Chaturanga dandasana (four limbed staff pose) has gotten a bad rap with nicknames like “shoulder shredder,” which has even led to some yoga classes being promoted as “Chaturanga-Free Vinyasa.” But with time, care, and attention, your chaturanga practice can be safe and enjoyable. Here are steps you can take to build a stronger, smarter, and more powerful chaturanga.
Learn to Listen to Your Body
Learning to listen without judgment involves turning our attention inward. What do the physical sensations arising in your chaturanga practice tell you? Maybe there is some pain or discomfort in your shoulders. Are you possibly ignoring this shoulder pain with a hope that it might go away? It's important to address the discomfort head-on. Try discussing with your yoga teacher how your body feels during chaturanga. Explore options with them as to how you might adjust your pose for a healthier, less painful practice. If your discomfort continues, your pain might be a signal that it's simply time to stop practicing chaturangas today (and that's okay!).
What do the physical sensations arising in your chaturanga practice tell you?
What about emotional discomfort? Perhaps you think every other yogi you know can do endless chaturangas while you get tired after three or four. Or maybe your chaturanga alignment was recently corrected by a teacher, and now your pose feels less strong. Does this bring forward a sense of defensiveness, defeat—even discouragement? Can you be mentally present during this pose and simply notice reactive emotions without a sense of judgment? If judgments do arise, try greeting them with an “Oh, you again!” Attempt to consciously disengage from the power they hold over you.
Quality, not quantity, matters most. The best way to start spending more quality time in chaturanga is to work with this challenging pose as a stand-alone posture.
If you are pain-free in the shoulders, try the chaturanga set-up below. And if you are experiencing mild shoulder discomfort, experiment with taking just a one- or two-inch bend in the elbows and only working in a pain-free range of motion.
- Set yourself up for a plank pose facing a mirror so it is directly in front of you, at a comfortable distance (so that the mirror is about three to four feet away from your face).
- Come into a plank position with your shoulders over your wrists, and your hands shoulder-width apart, or even a little wider.
- Lower your knees to the floor. Your knees should be behind your hips here, not directly beneath them as in table pose. This will take some weight out of your upper body and allow you to focus on shoulder and core stability.
- Push your hands into the floor (think about pushing a stalled car uphill). This will engage your serratus anterior muscles (“pushing” muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades on your back). This is important because stabilizing the shoulder blades will help keep the shoulder joint in safe alignment while weight-bearing.
- Engage your lower abdominal muscles to stabilize your low back.
- As you bend your elbows, draw your chest forward to lower halfway down until your shoulders line up with your elbows (not dipping below), and your elbows stay more or less over the wrists. (You can also lower less far down until you feel comfortable maintaining stable alignment.) It’s okay to let your elbows move slightly away from your ribs, but keep the elbows pointing back toward your feet as opposed to pointing directly out to the sides. When we “hug” the arms into the rib cage, the same muscles that adduct the arms (draw them in toward the body) also cause them to internally rotate. This inward rotation makes the heads of the shoulders "dip" forward, which can strain a weight-bearing shoulder joint. The placement of your elbows should support healthy shoulders.
What do you see happening in the mirror? And what do you feel happening in your body? Ideally you should see that the shoulders remain stable and do not roll forward toward the floor, and that your entire body is moving as one unit. Keep your lower abdominal muscles engaged as you lower to prevent your low back from sagging, and keep your head in line with your spine and your upper shoulder blades broad. (Many students let the shoulders blades slide together in the back, rise up toward the ears, and drop their heads forward. This is just as damaging to the shoulder joint as shoulders rolling forward.)
Repeat the process above, but this time observing yourself from the side. Because it’s hard to see yourself from the side in a mirror, if possible use your phone to video yourself from this angle. Watch your video later and analyze.
Practice this half push-up regularly until you feel strong and stable in the pose. When you are ready to practice chaturanga with straight legs, repeat the key actions listed above from full plank, with your knees off the floor.
Is a 90-Degree Angle Essential?
Sometimes teachers cue their students to shift forward onto the tips of their toes so that when they lower their bodies, their shoulders and elbows create a right angle. This may actually place too much stress on your shoulders. You may feel stronger and have more shoulder support by keeping a less-than-90-degree shoulder-to-elbow-to-wrist angle, and more weight in the balls of your feet. Tailor the alignment of this pose to work for you in a way that safely creates stability and ease.
Know When to Take a Chaturanga Break
Quality time is important, but it's just as important to know when to rest and take some time off from practicing a particular yoga pose or to consider spending time in a gentler modification. Choosing a modification does not imply weakness. Instead, it implies we are taking care of our bodies. Become comfortable with not doing every “flow” (example: plank, to chaturanga, to upward facing dog) offered in class. And while you're building strength, don't attempt to transition into upward facing dog right after chaturanga. Let your chaturanga stand on its own as a chaturanga push-up, possibly with lowered knees, and then move right into a downward facing dog. Or maybe you'd prefer to lower all the way down to the floor and transition into a low cobra before you press back up to hands and knees. Remember to listen to your body, without judgment. You may not like being the only person in class who's making chaturanga “easier.” When we have thoughts like these, it's helpful to remind ourselves, "Oh right, I am not the center of everyone’s focus!"
Quality time is important, but it's just as important to know when to rest and take some time off from practicing a particular yoga pose or to consider spending time in a gentler modification.
Acknowledge that taking a break from chaturanga isn’t the same as avoiding it altogether simply because it’s frustrating. It is empowering to learn how to safely approach a challenging asana and to take time integrating that knowledge into our practice. With practice, patience, and intelligent alignment, what we once felt was impossible can become demystified.
The Benefits of Chaturanga
Creating strength and ease in chaturanga can have a powerfully positive impact on an important element of physical health: posture. Why? Because in this pose we work with maintaining anatomically neutral alignment against the horizontal pull of gravity. This is an incredible way to increase strength and stability in the back and core muscles needed to hold us upright as we move through our day. And the way we hold ourselves upright affects us at every level of our being—that is, from the structural level right down to the cellular level.
Our cells' abilities, or inabilities, to function optimally are a direct result of their physical shape. Poor posture can literally disable cells from properly functioning because they have been smooshed or stretched out of their natural form. Our posture can create restricted blood flow, which can result in less oxygen and nutrients getting to our cells, and less waste and toxicity being taken away. Poor posture can also create back and neck pain, even injury.
Further, there's a positive energetic effect to standing upright with the head and heart lifted. For a moment, let your shoulders slump forward and the chest and heart sink, and gaze down toward the floor. Take a few breaths here to read the emotional tone of your body's new shape. Then bring the shoulders back, and lift your head and the heart. Take a few breaths here in this new shape. Do you notice a shift in how you feel?
Every time we lower into a chaturanga and raise ourselves back up out of the posture, whether to plank or an upward facing dog, we can say a quiet “thank you” for the opportunity to strengthen our ability to hold ourselves upright in a way that allows our physical and emotional self to feel our best.
Connect to Your Heart
Gratitude is one of our most healing emotions, perhaps because it connects us to the emotional center of our hearts, creating a sensation of warmth and expansion there.
Energetically, the hands are said to be related to the anahata (heart) chakra. In chaturanga, and in all yoga postures where the arms and hands are weight-bearing (like arm balances), imagine feeling the powerful energy of your heart pouring into your hands. Feeling emotionally supported and physically strong is an incredibly empowering experience, especially when we are supporting ourselves. What is in your emotional heart that needs to be expressed, needs to grow, or needs to be nourished? Contemplate what your heart needs as you practice chaturanga, and feel empowered to respond with what your heart desires.
Feeling emotionally supported and physically strong is an incredibly empowering experience, especially when we are supporting ourselves.
You can apply what we've explored here in chaturanga to any asana you don’t like, want to avoid, or find discouraging or challenging. This, I feel, is why the physical aspect of our yoga practice is so powerful: it calls up our inner lives and invites us to explore what thoughts and emotions might be limiting us. And in this way, yoga allows us to gain more insight into who we are. We have the opportunity to practice again and again—working with the outer body while maintaining a mindful connection to what, inwardly, really matters most to each of us, however this might manifest. Perhaps it is within this non-physical, feeling, thinking, more subtle part of who we are that we may begin to find ease, contentment, and peace in this very physical life.