Chaturanga Do’s and Don’ts
Oh, chaturanga dandasana. We’ve had a long and complicated relationship. I remember my first few yoga classes way back when, and how it was unclear to me that people were not in fact lowering themselves all the way to the floor. They were – gasp – hovering! And when I first tried you, how miserably I failed. You may not come easily, chaturanga, but perseverance pays off.
There is nothing like supporting your own body weight for building strength. Which is why you must not do a drive-by with this pose, cruising as fast as you can into upward facing dog. As Baron Baptise puts it in his book Journey Into Power: “A lot of students try to sneak their way past Low Push-Up and move directly from High Push-Up to the next pose, which is Upward Facing Dog, but I strongly encourage you not to do this. Find ways to work within the pose. Modify, dilute, research, but don’t run or avoid the work. Challenge yourself sensitively and your weakness will soon turn to strength.” Uh huh, what he said. And Iyengar’s Light on Yoga even recommends holding chaturanga for 30 seconds (each time, I wonder?).
I’m pretty sure that chaturanga is not on many yogi’s favorite pose list. It’s definitely not on mine. But as we all know, the poses we don’t like tend to be the ones that benefit us the most. They are the ones that help us grow as yoga practitioners. So even though I don’t have a deep love for it, I respect it. I’ve become slightly obsessed with chaturanga over the years – and not just for what it can do for me. I feel obligated to trouble-shoot everyone’s chaturanga pose on the yoga retreats I lead, for the simple reason that if you are doing it wrong, you are cheating yourself of one of yoga’s best gifts (not to mention probably setting yourself up for injury. Rotator cuff issue? Blame a bad chaturanga pose). I feel obligated to fine-tune this underdog of poses that holds together every vinyasa, every sun salutation like glue. Just call me the Chaturanga Cowgirl.
No-nonsense, four-limbed staff pose – it ain’t flashy, but it’s packed with power. Athleta even named a no-nonsense, high-performance yoga tight after it, which I’ve been wearing for years. Check out the new Paisley print for fall – the pose might not be flashy, but this print sure is.
Do your yoga practice a favor this fall, and fine-tune your chaturanga. Here are some of my easy-to-use chaturanga do’s and don’ts. You can also watch a great tutorial on YogaGlo here.
Start here with the basics…
It all begins with plank. If you are not properly aligned in plank pose, you won’t be in chaturanga either. Plank is another pose that you should consider hanging out in; the longer you stay here, the more opportunity there is to strengthen your upper body and core, which are both key for chaturanga.
Practice it with these tips in mind:
- Line your shoulders up over your wrists.
- Keep your head lined up with your spine.
- Don’t drop your hips – pull your navel in towards your spine to activate your core.
- Hold for 10 deep breaths to work on building strength, even on days you don’t practice.
More plank pose work here, under “Plain Plank – the ultimate core strengthener.”
DO: Keep your elbows in by your sides. Take your hands in front of you with your elbows tucked in, and push your hands forward and back. Your inner arms should brush the sides of your body. That’s what you want to happen when you are lowering from plank into chaturanga.
DO: Tuck your elbows in slightly to “catch” your ribs. This will prevent you from lowering too far. Going too low in chaturanga strains your elbows and wrists. You want your upper arms to be parallel to the floor.
DO: Flashback to geometry! Make a right angle with your arms.
DON’T: Flare your elbows out. This pinches the shoulders and over time can lead to injury. Taking the elbows away from the body is not efficient in terms of strength work, either.
Chaturanga: the finer points
- Modify if you need to – not just if you are building up to the full pose, but when you are able to practice the full pose but are not feeling 100%. Modifications to choose from: a) Drop to your knees to lower down from plank, but make sure to keep your hips forward and your shoulders over your wrists; b) Lower from plank all the way to the floor and come into cobra from there.
- Use a block to help you physically understand how low to go. Don’t release your weight into the support of the block, try to just lightly touch it with your belly/lower ribs.
- Practice cupcake chaturanga: Imagine there is a cupcake on the floor in front of your yoga mat. You want to position your mouth right over it as you lower from plank. That means your head has to stay lined up with your spine (no cranking the neck and throwing the head back). You also want to hover long enough to be able to bite the cupcake. (This may be the most effective chaturanga motivation ever.)
- Hip dip. Just so you know, this doesn’t count as a chaturanga. Your hips are heavy and they want to go down – don’t let them! Draw your navel in towards your spine to keep the hips elevated, using your core. Remember, from plank pose you want to lower down into chaturanga with your body in one straight line – don’t take the shortcut via the hip dip. If you are not strong enough, modify and build up to it.
- Head drop. Remember: Keep your body in one straight line from plank. Next thing that wants to drop after the hips is the head. This strains the neck and shoulders, and cheats you of the strengthening power of the lowering down movement. Your drishti, or gazing point, should be slightly out in front of you. Keep your eye on the cupcake!
- Butt lift. It sounds like a good thing, but it’s not. This makes your shoulders work too hard, and if they end up lower than the elbows, you’re straining that joint as well. It’s hard to know if you’re doing this, as it can feel “right,” so ask someone to watch you and let you know if you have your bum up.
Go ahead, take the chaturanga challenge. Good luck! Namaste.
Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Big-Sky-People.com