A couple years ago I injured my rotator cuff muscle in a vinyasa class. As a result, I completely omitted chaturanga dandasana from my practice, choosing instead to hold plank pose for several seconds while my fellow yogis continued on through the rest of Surya Namaskara. (Learn about the Surya Namaskara series in Why Salute the Sun?)
When I recently decided it was time to reintegrate chaturanga, I was surprised to discover that I was completely out of alignment. Worse, my brain seemed to have forgotten what a proper chaturanga should look and feel like! I was informed by a yoga instructor that chaturanga is NOT a pushup! (Now you know, too.) What else was I missing? (Read more in Why is Alignment Important to My Yoga Practice?)
Chaturanga dandasana, also called four-limbed staff pose, is traditionally a transitional asana between plank pose and upward-facing dog. It is a foundational pose in both Ashtanga yoga and any vinyasa flow class that prepares the body for inversions and arm balances, and it’s an intensely challenging pose. Chaturanga strengthens the upper body, core and quadriceps like no other asana. It’s a pose yogis love to hate. Many of us have developed the tendency to rush through it so we can move on to easier asanas. But breezing through chaturanga can lead to poor alignment, and eventually, injuries to the shoulder girdle and low back. Common injuries that result from misalignment in chaturanga are bicep tendonitis, rotator cuff tears (yep, that’s me), a dislocated shoulder, torn ligaments and repetitive stress injuries. To better understand chaturanga alignment, we need to know a little bit about the anatomy of the shoulder first.
The Anatomy of Chaturanga Dandasana
The shoulder girdle, or shoulder complex, is home to the shoulder joint. The shoulder joint, also called the glenohumeral joint, is a ball and socket joint that is similar to the hip joint in appearance and in how it functions. The head of the upper arm is called the humerus, (this is considered the ball part of the shoulder joint) and the humerus sits superficially in it’s socket on the scapula, relying mainly on the surrounding ligaments and the muscles of the serratus and rhomboids to hold it in place. This makes the shoulder joint inherently unstable and it’s relatively easy for it to come out of it’s socket. Of all the joints in your body, the shoulder joint is not one where you want to dump your weight into. Now that we understand some of the basics of shoulder anatomy, let’s explore the most common misalignments and their corrections.
The most common alignment issues that happen in chaturanga dandasana are letting the shoulders move below the elbows, having the shoulders go into extension or a combination of both. Keeping the entire shoulder girdle integrated takes upper body strength, and when the shoulder blades come off the back and round forward, all of our weight gets dumped into these shallow unstable joints. Therefore, it is especially important to draw the shoulders onto the back before coming into chaturanga. The best place to set up shoulder alignment is in plank pose. Here you’ll want to draw the shoulders back and together while opening through the chest. You can imagine you are trying to squeeze the juice out of a clementine that you’re holding between your shoulder blades.
Where you set your focus, the mind will follow. The same rule applies to our gaze, or drishti. Your drishti should be on the floor two to three inches in front of your nose. Gently drop the chin in toward the neck. Keep the crown of your head extending and active. Don’t drop your head down toward your mat or raise your gaze toward the sky like in upward dog. The lobes of your ears should be in-line with the heads of your shoulders, hips and heels. Imagine life force energy being channeled from the tips of your toes through your spine and blossoming out of the crown of your head, into a brilliant gold-petaled lotus flower.
In plank pose, your hands should be directly under the head of your shoulders. Once you move into chaturanga, the head of the shoulder joints will come in front of the hands. Check to ensure that your palms are pressed firmly into your yoga mat. I often see fingers gripping the mat. This will pinch the nerves in your wrists, so keep your fingers spread wide and flat like a gecko's. Line the creases of your wrists parallel with the top of the mat and point your middle fingers straight up and down.
Splayed elbows are a sure sign that your chaturanga is misaligned. While still in plank pose, roll the inside of elbows forward toward the front of the mat. Now, imagine gluing your elbows into your ribs so that they stay in-line with your waist. When you come into chaturanga, there should be a 90-degree right angle between your upper arm and forearm. The head of the shoulder joint and the elbow should be in the same plane. Often, I see yogis drop their shoulders lower than their elbows. When this happens, the brunt of the body’s weight gets pushed into the shoulder joints, wearing on the ligaments and tiring surrounding muscles.
When done properly, chaturanga dandasana is an amazing core exercise. To engage your core, pull your belly in toward your navel, engage mula bandha and fire up those quadriceps. Strongly engaging the legs helps activate the core. If it helps, imagine wearing a corset that comes all the way down to your pubic bone. Now, visualize lacing up that corset from the pubic bone on up, pulling the laces tight as you go.
Drop your tailbone slightly and breathe. If you’re new to chaturanga, you may start feeling a slight trembling in your belly. This is a good sign and means you are working those abdominal muscles.
In chaturanga, the hips should be at the same height as the head of the shoulders. The two most common misalignments that happen are either dropping the hips or keeping them raised in a pike position. Neither work. When you drop your hips, you put a lot of strain on your low back and groin. It defeats the whole purpose of building core and upper body strength. Lifting your bottom, on the other hand, seems like a tempting alternative, but doing so will put extra strain on the shoulder joints. So, tame those hips and keep them on the same plane as your head, shoulders and heels. Remember, engaging your core will make this much easier.
Entering and Holding Chaturanga Dandasana
Start by coming into table pose on your yoga mat. Have a look at your hands and confirm that they are directly below your shoulders. Spread your fingers out evenly, with your middle finger pointed straight up and parallel to the outside edge of your mat. Your wrist creases should be parallel to the top of your mat. Turn the eyes of the elbows out and forward. Reaching your heels back, lift the knees off the mat to come into plank pose. Engage your core as you drop your tailbone and extend through the crown of the head.
With the exception of the arms, plank alignment is analogous to tadasana. Hold plank for several breaths to build strength and condition the core. As you do this, mentally visualize your alignment before moving into chaturanga. From plank, shift your body forward so you are on the tips of your toes and your shoulders are in front of your hands. Activate the legs, especially the quads and keep reaching back actively through your heels. Glue your elbows in toward your ribs and slowly bend your elbows to a 90-degree angle, keeping the head of your shoulder above the elbows. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor. Place your drishti several inches in front of your mat while maintaining a straight line through your earlobes, hips and heels. (Learn more in Top 4 Yoga Poses.)
Chaturanga is a dynamic pose, so be prepared, you might start shaking. Initially, you may only be able to hold chaturanga for a few seconds. When you’re done, simply come all the way down to your mat or into upward-facing dog.
Helpful Modifications and Props for Chaturanga Alignment
Coming into a modification is not something to be ashamed of. Modifications and props are there to help us prevent injuries, strengthen our muscles and sometimes even to increase the intensity of a pose. Lucky for us, chaturanga has several modifications.
Drop Your Knees
Bringing your knees down to your mat helps take some of the weight-bearing off of the upper body. If you choose this option, remember that your plumb line will end in your knees. If you have sensitive knees, you can use a blanket to cushion the knee caps. You can choose to keep your toes curled under on your mat or lift your feet off the floor, crossing them in the air behind you.
Use the Wall
Before you get into chaturanga, set up your plank with the soles of your feet and heels pressing into a wall. This will help keep your legs and core muscles engaged as you come down into chaturanga.
Use a Yoga Block
You can use a bolster or a yoga block on the widest setting, just under your hips, to give you a physical reference point to where your chest and hips should be. Remember to hover over the block or bolster; it is not a place to release your weight into. I find this modification to be quite challenging.
Use a Yoga Strap
Loop a yoga strap around your upper arms, just above the elbows. Use it to keep your elbows from splaying away from your waist. The strap will give you an added sense of security as it literally holds you in alignment.
Practice Makes Perfect
In a typical vinyasa class, chaturanga dandasana is performed an average of 20 to 30 times. In an Ashtanga yoga class, that number is even higher. You can see why it’s so important to get our alignment right. Yoga is as much about learning to listen to our bodies as it is about perfecting our asanas. So take the time to dig into and understand proper chaturanga alignment. Not only will you be protecting your body from injury, you'll be learning to practice patience with yourself. (Read on about The Power of Vinyasa.)