Arm Modifications in Asana

Arm Modifications in Asana
People practice asana for many reasons. Some want a “yoga bootie”; others seek cross-training with a sport or another fitness modality. Still others look to asana to manage their stress, ease the strain of seated meditation, or quiet the mind by focusing on motion and the breath. All of these are worthy endeavors, and the yogi/ni should be able to use practice to achieve the desired result. However, what if one does not have full use of the arms? Does this mean certain poses are not achievable?

Unquestionably, a specific pose may be contra-indicated for one reason or another. However, this does not mean that the yogi/ni can’t achieve the intended effect of the pose! When the range of motion in the arms and shoulders is restricted, use the following modifications.

The primary way to adjust arm positions is to keep the hands on the ribcage or hips. This essentially takes the arms out of the pose, allowing the yogi/ni to focus on other aspects of the pose. For example, when learning Vrksasana, or Tree Pose, one would work on keeping one leg straight, bending and placing the other, turning out the knee, and keeping the back straight. The other parts of the body are strengthened and stretched, and the yogi/ni is able to access the balance and calming effects of this asana.

Another way to approach arm modifications is to keep the hands together at the chest, pulling the shoulders down into their sockets. In this way, the arms aren’t raised above the head but tension can be applied to work the shoulders and chest area. This also give a bit of a balance challenge, particularly in variations of Virabhadrasana I, or First Warrior, such as “Crescent”, where the back foot has the heel lifted off the ground.

Sometimes the issue isn’t with the arms but with the chest area. If scar tissue prevents full extension of the arms overhead, try using “goalpost” or “cactus” arms. Here, the shoulder muscle is firmly entrenched in its socket and the upper arms are stretched out to the side. The elbows bend at a ninety degree angle, and the fingers point towards the sky. From here, it’s possible to work on extending the range of motion by slowly lifting the elbow and partially straightening the arm in the direction of the ears. Moving back and forth in this way will strengthen the remaining muscles and may stretch the affected area out to a lesser or greater degree.

When working with Garudasana, or Eagle Pose, one may have problems twisting the forearms to grab the hands. If this is the case, one can simply hug oneself! The back and shoulders will still get the indicated stretch.

A final arm modification may be needed when one practices twists. Often, the yogi/ni is instructed to place an elbow across the opposite thigh. If short arms make this unavailable, simply pull the elbow as far across the body as possible, bending the elbows and placing the hands in prayer position before twisting. This will still provide the twist to the upper body.

If using any of the above modifications, it’s important to remember that one isn’t doing ‘lesser’ yoga. Rather, one is adapting a generalized posture to a specific body while aligning one’s breath. This type of Accessible Yoga is the very definition of what one is trying to achieve – uniting the body and mind. Modifications can certainly prepare one for more intense postures; however, they can also be the correct way for a particular person to practice. Know thyself, and work accordingly.

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