Practice Point: The Hands #1

This information is partly derived from classes taught by Donald Moyer at the Yoga Room in Berkeley, CA, in January of 2006.

The Beginner's Hand

In the beginning, there is often very little awareness in the hand or palm. When the student comes into a pose such as Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward Facing Dog), the fingers and palms are not particularly active and the weight falls into the wrist and outer hand, with knock-on effects higher up in the shoulder and chest. In the long run, this can be problematic for the wrist, as the weight of the body just sits there in the joint with no support to rebounce it back up into the core.

So the first instruction given is usually:

"Spread the fingers and the thumb."

This will usually have the effect of moving the metacarpals, the bones of the palm, away from each other. Further refinement might be:

"Roll weight into the index finger and thumb"
"Spread the webbing between the index finger and thumb and ground down through there."

These will help to rebounce the weight up and to activate the inner arm. If the weight is still too much in the wrists you might hear:

"Roll the weight towards the fingertips."

This can help get a little more lift in the wrist and forearm.

Going Deeper

Once intelligence has awakened in the palm and wrist, a different approach needs to be taken. Over-spreading the fingers will actually sap the strength of the palm. Optimally, we want to create a balance between all the different parts of the hand so that all the parts are working the same amount. This will create harmony in the nervous system of the hand. You can tell when you have achieved this, as the quality of the skin in the fingers and palms changes dramatically, becoming soft and receptive.

The first step towards this is to reign those fingers in. The thumb mounds can still spread to broaden the webbing, but the fingers need to be lined up with the metacarpals. (Take the time to feel around the back of the hand to make sure your are, in fact lining up finger with metacarpal and not a muscle or a ligament.)

Then look at hour hands. Are the fingers longer than the palm, or the palm longer than the fingers? If the fingers are longer, it is likely that they are going to be stronger, and vice versa, so you will need to charge up the weaker element. When you lengthen your fingers, to they curl up? If they do, then your knuckles are over-working and need to soften.

Strong Hands, Open Shoulders

Once you have the fingers lined up properly, attempt these actions to activate the hands and observe the effects in the shoulders and back. In poses with both hands on the floor, set yourself up so that the index fingers and metacarpals are parallel to each other (the hand slightly turned out).

1) Lengthen the index finger and little finger.

2) Roll the metacarpals in.

3) As you roll the outer metacarpal in, roll the weight into the inner hand.

4) Keeping the index finger long, pull the inner metacarpal back and the outer metacarpal forward.

These actions provide an incredible amount of strength to the hand that can transform poses such as Adho Mukha Vrkshasana (Hand Stand). They can also provide organization that can open up the shoulder girdle and chest in many other poses.

Applying the Actions

Think of these actions in the following poses:

Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
Prasarita Padottanasana 1 (Widespread Feet Pose)
Padahastasana (Hands Under Feet Pose)
Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Pose)
Vashisthasana (Vashistha's Pose)
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana (Upward Facing Fog Pose)
Adho Mukha Vrkshasana (Hand Stand)
Pincha Mayurasana (Peacock Feather Pose or Forearm Balance)
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
Salamba Shirshasana (Head Stand)
Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand)
Janu Shirshasana (Head of the Knee Pose) - with hands on blocks
Triang Mukhaikapada Pashchimottanasana (Three Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch Pose) - with hands on blocks
Ardha Baddha Padma Pashchimottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Intense West Stretch Pose) - with hands on blocks
Pashchimottanasana (Intense West Stretch Pose) - with hands on blocks

Three Pillars of Practice

You would think that, as a full-time yoga teacher, one's yoga practice would be taken care of. Sadly this could not be farther from the truth. Teaching classes all day is essentially an outpouring of energy. It is most certainly a spiritual practice in itself with many rewards, but the teacher needs to find inspiration as much as the student, lest their work become stale. A balance must be met, energy coming in with energy going out. This could be said of any modern yogi working in any profession, not just a yoga teacher: balance in life between work, play and rest; between the social, the intimate and the personal. A successful life is one in which all of the various requirements are met, in varying and shifting proportions according to the demands of intention, circumstance and desire.

Balance is as important in one's yoga practice as it is in life in general. Patañjali, in his Yoga-Sutra gives us two different, balanced yoga practices: Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. These would be taught within a very specific environment of study in a community of aspirants under the guidance of a guru. This is a very different environment from what we experience in the West in the 21st Century, where we can be separated and alienated from others around us, either by physical distance in rural communities or by simple anonymity in urban environments.

For myself, I am lucky to teach at one particular yoga center that has become something of a home for me. I have immense respect for all the other teachers there, all of us on the same path, all of us sharing knowledge, practicing together, helping each other out with problems, providing support - many of the things one could want from a community of like-minded individuals, or a sangha as it is referred to in Sanskrit. However, as a result of my work schedule, my personal practice, or sadhana, can sometimes be lacking. I have not had a teacher for almost two years now and rarely get to class. Luckily I have a practice partner with whom I get together once a week to practice for a couple of hours, but that is rarely enough to sustain me. Very often I find it a struggle to practice, preferring to write or zone out with a book or a DVD between classes.

At the end of last year I decided enough was enough and I needed to take some time for myself and my practice, so I booked a flight and went to stay with friends in the San Francisco bay area to take classes with a wonderful teacher in Berkeley, Donald Moyer. (Incidentally, Donald has a new book coming out in March. Check back here in May for a review.) It was a life-changing experience, one of those vacations that you carry with you for years to come. I took class every day for two weeks with a variety of teachers, sometimes twice a day, and wrote everything down so I could practice the new information when I got home. I came back refreshed and rejuvenated. More importantly, I came back with an understanding of a piece of the puzzle that was missing, the third limb in a three-limbed yoga for modern living:


Though the path of yoga is ultmiately solitary, it comes from a tradition of lineage, off the passing of information from teacher to student. Truly, you cannot learn all you need to know from a book. Any good teacher has a wealth of knowledge born of experience that cannot be communicated in words alone. Your teacher may not necessarily be fully enlightened. They do not need to to be the best teacher in the world, but they do need to be ahead of you on the path. You may have more than one teacher at a given time. You may work with one teacher for a period and then move on to another. The student-teacher relationship can take many forms. The instruction comes from context, from bearing and from example as much from the words the teacher uses. You surrender to their understanding of the subject matter and open yourself up to the way they impart it to you.

At the beginning, the student will be completely dependent on the teacher. They will most likely have no personal practice at all, given that they know little or nothing. But, as familiarity grows, the student begins to remember more and more and it becomes important for them to practice that on their own, at their own pace, according to their own individual method of learning. Eventually, after many years, the student will hopefully find that they need the teacher less and less. They are able to provide their own motivation and structure for learning. A good teacher will understand this and respect this part of the student's process of evolution towards mastery.

Group Practice

One of the secondary benefits of the class environment is the group experience, or satsang. The focus and experience of more than one individual united together towards a common goal amplifies the experience for each. That group experience does not have to be dependent on the class. Practicing regularly with others can help the student to self-motivate, but it will also help them put their own experience in context with that of others and can act as an immense source of encouragement. Much of the drudgery of practice can be alleviated in this way. As one of the great gurus of the modern age once said, "a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down".

Personal Practice

And, of course, there is the personal practice. Here the student must work with their own inner resources of motivation and responsibility. Here it is possible to get lost as much in possibilities as in distractions. This is, after all, the ultimate point of any spiritual practice: to come up against the limitations of the self, to work with them, accept them and allow them to become transformed.

Finding The Balance

Each of these is essential in some proportion. One may not be ready for a personal practice, or perhaps one may not have the opportunity for being part of a practice group or satsang. One may only be able to get to class once in a while. Nevertheless, it is important to know that each of these aspects is important and, if absent, should be addressed in some way. My experience is extreme. I am certainly in no position to be in Berkeley every week to take class with Donald, much as I would love that. But then, I am at a stage in my practice where a little input goes a long way. Perhaps you are in the same position. Perhaps you still feel dependent on your teacher or teachers. How about giving yourself the experience of a little yoga adventure and practice a pose or two at home every day, nothing ambitious. Or maybe ask a friend to get together for a yoga-date.

Whatever you choose to do, I invite you to leave a comment and let me know your experience.

Practice well.