The first yoga class I ever took was at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln rec center. I know it was a Vinyasa class and that the room was packed wall-to-wall with dozens of Lululemon-clad college chicks, but other than feeling a little out of place amongst so many athletic bodies, there’s not much else I remember.
Except for Chaturanga.
That notorious tricep-killing, shoulder-toning, core-igniting monster of a pose.
Although I’d never heard of Chaturanga Dandasana before, I realized after that first class that there would be no escaping the infamous yogi push-up. I know I sound dramatic, but seriously! Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a Vinyasa yoga studio knows that sooner or later they’re going to have to come to terms with Chaturanga simply because it occurs so frequently in flow-based classes. And that scary alignment! I feel like every other post I read online is about how somebody wrecked their shoulder by having crappy Chaturanga alignment. Talk about scaring people off!
BUT the truth is that Chaturanga doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be some blown-out-of-proportion pose we dread. Actually, once you get the hang of things and start being able to jump back into the pose, the amount of badassery you feel is pretty great! If you want to unleash your inner beast AND get some nicely toned triceps, it’s time to make Chaturanga Dandasana your friend.
First things first. If you’re new to yoga, don’t worry at all if the full expression of Chaturanga seems daunting. It’s hard! And, because correct shoulder alignment is so important in this posture, it’s way better to err on the side of caution and modify the pose instead of compromising your body. In fact, if you’ve never given this pose a shot before, I would even suggest starting with your knees on the ground just to get a feel for where you’re at. You’ll still be getting all the muscle engagement, but it will give you a chance to get your form down before you go all in.
Remember where we left off last week in our Sun Salutations? We exhaled through to Uttanasana, and then on the inhale, we lifted up to a flat back with the hands either on the shins or the ground. If you need a refresher, click here. Otherwise, let’s continue!
- So, you’re in that half forward fold. Depending on your degree of flexibility you may need to bend the knees, but either way, plant your palms on the mat just in front of your feet.
- As you exhale, take your weight into the stability of your palms and step one foot all the way back, followed by the other, so that you are in a plank position.
Usually, the transition from Ardha Uttanasana to Chaturanga Dandasana happens fast (on a jump, even!), but for the sake of feeling the pose out, I want you to stay in plank for a few breaths.
- While you’re holding your plank (and feel free to drop the knees at this point if it’s too intense), think about engaging. Everything!
Push up from your palms and out through your shoulders so that your upper body isn’t sinking. Your quads should be fired up! Draw your stomach in, almost as though you’re trying to pull your belly button back towards your spine, and keep your butt down. Imagine your body as one strong line from your shoulders all the way back to your heels. Gaze at a point between and just a bit in front of your hands on the mat.
- Once you’re feeling strong and aligned in plank:
Maintain every single ounce of muscle activation, shift your shoulders just slightly forward past your wrists, and start to bend your arms, keeping your elbows squeezed in as close to your ribs as you possibly can.
Keep squeezing and lowering, making sure not to let your middle sink or your butt lift, until your shoulders and elbows are at the same height. Your forearm, elbow, and shoulder will form a nice little right angle — be careful not to let your shoulders go lower than your elbows!
- See if you can hold the pose for one full round of breath, and on the exhale after, lower yourself all the way to the ground.
That’s it! That’s Chaturanga Dandasana! Sure, it might take you a bit to feel like you know what you’re doing with the shoulder placement, and you might have to keep your knees on the ground for awhile if you’re first starting out, but that is IT. Keep in mind that the whole process of stepping back to plank and lowering down to your belly should ideally all happen during one exhale, but for now, just keep practicing finding your stability until it becomes second nature.
And, if you’re feeling really feisty and ready for another challenge:
Try jumping back! From your half forward fold, plant the hands just in front of you, lean into their foundation, and propel yourself backwards so that you land directly in Chaturanga Dandasana. Make sure you land with your elbows bent (so, NOT into high plank) so you keep your joints safe. It might take some practice, but you’ll feel so empowered!
I practice Ashtanga, so I’ll admit: having to do a Chaturanga as part of the flow between each pose can be exhausting! And, when you get to a certain point of muscle fatigue, you’ll likely start compromising your alignment. If that happens, just modify! Drop the knees, don’t come down as far. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself safe and supported, but don’t shy away from this posture! It can be hard to master, but even with the modifications you’ll feel so strong and self-reliant! Just meet your body where it’s at and after a little time, things will click.
…and thankfully, it won’t be your shoulders!