If you attend a vinyasa class several times each week, chances are you hear the words “chaturanga, upward dog, downward dog” 20 or more times in that period—or even just in one class! And why not? After all, many yoga teachers and students love how those poses develop upper-body strength, and they do make for a smooth transition between many other poses, but we might consider whether it is wise to do so much of the same thing, using the same muscles over and over, without doing some cross-training to balance things out.
As a yoga therapist, I am quite familiar with shoulder-overuse issues. And I have maxed out my own shoulders more than once during teacher trainings when I repeatedly demonstrated cycles of chaturanga and upward and downward dogs. In an ideal world, doing so many repetitions would be avoided and more varied movement would be favored, but in teacher trainings and some styles of asana we sometimes overpractice in order to refine a certain movement. So, perhaps shaking up that repetitive cycle with purvottanasana (which is translated as “intense stretch of the east” but is known as upward plank) or its cousin chatus pada pitham (four-footed tabletop pose) can provide some needed balance in our sequences.
Why Upward Plank?
From a yoga therapy perspective, the front of the body represents the conscious mind, as it is what we present to the world, while the back of the body is related to our subconscious mind—that which we hold mainly in memory and also the stuff of our dreams. From that point of view, it makes sense to create harmony between the effort made by the front and back of the body.
Physically, purvottanasana makes use of oft-underused upper-back and neck muscles (thanks to the scapular adduction from the rhomboids and downward scapular rotation from the levator scapulae), and it recruits the triceps and anconeus muscles (thanks to the elbow extension that upward plank requires), as well as the spinal extensors. On the other hand, chaturanga entails pretty much the opposite actions: abduction of the shoulder blades, flexion of the elbows, and engagement of the pectorals and serratus anterior muscles.
Also, in upward plank, the whole rotator cuff is strengthened as it is used to support the body weight. If you think about it, you can see how this might not be the case in chaturanga: When your shoulders are at or below elbow height in chaturanga, which many students' shoulders are, the rotator cuff is destabilized, and as a result, you’re likely to lean into the shoulder joint, increasing the pressure on the biceps tendon, labrum, and joint capsule without strengthening the rotator cuff muscles. In addition to strengthening your rotator cuff, purvottanasana provides a lovely stretch to the pectoralis major and minor (chest) and also to the anterior deltoids (fronts of the shoulders)—and that’s just the upper-body muscles!
The lower body receives an oft-needed strengthening of the hamstrings (which are frequently overstretched but not strengthened in asana) and the gluteus maximus in upward plank. Further, it allows the quadriceps to be strengthened in their extended positions and engages the rectus abdominis muscles as they contract eccentrically to maintain the elongated position.
For all these reasons, it’s pretty obvious that purvottanasana is the perfect complement to the numerous chaturangas many of us do. A creative teacher can even incorporate upward plank into a vinyasa flow: for example, coming into it from navasana (boat pose), seated forward folds, and poses that start from dandasana (staff pose). But purvottanasana can hold its own outside of a flow as well.
If you’re ready to give this valuable pose a place in your practice, read on for some “uplifting” tips.
Four-Footed Tabletop Pose
Starting with four-footed tabletop pose will help you get a feel for supporting your weight while your arms are behind you.
Begin seated in dandasana with your hands an inch or so directly behind your hips, fingers pointed forward. Then bend your knees and place your feet hip distance apart where your knees were. Press into your hands and feet to lift your hips away from the floor on an inhalation. On the exhale, engage (but do not clench) your buttocks, pelvic floor, and inner thighs (internally rotating them) and bring the back of your head in line with the back of your pelvis, keeping your neck long.
Hold for five breaths while refining further by broadening across your chest. Avoid “hanging” in your joints (locking your elbows and letting your shoulders totally support your body’s weight); maintain a microbend in your elbows.
Now that you have some experience with these actions, you can apply them in upward plank. You’ll start in dandasana again, hands in the same position as they were in four-footed tabletop pose. On an inhalation, press your hands into the earth and keep your thighs internally rotated as you gently contract your buttocks and pelvic floor and lift your hips off the floor into purvottanasana. Keep your chin level or slightly tucked as your neck strength dictates. Press the inner edges of your feet together and reach your toes toward the floor. Broaden across your chest as you hold the pose for five breaths.
Upward Plank Dips from a Chair
Once you feel comfortable with purvottanasana, you might want to mix things up a bit. Doing upward plank dips from a chair is one of my favorite ways to balance out the chaturangas I do.
Begin seated on the edge of a chair with your hands clasping both sides of the seat: In general, this will be more comfortable than trying to point your fingers directly toward your hips with hands on the chair. It does change the use of the arm muscles a bit but is still an excellent way to build strength. Place your legs in position for either four-footed tabletop pose or upward plank. Having a bolster under your hips (as I’m demonstrating in the photos below) can help you to avoid dipping lower than you intend to, and is a good option to try if your shoulders aren’t feeling particularly strong and/or if your chair seat is fairly high.
On an inhale, lift your hips as you did in the previous variations, keeping your arms straight, chest broad, and thighs internally rotated. Then, on an exhale, bend your elbows toward the back of the room until your hips are below chair level—a little or a lot, depending on your shoulder condition. Then inhale back to your upward plank variation. Try three to five repetitions to start and build up to more.
I like to do this counterstretch following the strong arm work of the chair dips: Sitting on a bolster in front of the chair, thread your arms through the back of the chair, palms facing up, allowing your shoulders to round forward a bit. Stay for five breaths or so, letting tension ease from your arms and upper back.
If your chair seat is quite low to the ground, or if you’re not getting enough of an upper-back stretch, you can omit the bolster and sit on the floor in front of the chair instead.
I love the strength that upward plank brings to my shoulders and back muscles as well as the power I feel from opening the front of my body in an arm-supported pose. It’s always good to bring more balance into our practice and give all of our muscles due attention; adding purvottanasana on a regular basis is one way we can do that.
1. Kaminoff, L., & Matthews, A. (2011, p. 231). Yoga Anatomy (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.
Photography: Andrea Killam