Myth #9: Your index or middle finger should always be pointing forward in upward dog and downward dog
So, in this article I’ll continue my series breaking down commonly used verbal cues in yoga, to better understand them. In this post I’m going to unpack the idea that the index or middle finger should always be pointing forward in upward dog and downward dog. I think there are a couple of things to look closer at here regarding this cue or variations of it.
The first thing is that I would use some caution whenever the word always or never is applied to yoga. The human body is infinitely variable. Even if something is common, or often a good idea, there will inevitably be exceptions. So, rather than applying rules of always doing this or never doing that, I’d rather take the “rule” apart and consider WHY I might choose one approach rather than another. I really want to take the time to see the person who is in front of me when I’m teaching and apply suggestions based on what I actually observe. I want to offer direction for a student’s practice that is in relationship to the experience that the student is actually reporting rather than applying arbitrary rules that, at the least might not be helpful, and at worst could be injurious.
Where does this cue come from?
I think most commonly, this cue is given with the intention to avoid wrist problems. It’s not like many people end up with finger pain as a result of doing upward dog or downward dog. The problem is with the wrist when it is misaligned for a particular student. Additionally, when the wrist is weight-bearing it is more susceptible to problems.
The important thing to understand here, as we unpack this alignment cue, is that this cue is really not for the sake of the fingers. In other words, it doesn’t really matter which finger is pointing straight forward. Instead, it’s important that the crease of the wrist and its function is as closely aligned to a forward and backward direction as possible.
When to change the hand placement in upward dog or downward dog
So, how would I suggest that students place the hands in upward dog or downward dog? If a student is not reporting any pain, discomfort, or restriction in upward dog or downward dog, then most likely I won’t change anything about their hand placement, regardless of which fingers are pointing forward. If it’s working for their body, then why do I need to change it? It’s when a student is reporting either discomfort or pain in their hand or wrist, or when they’re feeling stuck in the pose in some way, that I’ll take a look at their hand and wrist placement in the pose.
Where might wrist tension come from?
The hand comes at the end of a kinetic chain, so remember what’s happening with the placement of the hands in upward dog and downward dog isn’t happening in isolation. Tension showing up in the hand and wrist is often related to tension further up the chain. For example, one source of hand or wrist tension might be tension in the forearm that we’ve acquired from activities such as typing, driving, or any other activity that we do frequently.
Tension that presents in the wrist or in how we place the hand and wrist on the floor can also often come from even farther up the chain in the shoulder joint. The mobility that we have in our shoulders can definitely impact how we can place our hands on the floor. Shoulder mobility can also affect the kinds of compensations we might make with the hands and wrists when our shoulders don’t allow for the optimal placement of the hands in upward dog and downward dog.
If I’m going to offer some direction to a student related to their hand and wrist placement in upward dog or downward dog, I want to first take a look at the bigger joint up the chain, the shoulder joint, and see what shoulder position seems like it’s even available to them. The ideal placement of the hands for the long-term might not be accessible yet, as tight shoulders might prevent it. In that case, we might opt for a workable intermediate step and then continue to adjust the hand placement as the shoulders open up.
Focus on the wrist
The other thing I’m going to pay attention to when placing the hands in upward dog and downward dog is emphasizing the wrist joint instead of the finger placement. I want to help the student find a way to place the body in a position that is most functional. The wrist joint generally functions better when we are weight-bearing if we fold it straight backward and forward, rather than at an angle. Additionally, there is considerable variation among bodies with respect to the direction that the fingers are pointing when the wrists are aligned in a way that they can hinge straight forward and backward. So, rather than giving verbal cues about aligning the fingers, I’d rather focus on aligning the wrist parallel to the front of the mat and let the fingers be placed however they end up.