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.

Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Stick Pose)

Chaturanga (chatur=four; anga=limb; danda=staff, stick) is an excellent pose to build awareness of the muscles that support and stabilize our shoulder blades. It is also an excellent core exercise to prepare us for more challenging arm balances. Benefits are as follows:

–   Strengthen the legs, buttocks, back, abs, shoulders, arms, and wrists;

–   Improves circulation and digestion

–   Relieves minor tendonitis and fatigue

–   Energizes the body

–   Improves concentration and develops focus.

 

1.         Contraindications :

–   Carpal tunnel syndrome

–   Pregnancy

 

2.         Anatomical Focus:

–   Core

–   Shoulders

–   Back

–   Buttocks

 

3.         Getting into the pose:

 

a.         Preparation

Starting from plank pose, or high push up, our wrists are stacked under our shoulders and our body is parallel to the floor with our toes on the mat. In this position, the pectoralis muscles of the chest are keeping us in a push-up position. To avoid sagging into the wrist joints, we need to recruit the larger muscles of our shoulders for support. Imagine moving our heart closer to the floor without bending the elbows, the shoulder blades will tend to glide closer to each other. This actively engages our rhomboid muscles between the shoulder blades and the spine, and the middle portion of our diamond shaped trapezius muscle.

 

b.         Upper Body

To lower our body from plank position, the action of inward and outward rotation at the shoulder joint must be balanced. The outward rotation of teres major and infraspinatus muscles of the rotator cuff counteract the inward pull of the pectoralis muscles, and lattisimus dorsi on the back. By nature of the fact that our palms are on the mat, the pronator muscles of the forearm are activating an inward rotation at the wrist. To maintain neutral rotation at our shoulder joint, our elbows must hug to our sides to engage the triceps, whose natural action is pure flexion and extension at the elbows. It is important to maintain the engagement of the scapular support muscles that we started with in plank pose. This means that we keep an open heart moving forward, broad across the collarbones, and our shoulder tips never drop below our elbows. The subscapularis muscle of the rotator cuff (on the underside of the shoulder blade) is working over time to prevent the arm bone from moving forward out of the shoulder joint.

c.         Core
To avoid sagging into the low back or popping up with our hips, our core muscles must be engaged. Use a gentle contraction of uddiyana bandha, sucking the belly button up and in, flattening the lower belly. This action corresponds to engaging the transversus abdominus, which provides stability to the lower spine. A slight tuck under of the tailbone can aid this action. The contraction of the transversus abdominus is maintained throughout chaturanga to keep our body parallel to the floor and avoid any lower back discomfort. Press back firmly through the heels to distribute the weight to our core and upper body and send weight into the legs.

d.         Lower Body

The action of pressing back into the heels activate the muscles that dorsi flex our ankles, namely tibialis anterior on the front of the shin. Our hamstrings lengthened by the action of the extended knee initiated by our quadriceps muscles in the front of the thighs. To keep our alignment, our thighs are pressing towards each other but not touching, like we are holding a block with the adductor muscles of the groin.