Improve your chaturanga
Want to learn how to do chaturanga? Chaturanga Dandasana is hugely common in vinyasa flow classes and often vilified or blamed for all sorts of injuries. Some of that may be true, especially if done quickly, forcefully, and without any concern for alignment. I prefer to think positively about what chaturanga delivers, although extolling its virtues may fall on deaf ears and tired arms. With sincerity, I believe it is an efficient and effective transition from plank into upward-facing dog, priming the strength of the arms and shoulders to deliver the backbend energetically as well as giving an opportunity for rhythmic breath and movement.
Additionally, If you want to practice arm balances, it is essential you have a strong chaturanga. It’s a heat builder of course and I like that. I like cranking it up and getting the body warm enough to dive into some of the more flexibility oriented shapes later on. And, yes, it’s a hard pose that demands strength in the upper body and core and is hard to do repeatedly with integrity. For me, the fact that it forces you to pay attention, slow down, and move with clarity and meaning is part of its charm and necessity. Because if you do it a bit too fast, too many times, with too much machismo, it might eventually f- you over. And that’s life, isn’t it?
After a pretty fiery class sometimes I have temporary regrets about all the chaturangas and go back and count how many we’ve actually done. On a particularly big day in my class it may be somewhere between 20-30. I may be being bit of a bully but I think most people can survive 20-30 triceps presses, which is essentially what it is, especially if given ample opportunity to do them slowly or with knees down, or when strength fails, to find other comparable transitional movements to get to the next bit of flow. So, for now it’s staying in and we’ll have to pony up and meet its demands.
Fundamentally,to learn how to do chaturanga remember that it’s a pose, not just a transition. Don’t rush and actually take the time to make the shape! Most of my in-class adjustments involve stopping people mid-route, slowing them down, and reminding them to actually do the pose. To that end here are some quick tips to improve your chaturanga.
Remember the Shape
Chaturanga Dandasana translates to four-limbed staff pose. Visualise the long stable staff supported by four points, not just some crazy roller-coaster ride into upward-facing dog. To that end, forget knees-chest-chin as a preparatory movement. It patterns a downwardly sloped action into the shoulder joint that may put too much pressure into the front of the rotator cuff group of muscles and ligaments that line the front of the joint.
When moving down from plank come forward on to your toes and think more of moving forward rather than down. You can visualise a plane landing slowly and steadily. Similarly, hopping back into chaturanga is more efficiently achieved by thinking of bringing the chest forward. Both are so because it helps bring the arms into 90-degree angles with a bend at the elbow joints, providing a strong muscular support between the front and the back of the arms, the arms in external rotation within the shoulder joints, and the shoulder joints supported and stable.
Elbows in, shoulders back
With the elbow moving back and holding tightly in to the ribs, you keep the arms in a plane of movement that most efficiently uses the arm muscles to sustain your downward trajectory, and helps the arms stay in slight external rotation with shoulder blades down and head of the arm bone placed without risk of pressing against the front of the joint. This is ideal for stability and perfectly set up to bring you in to backbend in the following pose. With the shoulders drawn down (try pressing firm into the mat like you’re trying to slide it back) and together, you bring in the support of the back-body to help stabilise the arms and the shape, rather than a sloppy crash forward. To keep this support in place, don’t go too low. Stop around elbow height.
It’s not just upper body
Some students midsections can start looking like sad over-worked pack horses in a lazy chaturanga with a belly crashing to the mat and a lower back in a dire dip. Remember that the core has to stay slightly lifted and engaged to maintain the support from belly to thighs to maintain the staff shape through your descent. Additionally, thighs stay engaged and although I’ve asked for weight to be shifted forward in the shape, even to the point of being on your toes, there is energy also moving back through the heels – a sort of dual current of energy moving in both ways. If you forget the core and power of the legs, the pose will get top heavy and you’ll continue to crash downward.
Keep it real
Chaturanga is hard for nearly everybody so be kind to yourself. If it just ain’t working out, scale back and do less of them, or do it on your knees, or skip it and just find another way to transition with movement and breath or build strength in your body and in your practice. Most likely doing a combination of alternative poses like locust pose or cobra pose or knees down chaturanga will in time yield the same positive results and you will learn how to do chaturanga as a well aligned, aware, and embodied ‘full’ pose.
Video guidance on how to do chaturanga