In Ashtanga Vinyasa, there is nowhere to hide from Chaturanga Dandasana. This asana is one of the cornerstone’s of this practice, executed over and over again throughout the primary series. Before I began my 200-hour teacher-training course, I was warned that there was ‘no knees, chest, chin’ in Ashtanga Vinyasa and that Ashtanga was ‘yoga for men’ because of the upper body strength required in the frequent Chaturangas that were performed throughout the series. In my research, I have found there are challenges for both women AND men in performing this asana correctly. And, in my experience, when correct alignment and strength is achieved, it is a powerful and rewarding feeling to flow through a vinyasa with integrity in your Chaturanga Dandasana!
However, it relies on coordination and strength in so many muscles, and as a result some typical misalignments are often seen. Frequently these include; winging of the scapulae because of weakness in the shoulder girdle muscles or the elbows facing out; men are typically culprits of rounding and hunching the shoulders towards the floor because strength in pectorials and deltoids are overcompensating for weakness in back muscles particularly the romboids, serratus anterior and trapezius; and, one that I am most culprit to, collapsing the lumber spine towards the floor creating a ‘banana shaped’ Santolasana and Chaturanga.
All of these issues put stress on the whole shoulder joint and rotator cuff – as well as the back, especially the vulnerable lumber region. And given this is asana is so frequently performed in any ashtanga vinyasa practice, there provides a great deal of opportunity for stress and strain on these areas of our body.
So how do we ‘get it right’? I found one of the most useful ways to think about correct alignment in this pose, is to remember the alignment and engagement required in Santolasana – a completely straight ‘plank’ shaped body, from the base of the neck to the heel of the foot. Chaturanga should look exactly like this, except with elbows bent, facing backwards at a 90-degree angle, and the body hovering horizontally above the floor.
In addition, some useful tips I’ve received and found in my research include;
- Chaturanga is not a push up; the elbows should be hugged into the body, pointing backwards not sideways
- Extend your sternum forward – this felt much further forward than I was previously aware of. You are aiming for 90-degree angle in your elbow
- Maintain strong engagement in your legs – particularly your quads. Make sure the heels are stacked over the toes, and press back into your toes as you are extending your body forwards. Try and imagine you feet are flat and pressing into a wall behind you
- Use a gentle udyanna bandha, sucking navel in and flattening the lower belly, to engage the core. Keep thinking of the plank shape in which a line between the shoulders and buttocks should be horizintal to the floor
A discussion point to end on, is the usefulness of the modified version of Chaturanga Dandasana. Using this version, where knees are allowed to drop to the floor, in theory allows focus to be brought to the details of the pose, whilst taking out the strain imposed on the shoulders. However, the ‘knees, chest, chin’ version is not an ideal model for learning the correct alignment of Chaturanga as when the head and upper arms drop to the floor this takes away the opportunity to practice the engagement and strength required in the abdominal, arm and should area. A better modification is to ensure that students’ upper bodies, arms and head remain parallel to the floor throughout, the proof of which should be in the belly reaching the floor before/at the same time as the chest and chin. In doing so, they are practicing more closely the strengthening and alignment required of Chaturanga Dandasana!