In yoga class, we’re often told to “listen to our bodies.” But we’re often also instructed to do eleven billion chaturanga-to-updog-to-downdog transitions. Your body may be totally on board with all of these chaturangas, or it may not. Perhaps the first several chaturangas feel awesome, after which your shoulders are like, “nope.” Or maybe the traditional “vinyasa” just doesn’t feel safe or appropriate right now. Maybe it’s simply that although you love a fun, flowy, fast-paced class, you’d rather not do the plank-to-chaturanga-to-updog-to-downdog thing before, after, and in the middle of every single flow.
So what can you substitute when your teacher calls out “take your vinyasa”? And teachers, what alternatives can you offer students to help them get the most out of their practice—even if they choose to opt out of this classic flow transition?
Here are a few options for practicing a “vinyasa” sans chaturanga (or updog, or plank, or all of the above). Although there are tons of super-awesome chaturanga alternatives you can do with props, these particular variations don’t require any extra accessories. This makes it possible to seamlessly substitute them in a sun salute or other “one-breath-per-movement” vinyasa flow.
Here are a few options for practicing a “vinyasa” sans chaturanga (or updog, or plank, or all of the above).
Remember: If you're working with injury, ask your doctor or physical therapist what positions (extensions, flexions, and ranges of motion) are appropriate or risky for the injured part(s) of your body. And honor your body. Even if it’s considered a “safer alternative,” if a pose or pose variation feels painful, don’t do it.
From downward facing dog, you can shift forward into plank—stacking your shoulders over your wrists, and your heels above the balls of your feet (you may need to scoot your feet back a little if your downdog is on the shorter side). Simply stay there, taking advantage of a little extra “core-strength-building time” in lieu of the chaturanga to updog, and then meet your fellow yogis back in downdog to continue on with the sequence.
Safety and alignment pointers to help you get the most out of this alternative: Place your hands shoulder-distance apart (or just slightly wider), with your wrist creases parallel to the short edge of your mat and your fingers spread evenly apart; press a little more weight into the inner edges of your hands.
Keep your head in line with your spine, gazing at the floor just in front of you. Press your hands into the ground as though you were pushing it away. You might even notice a little more abdominal engagement as a result of this action, helping to prevent you from compressing your lower back. Press your thighs up toward the ceiling. In the beginning, don’t worry if your hips lift up a bit, as it’s safer to have your hips a little too high than to collapse into your lower back! But once you’ve cultivated the core strength to keep your lower back safe and supported, see if you can press your thighs up without sticking your butt out.
To tone down the intensity: Lower both knees to the floor, making sure your knees stay behind your hips (not directly under them, as in table pose). Or lower just one knee to the floor for a “half plank,” being mindful to alternate which knee is on the ground in order to balance use of your body throughout the practice.
To rev up the intensity: Lift one foot away from the floor for a “three-legged plank.” Keep your hips level (both of your front “hip points” facing down toward the floor), and your core engaged. Hold for a few seconds on one leg before switching sides. Or if you’re moving through a sun salute B or a standing pose flow, you might come into a three-legged plank with your right leg lifted after doing the standing pose(s) on your right side, and then into a three-legged plank with your left leg lifted after doing them on your left side.
This is an excellent “next step” if you’re building strength for (eventually) moving from chaturanga to cobra or updog, and a powerful core and upper-body strengthener in its own right.
Move from downdog to plank, maintaining the alignment described in the previous variation. Then shift your body forward a little, bringing your shoulders just past your wrists (but not so far forward that you feel like you’re balancing on your toenails!). Keep your shoulders as high (or higher than) your elbows as you bend your elbows for a little “chaturanga pushup.” Lower down only as far as will allow you to press back up (even if that means only bending your elbows a millimeter at first!). Then press back up, and either hold plank or do a couple more little chaturanga pushups before returning to downdog and continuing with the flow.
Safety and alignment pointers to help you get the most out of this alternative: While you don’t want to bend your elbows out to the sides like a traditional “gym pushup,” you also don’t want to squeeze them into your rib cage so much that it causes your shoulders to round forward. Try keeping a little space between your elbows and your rib cage—perhaps letting the elbows flare out just slightly so that they point toward the back corners of your mat). Prioritize staying broad through your collarbones and keeping your shoulders from dipping below the height of your elbows.
To tone down the intensity: Practice your pushups with one or both knees on the floor. As with the plank modification in option 1, keep your knees behind the line of your hips.
To rev up the intensity: Practice your pushups from a three-legged plank. Keep your lifted leg hovering, or cross your lifted leg ankle over your other ankle. Be mindful of not sacrificing safe alignment for the sake of lifting a leg.
Want to enjoy an updog without going the typical chaturanga route? Try this: From plank, “flip/flip” your feet by placing first the top of your right foot, then the top of your left foot, on the floor. Without touching your thighs (or pelvis) to the floor, lower your pelvis, and broaden and lift your chest to come right into upward facing dog. To exit the pose, roll over the tops of your feet and press right back to downdog. (Remember to alternate the “flip/flip” action so that you occasionally flip your non-habitual foot first.)
Safety and alignment pointers to help you get the most out of this alternative: Keep your core engaged as you move through the transition. In upward facing dog, lead with your chest (not your chin!) as you come into the backbend. You may find that a micro-bend in your elbows helps you to access more chest expansion. Keep your thighs lifted off the floor, and continue to broaden your collarbones, lift your sternum, and let the back of your head move back to follow the lift in your chest (moving from the back of your head instead of your crown will help you to keep length in the back of your neck).
To tone down the intensity: You can also bypass chaturanga and come into cobra. From plank, shift your shoulders in front of your wrists, just as you would for a chaturanga or chaturanga prep/pushup. From here, lower your knees to the floor (they’ll be way behind your hips). With your knees down, and your shoulders and chest forward, you’re set up perfectly for a high cobra pose. Release the tops of your feet to the floor (untucking your toes), and lower your pelvis toward the floor, bending your elbows as you keep your chest broad and lifted.
To rev up the intensity: Add in a “chaturanga pushup” (or two!) before returning to plank and moving right into your updog. I like this transition because it lets me work separately with each component of a vinyasa, allowing me to grow more clear about them and more confident with them before combining them for the more traditional flow.