Pain in Your Neck, Shoulders, Elbows, or Wrists During Yoga

Pain in Your Neck, Shoulders, Elbows, or Wrists During Yoga

Over the past few weeks we’ve discussed how to manage and prevent pain in general during your yoga practice. But if you’re experiencing pain in specific body parts there’s things you can do! So, on to the specifics. What can you do if you’re experiencing pain in your neck, shoulders, elbows, or wrists during yoga class?

Check your posture.

Don’t look down at your wrists for the origin or cause of your pain. For pain in these areas look first at the posture of your upper body.

If your head is forward, shoulders are rounded and/or chest is collapsed there is less space in your upper body for the  flow of blood, energy and strength to support your peripheral joints, those of the elbows, wrists and even fingers. This forward slump posture moves the shoulder blades off of the back of the ribcage which disengages the strength of the shoulder girdle. No shoulder girdle strength, no support for the joints below the shoulders, you know the painful elbows, wrists, fingers or hands.

This sounds so simplistic but the forward slump (you know, the technology-induced posture, that draws our face closer to that glowing screen, the forward head and chin slump while driving or any chin-leading movement) has a great impact on overall posture often resulting in the rounded shoulder, collapsed chest and unsupported stance that we take to our mats during yoga practice.

What poses might I feel pain in?

Any pose or asana that has you placing your hands on the mat bearing the weight of your body.

  • Downward dog
  • chaturanga
  • Plank
  • side plank
  • Warrior 3
  • Half moon
  • Cobra
  • Upward facing dog
  • Crow
  • Any hand balance pose
  • handstand
  • plow

This is just a small sample of poses that require weight bearing on the hands and wrists.

Short term, what is my fix?

Try a modified version of the pose with your forearms on the floor instead of your hands, if it makes sense in the pose. Some poses like crow pose just don’t make a lot of sense and lose the purpose of the pose. If so, try doing the pose on your back to get the same feeling of the pose without the body weight or gravity putting pressure on sore joints. So sure, try crow pose on your back with your hands reaching toward the ceiling!

Make sure your entire hand including the wrist is on the floor. Splay your fingers, press into the outer ring of the palm and pull up from the underside of your palm into your armpits! Engaging in these movements will insure that you are strong where your body meets the earth.

Engage your arms! When our awareness dampens or mind wanders, our bodies run on autopilot. Draw yourself back every time you catch yourself drifting away and sinking or falling into your joints. Bend your elbows and train them to move toward the sides of your torso keeping your strength hugging into your body rather than flaring away.

Keep your shoulder blades on your ribcage and head of the arm bones away from your ears. If you find yourself in a shrug as if you are saying “I don’t know” your shoulders are over stretching, rounding and stealing your strength from your pose and practice. Lengthen your upper back and neck, reclaiming your strength, giving your arm bones and shoulder blades the space they need to find their way to the safety and comfort of the back of your ribcage.

Back out of your pose and make small movements to the joints/areas affected with pain. Make circles and figure 8’s with your wrists. Flex and point your fingers. Make fists and straighten your fingers. All of these movements will bring TEMPORARY RELIEF to your elbow, wrist, and finger joints. There aren’t enough muscles to create adequate strength in your elbows, fingers or wrists to compensate for disengaged shoulder blades or shoulder girdles unable to support them!

Keep the soles of the feet supple and the toes soft. Yes, scrunched up toes equal tightness in your neck! Rigid soles of feet mean stiffness through out the back of your body, so check your feet with and without shoes. Ditch the shoes that create rigid arches and scrunched toes. Really, your neck and back will thank you, even if Jimmy Choo doesn’t. Does that mean it’s earth shoes and Birkenstocks for all? No. Just find shoes that create a comfortable environment for your feet from heel to toe.

Long term, how can I fix this?

Learn how to move with your shoulder blades on your back or the back of your ribcage. If this seems daunting, schedule a few private yoga sessions to begin to learn the mechanics of shoulder girdle strength. There are so many caveats and ways that our bodies learn to compensate for a lack of strength and good alignment that a one size fix tends not to serve every yoga practitioner.

To begin to learn about your shoulder blade movement try this exercise:

  1. Grab your yoga mat and lay on your back with the soles of your feet on the mat, arms heavy, and your knees lifted.
  2. Close your eyes and feel the weight of your body settle into the bones at the back of your head, shoulders, shoulder blades, ribcage, elbows, pelvis, and feet.
  3. Draw your attention to the upper back and shoulder blade area noticing what it feels like. If it feels like you are laying on legos, or displaced bones (shoulder blades) you probably are!
  4. Press the back of your head into your mat. Lift your upper back just a tiny bit off the floor and gently draw the bottom tips of your shoulder blades together, laying your upper back onto your mat.

If it feels better you are on the right track, learning to move the shoulder blades back onto the rib cage. If not, you are going to need some assistance so ask your yoga instructor for a private session, you will be glad you did.


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Written by Sue Dlugopolski, Certified Yoga Instructor (E-RYT 500 Hour) at Elite Sports Clubs

Sue Dlugopolski is certified in 500 Hour Yoga Therapy; 200 Hours each – Anusara Yoga & Vinyasa Yoga. Her additional certifications include: Relax & Renew Restorative Yoga Trainer, Therapeutic Restorative Yoga, Prenatal Yoga, Karma Kids Yoga, Kineselogy & Therapeutic Movement.

I encourage a balanced sense of strength and ease in participants. Continuing education in yoga anatomy and functional movement enables me to observe more clearly the changes in alignment participants require to move more freely. I teach Hatha, Restorative, & beginning yoga to help participants feel better in their bodies everyday.