Chaturanga dandasana: Simple but challenging

Chaturanga dandasana is an often practiced but frequently under-appreciated asana in yoga.

In my own experience, I had been practicing yoga for several years before I had a teacher spend time in class to break down the pose and explain all the parts that go into getting it right. Before that, I honestly hadn’t given this asana much thought –especially when I was rushing through ‘the vinyasa’ and on to urdva mukha svanasana (upward dog).

That said, once I realized all the actions that must come together to execute a chaturanga, and its many benefits, it became hard not to appreciate.

Chaturanga dandasana literally translates as the “four-limbed staff pose”, which is an apt description of the pose and its desired alignment.

chatur = four
anga = limb
danda = staff
asana = pose

Although simple in form, the asana is ideal for building functional strength. In addition to strengthening the abdominals, chaturanga strengthens the erector spinae – the set of muscles that run the length of the spine and are key to straightening and extending the spine. These muscles are often overlooked as they’re not seen as a major muscle group, like the biceps, chest and shoulders; however, they are just as important for strength and more so for stability –promoting improved body alignment.

Here’s a breakdown on chaturanga dandasana:

Coming into the pose from santolasana (high plank), you shift forward, bringing the shoulders slightly beyond the wrists and at the same time push up from the balls of the feet to the toes, the ankles dorsiflexed. The scapulae are depressed and protracted.

Bending at the elbows, you continue to shift forward, lowering the torso down while keeping the elbows generally aligned with the wrists and stopping before the shoulders fall below elbow height (i.e., not going past a 90-degree angle). The torso and legs stay a few inches above and parallel to the floor.

Stability of the scapulae is key to allowing for proper shoulder joint function in chaturanga. The serratus anterior muscles are the principle muscles that stabilize the scapulae and prevent them from “winging”. The rhomboids and middle trapezius further stabilize the scapulae by drawing them towards the midline of the spine.

Like the name of the pose implies, in chaturanga the body should be in one straight line –from head to feet. To prevent the shoulders from dipping too far down towards the floor, the triceps and pectoralis muscles eccentrically contract, resisting the pull of gravity. To avoid the midsection from swaying to the ground, the rectus abdominis and psoas must be engaged. The alignment of the pelvis is counter-balanced and kept neutral by engaging the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles. The erector spinae muscles and quadratus lumborum work to lift the back. The quadriceps muscles and adductor magnus are also actively engaged to straighten the knees and slightly draw the legs towards each other.

In keeping the muscles throughout the body actively engaged, the weight of the body is more evenly distributed, avoiding excessive pressure on the arms and shoulders.

The end result is a simple but challenging asana that is generally accessible to most yogis to incorporate into their practice.