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.

Hypermobility in Yoga

Have you ever wondered how are some people so naturally flexible? They can walk into a yoga class and without warming up go into a full forward fold. These people may be hypermobile. While they can perform asanas that require flexibility effortlessly, they are also at risk of injuring themselves.

Hypermobility is where joints can easily move beyond their normal range. This is because the tissues that hold them in place, the ligaments, are too loose or “lax”. Sometimes that could be due to the bone structures in the joints. Weak muscles around the joint may exacerbate hypermobility.

Hypermobility may also be a result of diseases affecting connective tissues (e.g. ligaments) such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Most of the time, hypermobility is inherited and cannot be prevented. Many people with hypermobile joints do not face any issues throughout life, in fact, most of us are on the spectrum on hypermobility – some of us have naturally hyperextended elbows and knees. But for those who experience pain and complications – on the other end of the spectrum – they may be considered to have Joint Hypermobility Syndrome.

Hypermobile people usually find themselves naturally “good” in yoga as they are able to get into many difficult poses that require flexibility. In fact, some of them can do a full split without warming up! However, with hypermobility comes instability. One way to visualise this is to look at our shoulder, which is the most mobile joint in our body and also the most commonly injured and dislocated.

In a non-hypermobile body, the ligaments are naturally “tight” to restrict our joint movements to a certain range. This creates joint stability. In hypermobile people, they lack this natural signal of tightness to stop them from going beyond the normal range of motion, thus risking injuries. With the deeper range of motion, they may overstretch their muscles which besides hurting the muscles, also weakens them, making the muscles less efficient at supporting their weight during impact activities.

So… can hypermobile people still do yoga?

Yes they can! Here are some things they should note to protect themselves:

  • Use muscle control to prevent excessive hyperextension e.g. engage the quadriceps to ensure that knees are not locked in standing postures
  • Micro-bend the knees and elbows
  • There is no need to feel a stretch in every pose. Just because they can go further, doesn’t mean that they should or that it is safe to do so. If no stretch is felt in a pose, it just means that stretching is not their work in that pose. They can shift their focus to stabilising themselves and their breathing.
  • In poses, think of bringing the joints into the centre of the body e.g. in Warrior II, think of the arms moving into the shoulder sockets
  • Strengthen the muscles around the joints through light resistance in yoga. Complement the yoga practice with a strengthening routine at the gym.

If you are a teacher, you can do the following to ensure a safe practice for your hypermobile students:

  • As always, pay close attention. Notice their joints and how their bodies move during the warm up.
  • Create stability for them. If a student seems to be going beyond a safe range of motion, gently encourage them to do “less”. At the same time, understand that for hypermobile students, it may be more difficult to “back off” than to go deeper as stabilising requires more strength.
  • Cue micro-bends in elbows/knees and engagement of the muscles surrounding the joints.
  • It may be helpful to give hypermobile students some resistance, for example, give them something to push into like their elbows into your palms while in Downward Facing Dog
  • Remind students that it’s not about how far we go in an asana, but how we get there

Hypermobility is also something to take note of in other physical activities such as high impact exercises, gymnastics, dance etc where injuries may occur if joints are not taken care of.

Are you now wondering if you are hypermobile? You can find out how mobile your joints are by doing the Beighton Score Test, which is a simple system to quantify joint laxity and hypermobility. It uses a 9-point system, where the higher the score the higher the laxity. However, scoring a 9 doesn’t mean you are hypermobile. It is always recommended to have a diagnosis confirmed by a medical professional.

But whether we are hypermobile or not, we can make a conscious effort to engage our muscles and not lock our joints in our yoga practice 🙂

Beighton Score Test:

Image source

Food for thought

The nutrition is directly linked to the performance of asanas and our lifestyle in general. The yogi diet is based on Ayurvedic teachings. Some products are strictly forbidden by them, others are consumed in small quantities and in a certain period of time, and third yogis eat constantly. Three types of food in yoga According to Ayurveda, even the best and cleanest foods are not always healthy. So, there is food that should be consumed only in winter or summer. Some foods should be eaten in the morning, because they excite and give energy, others in the evening, as they calm and set you up for a long sleep. Yoga  divides all food into three types:

       Sattva, which means “purity.” This includes all fresh vegetarian food. Mostly seeds and sprouted grains, fruits, wheat, butter, milk and honey.

      Rajas is a food that excites the body. It is better not to use products from this category or to reduce their amount in the diet to a minimum. This includes citrus fruits, tea and coffee, as well as spices, fish, seafood, eggs, alcohol, soda, garlic and onions.

     Tamas is a rough and heavy meal. It is difficult to absorb by the body. It does more harm than good. Relaxes, after eating it makes you want to sleep. These are root vegetables, red meat (beef and pork), all canned foods, mushrooms, food with a heavy taste (roach, etc.). This includes frozen food and one that has been stored for some time. These are also considered dishes that are reheated, alcohol and food that has been cooked in a restaurant or store.

 Doing yoga, you will feel what products you will not need. Changes in the body will occur harmoniously and in accordance with the needs of your body. The gradual process of rebuilding the habits of the body is very important.

Many (and not only in yoga) make the same mistake: they abruptly begin to change their diet (completely abandon meat, fish, eggs, switch to the most sophisticated diets, such as raw food diet, etc.). With this development of events, in a few months you will face a series of ailments, such as colds, exacerbation of all previously existing sores, and digestive upset. And then it could be worse. Naturally, there can be no question of doing yoga.

Beware of this mistake!

  • never abruptly change your lifestyle, especially in nutrition, non-compliance with this rule leads to big trouble;
  • a complete rejection of meat food does not always bring positive results. If you abandoned the meat, you need to replace it with another animal protein: milk and dairy products, eggs, fish;
  • in your diet should always be present in large quantities vegetables and fruits;
  • food should always be fresh and harmoniously selected.

It must be remembered that the body will never tolerate abuse of itself both in the diet and in the mode of activity. And with the right approach to yoga, you become as independent as possible from environmental conditions, feeling great in any situation, with any set of food products.


Yoga or Pilates?

For many people , Yoga and Pilates look very similar – there are no power or cardio loads, exercises are performed slowly and consciously , with calm music. Pilates and yoga are wellness systems that include exercises to develop flexibility, endurance, and concentration. Regular exercises tidy up the body, allow you to find harmony with yourself. In this, both areas of fitness are similar.

But, having examined   these   practice closely, we  can find a lot of differences between them

    What is yoga?

     Yoga is the ancient Indian system of human self-development, which originated long before our era. This is a spiritual tradition, experience and wisdom of many generations that millions of people around the world have followed to this day.

Translated from Sanskrit, yoga means “union, communication, harmony.” Those. the unity of the physical and mental state of a person, the harmony of health and spiritual beauty. The purpose of classes is to achieve and maintain this unity.

It is impossible to imagine yoga without performing various asanas (static postures) that help improve the body. But physical practice is only part of the philosophy of yoga, one of the tools for working on consciousness. It also includes:

  • rules of personal and social behavior;
  • breathing exercises;
  • meditation
  • singing mantras;
  • body cleansing;
  • concentration of attention;
  • desire for complete control over the senses.

Therefore, yoga is a way of life aimed at achieving a balance of physical and psychological health, and not just a set of static exercises that develop flexibility and endurance.

What is pilates?

   Pilates is a system of healing the body, based on the dynamic performance of exercises that are performed in a specific technique and sequence. Their goal is to develop flexibility, improve the condition of joints and spine, posture and coordination of movements.

Pilates, unlike yoga, is a young trend in fitness. The German trainer Joseph Pilates developed gymnastic exercises for the rehabilitation of patients suffering from diseases of the musculature system at the beginning of the 20th century.

6 fundamental differences between Pilates and Yoga.

  • Yoga is the oldest system of self-development, philosophy, lifestyle. Pilates is a relatively young wellness system for the body, one of the types of fitness.
  • Pilates training is aimed at creating a healthy body, practicing yoga – at achieving harmony of the body, spirit and mind.
  • Many exercises and asanas are similar, but have a significant difference in technique. If in classical yoga you need to enter a pose and fix it for a long time (static load), then in Pilates the main thing is movement. All exercises are dynamic, repeated several times. Important consistent articulation of the spine and body muscles when entering and exiting the position.
  • Pilates breathing control helps to concentrate on doing the exercise and working muscles. Ancient practice provides breathing, as one of the steps to self-improvement (pranayama).
  • In Pilates, the muscles of the back and cortex are mainly worked out, in yoga – all muscle groups.
  • In classical hatha yoga additional equipment is not used. In Pilates classes  fitball, rings, rollers are actively used.

In my opinion, you should try both this practice and chose which is most suitable for you. However, if  you want to get a little more than just a beautiful and healthy body, then you may want choose yoga. After all, ancient practice is also aimed at working with the mind, includes methods of spiritual development and self-improvement. Practice will show what is right for you.

Getting Into Baddha Konasana

  1. Sit with legs out along median plane
  2. Lateral rotation of both thighs to bring legs away from median plane
  3. Bringing both soles along the transverse plane towards each other, place heels close to the groin.
  4. Press soles of feet together.
  5. Extend spine up along the coronal plane.
  6. With back straight, flex at hips to bring body down along median plane, out along transverse plane and place chin down.

Ushtrasana Part II

Ushtrasana Part II–Coming out of the pose
Coming out of ushtrasana should be done slowly and with care.  One should imagine “rolling up” one vertebra at a time to a kneeling position.  Start by returning the palms of the hands to the sacral area.  This is achieved by flexing the elbows (concentric contraction—biceps, eccentric—triceps), supinating the elbows and hyperextending the wrists.  Place the hands so that the fingers are facing toward the floor.
Come up slowly, performing the following actions together—extending the neck, extending the spine (concentric–pectoralis, levator scapulae, rectus abdominus, rectus femoris, iliopsoas; eccentric–rhomboids, trapesius, erector spinae), internally rotate the shoulders to return them to neutral.  The glutes are already contracted here but will also work eccentrically to help extend the hips.  The arms are released by extending the elbows (eccentric—triceps, concentric—biceps), extending the wrists, and pronating the elbows back into neutral.    
Flexing the hips (concentric–rectus femoris, iliopsoas, rectus abdominus; eccentric–glutes, erector spinae, trapezius) will bring the body forward while flexing the shoulder joint (concentric-anterior deltoid; eccentric–posterior deltoid) into the counter pose, balasana.
Ushtrasana should be avoided by individuals with serious spine injury such as lumbago or herniated discs.  The pose can be modified as needed by keeping the hands on the hips (not fully dropping and grasping the ankles).

Pose Breakdown: Ushtrasana, Part I

Ushtrasana:  Part I
Ushtrasana opens the chest (pectoralis major/minor) and fronts of the shoulders (anterior deltoids), stretches the hip flexors (iliopsoas), and front thighs (quadriceps) while increasing flexibility and strength of the spine and strengthening glutes.  Benefits also include stimulation of the spinal nerve and stretching of the digestive organs.  With long term practice, it can also relieve sciatica, asthma and kyphosis (hunching of thorasic spine).   Ushtrasana is also beneficial in stimulating the thyroid and parathyroid glands.
Getting into the pose:  Ushtrasana is approached from a kneeling position (vajrasana).  Extension of the hip joint will take the practitioner to a “standing position” on the knees (which are flexed, with feet plantar flexed).  From here, one must hyperextend and internally rotate the shoulder joint, flex and pronate the elbows and hyperextend the wrists to get the palms on the sacral area with fingertips pointing downward.  “Roll back” the shoulders (external rotation) through concentric contraction of the rhomboids (agonist) and eccentric contraction of the pectoralis (antagonist) to retract the scapula open the chest.   The glutes must engage isometrically to stabilize the lumbar spine and hips as the backbend is performed.  One must lean back, engaging trapezius, latissimus dorsi and erector spinae (concentric) coming back with the control provided by the (eccentric) contraction of rectus abdominus and rectus femoris, and hyperextending the cervical spine to gaze upward.
Once the back bend is achieved, the hands are placed one at a time on the ankles, by extending and supinating the elbow joints.  Now all of the above mentioned muscles must work in isometric contraction–without movement–to stabilize the pose (aside from those used in respiration).