Oh, chaturanga. It’s a tricky little asana most frequently woven into a vinyasa sequence, wedged between plank and upward facing dog—and sometimes unintentionally expressed as a backbend, belly flop, or audible groan. Unless our teachers are feeling particularly sadistic (or have just returned from a chaturanga workshop and are bursting to share their knowledge), we often move through chaturanga so quickly that we rarely get the chance to refine our alignment.
Chaturanga is a posture that many yoga practitioners understandably feel frustrated and confused about. And that’s unfortunate because it’s such a foundational pose! A carefully approached chaturanga could enhance your future arm balances and rev up your upper body and core strength. Plus, consider how many sun salutations are in your practice, particularly if you’re a vinyasa yogi. You may spend more time in chaturanga than you think, so make it worth your while and learn to build the strength that will carry you through your surya namaskars and your practice as a whole.
Here are seven common mistakes to avoid in chaturanga (and what to do instead!):
Hand placement can be tricky, but it doesn’t have to be. Starting in plank, make sure that your wrists are directly under your shoulders, but don’t lower down yet! Before you bend your elbows to lower, shift slightly forward with your upper body as if you’re peering over the edge of a skyscraper. Your shoulders will come slightly forward of your wrists. Then slowly bend your elbows to lower down, imagining that you’re balancing a line of chakra balls on your back so that your entire body ends up in one straight line and your wrist creases end up under your elbows.
If you’re good at push-ups, there’s a good chance that you’ll like chaturanga, but chaturanga is not a push-up. As you lower from plank to chaturanga, hug your elbows in toward your sides (but not so much that your shoulders round forward), and point your elbows toward the back of your mat.
When your shoulders go too low in chaturanga, you put unnecessary pressure on your joints (elbows and wrists) instead of strengthening your muscles, and you put your shoulders and rotator cuff muscles at risk. Therefore, preventing your shoulders from rounding is more important than how far down you lower your body. Even in the fullest expression of the pose, the very lowest you want to go is only low enough so that your arms create a 90-degree angle and your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Depth isn’t the key to chaturanga. In fact, for a safe and effective chaturanga, you don’t even have to go that low; you can just bend your elbows a little bit while keeping your shoulders higher than your elbows. To prevent your shoulders from rounding in chaturanga, broaden across your collarbones, keep your shoulder blades on your back, and only lower down to the point where you have enough control to press back up to plank if you need to (without your shoulders dipping below your elbows).
To remedy a dropping head, bring your drishti (gaze) slightly ahead of you instead of straight down. Keep the back of your head in line with the back of your tailbone.
If your hips are up too high, making your chaturanga feel awkward and uncomfortable, the culprit may be your alignment in plank. To avoid looking like a pitched tent in chaturanga, first come to plank and make sure that your feet are far enough back (so that you have your heels over your toes and your shoulders over your wrists). Then draw your lower belly in and up as you lengthen your tailbone toward your heels. Keeping that, shift your shoulders forward, and lower your entire body while maintaining a neutral pelvis.
Your fingers are spread, your finger pads and knuckles are pressing into the floor, your arms are at a 90-degree angle, and you’re so level that your classmates could have a tea party on your back. To an untrained eye, you look great, but if you’re concentrating so hard on your upper body that you’ve lost the involvement of your legs, you are causing your upper body to work much harder than it needs to. The extra arm workout might feel like a welcome challenge at the beginning of your practice, but halfway through class you might burn out and practice subsequent chaturangas with unsafe alignment due to upper body fatigue. Avoid this outcome by keeping your quads engaged and lifting your thighs away from the floor as you stretch your heels away from the crown of your head so that your lower body picks up half the work in chaturanga.
Do whatever you need to do to own your chaturanga. Sometimes that means setting an intention or chanting a beloved mantra at the beginning of your practice. Other times it’s as easy as lowering your knees to the floor in the pose to focus on strengthening and aligning your upper body, bending your elbows just a little bit, or choosing a chaturanga alternative. Remember: a safely modified chaturanga is still chaturanga.