knees off the earth, extending your legs fully. Spread your fingers wide, and push down firmly with your palms, knuckles, and fingertips. Pull your belly in and engage your core. If you’re not sure how to get your abdominal muscles to fire up, take a moment to check out Core Engagement 101. Press back through your heels, lengthening your legs. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and keep your gaze down to the earth or just a little in front of your hands so your neck remains long.
Hold plank for successively longer periods of time as you make it a part of your routine. Start with 5-10 breaths and add a few breaths each time you explore the pose.
If your arms or shoulders need more support: Keep the long line of plank from your head to your tailbone, but drop your knees down to the ground. Focus on maintaining core engagement.
If your wrists need more support: Try elbow plank. Find this same long spine and core engagement, but put your forearms on the ground. While elbow plank takes the pressure off your hands and wrists, it is more challenging for your core.
If you want more challenge: Try lifting your leg. Or try lifting and drawing circles with your leg. Or try lifting your leg AND extending your opposite arm. Or try any of these in elbow plank.
If you compete in a sport, your training follows a cycle that should build in progressive stages to your peak competitions, then allow for downtime before reaching a new crest. In exercise physiology, we call this periodization: the training progression has distinct periods. As you consider how to include yoga to support you as a masters athlete, keep this training cycle in mind. The closer you are to peak competition, the more mellow your yoga practice should be. I outline this approach in detail in my book The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga, and again in The Runner’s Guide to Yoga.
Keeping the intensity of your yoga practice in inverse proportion to the intensity of your sport training is especially important for aging athletes, because we require more recovery time between challenging workouts. If you slot a vigorous yoga practice into your already-rigorous training week, you’ll have to factor extra time to recover, which means the more challenging styles of yoga should generally be ruled out during your most active peak period in your sport. This means you can enjoy hot yoga, Ashtanga, and power vinyasa styles in your off-season, but keep them away from other major demands on your body.
Maybe your competitive days are over, but you enjoy getting out to play on a seasonal cycle: golf in the summer, skiing in the winter. The same principle applies, even if your activity isn’t expressly periodized. Use your off-season—if only the one determined by the weather—to choose a more strength-building yoga practice. While you’re more active off the mat, dial back the intensity of the practice so you have time to recover between sessions.
This balance is the key to longevity. Use your energy wisely, where it is best spent. If you’re targeting an athletic goal, most of your hard efforts should be in your training sessions, not on the mat. Use gentle and restorative yoga, and shorter home routines like those Alexandra and I offer on YogaVibes and those in my book Everyday Yoga, and you’ll be best balanced to perform at your personal best.