Question for you, is there a problem with hyper-extending the arms in updog?
This articel started as a harmless one-liner question by a friend.
Beyond the monosyllabic answer above it expanded quickly into the following.
Hyperextending the elbows in upward facing dog, urdhva mukha svanasana, has structural as well as functional consequences. Depending on your level of obsessiveness with alignment and long-term-practice wear and tear, you might like to consider the following thoughts.
Structurally, hyperextending the elbow rotates the head of the arm bone, the humerus, outwardly relative to the shoulder socket.
Depending on the degree of hyperextension, the elbow will also move forward relative to the shoulder blade and wrist. These placements direct forces less ideally into the back and top to the shoulder joint (gleno-humeral joint), while potentially straining some tendons of the rotator cuff muscle group and the front of the joint capsule.
Functionally, a lot is going on, or actually not going on, both at the elbow and areas further away from that joint in both directions.
The elbow itself doesn’t mind being hyperextended in most people. Our concern is more with structures directly and indirectly effected by this alignment.
The relative forward position of the elbow effects the wrist and hand in at least three ways. For one it sharpens the angle and the back of the wrist, leading to generally greater pressure in the joints there. Secondarily, the rotation of the arm that accompanies hyperextension throws the weight bearing force to the weaker little outside (little finger side) of the wrist. Proper weight support, grounding and engagement of the hand and arm become a whole lot harder, if attempted.
Relying on the bone support of a hyperextended elbow usually means the elbow joint controlling muscles, triceps on the back of the upper arm and the biceps and brachialis on the front, are not engaged. Here the effect is one of loosing dynamic support, adjustability and balance between torso and floor. Additionally, non-engaged muscles further withdraw support from the area of their other attachment end. Both biceps and triceps have an effect on the shoulder joint. Not using them will weaken that joint. The biceps provides connection from the arm to the shoulder blade at the front of the joint, the triceps at the back.
While disengaged arm muscles can be compensated to increase postural stability through the use of other muscles attaching to the arms, shoulder blades and torso, the likelihood of hyperextended elbows appear alongside unhelpful shoulder blade alignment is high. Overuse of the muscles between the shoulder blades, the trapezius and the rhomboids, leads to stiffening of the upper spine, somewhat pulled up shoulders and reduced ability to breathe.
When looking at upward facing dog as a progression of cobra pose, the arms would not only continue to stay engaged, they also would provide the pull of hands and elbows down and back towards the waist in order to facilitate the lengthening of the lumbar spine, thus avoiding compression in the extension. Shoulder blade engaged positioning away from the spine through help of the serratus anterior has a number of additional benefits. The shoulder blades are dynamically stabilized and slightly upwardly rotated. The spine is freed to extend without shoulder blades limiting and holding it down. The trapezius and rhomboids are modulated, softening the back of the body. Resultantly, the neck is freer while also the breath can be more full and free.
An additional important benefit of the help of the serratus anterior muscle here is it’s fascial connection to the outer obique abdominal muscles. The engagement of these, and they are triggered to engage by the serratus pull, will bring tone to the abdominal area, preventing a sagging of the belly that leads to crunching and compression of the lower back.
Of course there is more to the hyperextended elbow, a lot more to the practice of upward dog, however to answer this question, this is it for now.
So, where do all these technicalities leave us when simply wanting to practice upward dog?
- Keep your arms and hands engaged, your shoulders broad in front and back of the body and maintain a long spine.