Arm Supported Yoga Poses
Arm supported yoga poses are great for strengthening the arms and shoulders.
The poses on this page can be used for balanced arm and shoulder strengthening since they use the arms in a range of different positions.
In general arm supported yoga poses can be built from the ribcage outwards. The idea is to stabilize the ribcage first, making it rigid with intercostal action and/or upper transverse abdominus and posterior serratus anterior activation. From there the scapular stabilizing muscles have a firm foundation, the ribcage, from which to act on the scapulae.
In most arm supported yoga poses, the abs may need to be activated to help support the lower back and so ribcage stabilization can be helpful in this regard also in that it gives the abs a stable foundation from which to act on the pelvis.
With the ribcage, lumbar spine and pelvis stable, then the arm muscles including the latissimus dorsai have a stale foundation from which to operate effectively and efficiently on the arms.
Arm supported yoga poses, particularly those where the wrists are bent at ninety degrees or close to it, can be challenging for the wrists and for some people lead to wrist pain. One type of exercise that may help alleviate wrist pain is hanging from a chin up bar. Work at applying tension to all fingers evenly.
When actually doing arm supported yoga poses, focus on using your shoulders to push your hand (or hands) into the floor.
Another possible route to alleviating wrist pain is to use the hands with more awareness. Practice pressing into the heel of the palm, the forehand and the fingertips, then practice combinations of any pair of these pressure points.
Another route to alleviating wrist pain is to tilt the hand left or right with minimal rotation of the forearms.
Tilting the hands outwards may rotate the forearms outwards slightly and create a slight arch in the palm of the hand. This action along with pressing through the heel of the hand and finger tips may be helpful for wrist pain.
Additionally pay attention to the elbows, try stabilizing them, and the shoulders in particular how they are being used with respect to the ribcage.
You can also read some suggestions here in Wrist pain in crow pose.
A very simple technique to use for bracing the parts of the spine are to practice lengthening it. As an example, to lengthen your lumbar spine draw your ribs away from your pelvis. Then open your chest and try to feel your thoracic spine lengthening as you do so. Then draw your ears away from your ribcage so that your neck feels long.
Start with keeping the chin tucked in so that you emphasize lengthening the back of your neck.
To practice lifting up with legs crossed, start by spreading your shoulder blades (see scapular awareness), then pull them downwards. Do this with the arms free (elbows can be slightly bent so that your hands don't touch the floor). Practice activating and relaxing a few times. Then put your hands on the floor with elbows straight.
Spread the shoulder blades then pull your shoulders down so that your ribcage lifts up. (Your hands are now on the floor so instead of the shoulders moving down, the same action causes your ribcage to lift.)
Keep your shoulders pressing down and lift your hips. Lower and repeat this sequence of actions a few times.
Then, after pushing down with your hands, lift your hips.
Leave your feet on the floor. Repeat the hip lift a few times, then add the feet.
To lift your feet, try lifting one knee, then the foot, then the other knee and foot.
Depending on how you orient your hands Table Top Yoga Pose can be painful on the elbows. One way around this is to squeeze the elbows.
As with Lifting Up, practice shoulder actions in isolation. For table top that can include retracting and then pressing the shoulders down.
Read fluid tensegrity to find out more about stabilizing joint capsules with muscle tension.
Reverse plank is a more challenging pose using the same arm position.
In cat pose the exercise can be to protract your shoulder blades so that your ribcage lifts. Then relax your shoulders so that your ribcage sinks down.
As you protract your shoulder blades, focus on feeling your hands pressing strongly into the floor. Notice any change in hand sensation when you relax your shoulders.
For dog pose, the sequence of actions is similiar to cat except you add a knee lift.
After protracting your shoulders, press your feet into the floor to lift your knees.
So that your lower back feels happy, prior to pushing your feet down, try pulling your pubic bone towards your chest. Then press your feet down to lift your knees.
Once you are comfortable in dog pose, try plank pose.
Push your hands into the floor and protract your shoulder blades. Then pull your pubic bone towards your sternum. From there, straighted one knee and push the foot strongly into the floor. (Keep the pubic bone pulling forwards.) Then straighten the other knee and push that foot into the floor also.
A variation of this pose is crocodile or chaturanga dandasana and yoga push ups has details on working towards this pose from the ground up. You can also follow along with this video.
Upward dog could be thought of as an arm supported back bend. The back bend happens along the length of the spine and at the hip joints.
One of the challenges with upward dog is not to passively hang from your shoulders. Instead, I'd suggest that a better approach to this pose is to make sure that your spinal erectors are activate. With the spinal erectors active, you can use them to actively bend your spine backwards. In addition, when active, they'll help you to "feel your spine" as it is held in the back bend.
With upward dog, the knees are straight and in addition to using your spinal erectors, you can also actively bend back at the hips by using your hamstrings and gluteus maximus muscles. The quadriceps (and "long" hip flexors) will also be active, since the knees are being kept straight.
Note that in this pose muscles at the front and back of the hips can be activated. In addition, muscles that act on the front of the spine and back will also be active. And so your spinal erectors will work against your abs, while your hip extensors will work against your hip flexors.
For more on upward dog, read the upward facing dog article.
A similar arm supported yoga pose is cobra yoga pose.
For even more on learning to feel and control particular groups of muscles, check out the "intentional muscle control" course below.
An arm supported yoga pose like downward dog can be learned in stages, starting with the knees on the ground.
Here the focus can start with the hands, pressing palms and fingers tips down and forwards and then from there using the shoulders to push the ribcage back.
Lengthen the spine either starting from the head or the pelvis.
Because your hands are on the floor and your shoulders are, ideally, active you'll find that lengthening your spine causes your pelvis to move backwards.
Once you have a feeling for this try downward dog with knees lifted, then knees straight then with heels down.
Read downward dog for a more detailed explanation of these exercises.
A variation of downward dog that can be used as a prep for headstand and forearm stand is dolphin pose.
In this pose the focus can be on pushing the elbows as well as the palms into the floor. If you do it with hands clasped then press the outer edge of each hand into the floor and as in down dog use your shoulders to push your ribcage back and then lengthen your spine.
Read more in dolphin pose and you can also follow along with this video.
Crow pose is one of the simpler arm balances. I've covered it in detail in crow pose.
You can also follow along with this video.
Note how in arm balances the body is balanced on the hands but also one or both legs rests on the back of the arm or arms. These types of arm supported yoga poses can actually be relatively easy. Think of crow pose as roughly equivalent to cat pose but instead of the knees resting on the floor they rest on the backs of the arms.
Balancing cat is another type of arm supported pose. One way to work towards this pose is with balancing cat.
A more challenging version of this pose, also called bird dog, is to lift the same side leg and arm, and even harder is grabbing the lifted foot with the same side arm.
Side plank and its variations offer a way of practicing single arm strength with the body turned sideways.
Easier versions can start on the elbow and harder versions on the hand. As with regular plank you can lengthen spine, lift chest then work on the hand or start at the hand, then the shoulder then lengthen your spine. For more details read side plank pose and learning shoulder actions for sideplank pose pose.
One of the more challenging arm supported yoga poses is wheel pose, particularly if your backbends are not that good and even more so if you have weak arms.
One way to work towards this pose is with the exercise I call reverse push up. It's called reverse push up because you do it on your back instead of your front.
Basically press your hands down to lift your ribcage.
The next step up is to move into bridge pose with your head on the floor and repeat the exercise.
You'll then be working on strengthening your arms while moving towardswheel pose.
For more on working towards wheel pose, Working Towards Wheel Pose ebook includes a set of exercises for making wheel pose easier. It's based on the techniques that have worked best in my classes.
Hanumanasana is a pose that requires hip flexor and hip extensor flexibility. But it is also one that requires strength.
Initially, you can use the strength of the arms to support the body so that you can relax your leg muscles and stretch them. As you get better at this pose, you'll learn to use the strength of your legs to support your body. In this case you'll be activating your leg muscles while allowing them to lengthen.
You can read more about this pose here hanumanasana
Much of the muscle control required for getting this yoga pose is covered in my Muscle Control and proprioception programs.