6.09.2011

Asana of the Week: Chaturanga Dandasana

Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) is a super-powered strengthening posture for the whole body.  The wrists, arms, shoulders, upper back, and chest stabilize the upper body and bear the weight of the pose while the abdominals engage strongly to support the spine and the thighs firm to straighten the knees and stabilize the legs.

Chaturanga is generally only practiced as part of the so-called 'vinyasa,' or series of flowing postures which link one pose to the next: Chaturanga, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog), and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog).  Because of this, there is an unfortunate tendency to flow through the pose rather quickly and neglect to refine the posture which robs Chaturanga of its strengthening benefits.  Also, because we flow through Chaturanga so repeatedly in a vinyasa practice, poor alignment in this pose has the potential to lead to shoulder injury down the road.

Therefore, it is important to take some time in this posture to explore proper alignment and efficient use of our musculature to effectively align the shoulders and support the spine, not to mention build the power we need to flow through our vinyasas with grace and ease of breath. Keep the hands shoulder-width apart with the middle fingers parallel to one another and the elbows close to the sides.  Draw the shoulders back and shine the heart forward.  Do not bend the elbows further than 90 degrees and try to keep the forearms perpendicular to the mat, with the elbows stacked directly over the wrists.  If the core muscles are weak, the hips will tend to sag to the floor, or we might overcompensate and poke the sitbones up to the sky.  Use the bandhas to hold the belly firm and engage the glutes to counteract the tendency to tilt the pelvis forward.  Active thighs will stabilize the entire body and bring lightness to the pose. 

If you are working to build strength for arm balancing, inversions, and the like, I recommend spending at least 5 breaths in Chaturanga at least once per practice.  Over time, add breaths until you can easily remain in Chaturanga for 10 deep ujjayi breaths without sacrificing the alignment of the pose.  Remember your Chaturanga mantra:  Strong belly, strong thighs.

12 comments:

  1. Great mantra advise!

    p.s. you ARE looking leaner and meaner! Look at those arms! Go ashtanga!

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  2. Great post! Chaturanga and I will not be acquainted for some time as I am nursing recurrent shoulder injuries. Do you have any suggestions for someone starting from scratch in regards to building the strength needed to one day attempt this asana?

    Also, your Chaturanga looks fantastic; very strong and solid. I often see photos of this pose done very close to the ground, maybe just 1-3 inches away. Is there a reason for that, that you know of?

    (Sorry if this comment goes through twice. Having technical difficulties today.)

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  3. @Domestic - Thanks! It's true, Ashtanga has done quite the number on me. ;)

    @Gemma - For working with shoulder injuries, I would recommend spending time in Plank Pose with the arms straight rather than Chaturanga. This way, you can build strength in the chest, abs, upper back, and legs so that when you are ready to re-introduce Chaturanga to your practice, you'll have that stability.

    If you practice vinyasa yoga, instead of lowering down from Plank to Chaturanga and then rolling forward to Up Dog during the vinyasa, you can simply keep the arms straight and move from Plank to Up Dog by taking the tops of the feet down one at a time, dropping the hips, and lifting the heart through the arms, then press back to your Down Dog. The arms remain straight the whole time which allows you to focus on engaging the serratus anterior, rhomboids, and lats which will help to keep the shoulders properly aligned and out of harm's way.

    And to answer your question regarding the relative height of Chaturanga, I think that in most classical references. the body is lowered very close to the floor because that's how it's traditionally been done, but practicing the pose this way increases the risk of shoulder injury by heightening the tendency to hunch the shoulders forward and down, resulting in overuse of the chest and anterior deltoids and a failure to engage the serratus anterior and upper back, which keep the shoulders back and broad.n These days, I think most vinyasa teachers prefer a 90 degree bend in the elbows to ensure that proper strength is developed all around the shoulder girdle.

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  4. Megan, thank you for such a detailed response! It really makes me wish I was local so I could attend your classes. :)

    I will see if I can get my teacher to look at my form in plank. My second yoga class (ever), she pointed out that I was over-extending in down dog, causing a 'sway back', and putting undue stress on my shoulder area. This could very well be the cause of my injuies and I am relearning a lot of poses to try and get rid of the old, damaging muscle memory and put in place the correct form. I wish I'd been able to attend classes from the get-go; maybe I could have saved myself a lot of pain!

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  5. "strong belly, strong thighs." Nice, I gotta remember that, I tend to forget that my legs can actually help me in this poses, lol.

    Oh! I want to share a cool modification for chaturanga that I just learned last weekend in my teacher training (I don't know if you've seen if before or not). You create a loop in a strap (make sure the loop doesn't come apart) that is shoulder-distance apart. Loop the strap around your upper arms, JUST above the elbows (closer to elbow than shoulder). You might need to press out against the strap to keep it in place until you get to Chaturanga position. Lower down until you feel the strap catch you (should hit you at mid/lower rib). If you end up lowering to far, tighten the strap. It's pretty amazing once you get it. It's almost the exact height you "should" be in for chaturanga and, because the strap is supporting your upper body, your arms don't have to work! My teacher taught us this as a way to learn the correct alignment and to start engaging the other muscles of the body. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
    --Tara (had to sign on as "Anonymous," Blogger is being weird today).

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  6. I've been thinking about what you said a few weeks ago about doing pull-ups to counteract the triceps strength that vinyasa yoga builds. I just remember an article that said that excessive chaturanga vinyasas can cause imbalances because it over uses the front muscles of the body. How important is it do you think to even out your muscular strength?

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  7. @Anon - Hi Tara! That sounds like an ingenious modification. Thanks for sharing!

    @Brija - I think it's very important that we develop balanced strength all around the shoulder joints (this is equally true for the hip joints, though imbalance here will more likely lead to knee or lower back problems than injury at the actual site of imbalance since the hips are a much more stable type of joint than the shoulders).

    The Chaturanga vinyasa will only cause imbalance and eventual injury if we neglect to engage the serratus anterior, rhomboids, and lats as we lower down. These muscles are often weakened by habitual overuse of the chest and anterior deltoids, as I was saying to Gemma. It can be difficult, however, to access this strength if we are moving through the pose rather than holding the pose. Because of this, I think it's important to explore Chaturanga as an asana in and of itself, and, if necessary, to employ other methods of strength-building to balance our musculature. Hence, my use of pull-ups and chin-ups.

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  8. Megan, after Chaturanga is doing push ups a good follow up? Actually what I meant is that bringinging in little bit of push ups as well as sit ups during Ashthanga practice useful or harmful?

    Regards
    CA. Abhishek Sanyal

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    1. Abhishek - I wouldn't do sit-ups and/or pushups DURING your ashtanga practice, but outside of your practice, they may help you get stronger faster. However, I definitely wouldn't overdo it with either of these exercises. You don't want to overly tighten the pectoral or abdominal muscles because tension there will impede your backbending.

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    2. Thanks Megan. I had one more question. Are you recommending practice of plank pose instead of push ups/sit ups for gaining more strength as well as not to cause more strain in my abdominal muscles?

      Regards
      CA. Abhishek Sanyal

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    3. Megan, today I did not do any push ups/sit ups while Ashthanga practice and I really enjoyed my backbends without any strain or tightening of my abdominal muscles. Thank you for the advice. It really worked.

      Regards
      CA. Abhishek Sanyal

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