2 main signs of chaturanga, according to an anatomy expert

May 4, 2023 0 Comments

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Chaturanga can be very similar to the route we take regularly to work. We go through it so often that it becomes a stop on our way to somewhere else, an experience so routine that we hardly realize we’re doing it.

In most yoga poses, we linger for a few breaths, pausing long enough to take in the teacher’s cues and adjust our position, change our muscle engagement, perhaps reach for the support of a prop. This is rarely the case with Chaturanga Dandasana, which we perceive only as a fleeting transition between Plank and Urdhwa Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog).

Complicating matters is the fact that even in our strongest moments, the Chaturanga pose is not idle. So instead of hanging around in it, we move quickly through it. And that can be problematic.

Why is Chaturanga so difficult?

When we rush through Chaturanga unconsciously, it turns the pose into another expression of our usual bad postural habits. There are many problems associated with this, including a sagging lower back, but for many of us it also means that our shoulders are hunched and forward, putting more weight on the front shoulders than they are used to supporting.

This shift occurs for several reasons. Our yoga practice is the only time we support our body weight with our hands, so Chaturanga is a challenging pose. Complicating matters is the fact that the shoulders contain several shallow joints, which adds to the relative difficulty in controlling the moving parts while bearing weight on the arms.

Most of us don’t have the upper body strength to stay committed to a low push-up position, and since many of us have already reached the limit of our capacity, asking us to stay longer causes our poor posture to double.

Even if we could stay in Chaturanga longer and give it our full attention, the fact that our shoulder blades are hidden from our view means that we are not aware of our actual shoulder position, making it difficult to respond to specific cues. Since the back of the body is relatively mysterious to us, we need a clue that relates to the more familiar front of the body.

2 main tips for Chaturanga

There are two effective tips for Chaturanga that I find very underrated and underutilized. These

They are actually familiar to many of us as they are usually offered in the plank position to create a stable shoulder position. But maintaining this stability becomes even more difficult when we bend our elbows and enter Chaturanga. In Plank, the slope from the shoulders to the feet means that there is less stress on the upper body. It takes time and practice to learn how to create stability in any weight-bearing position by engaging the mobile shoulder joints, but these tips can help.

1. Push the floor

When you hold Chaturanga, imagine that you are “pushing the floor” with your hands. Obviously, the floor is not going anywhere. Pushing instead pushes the chest off the floor, pulling the shoulder blades away from each other and toward the side ribs.

Anatomical illustration of the serratus anterior muscle between the ribs and the scapula or scapula
Dentate anterior muscle. (Photo: library of scientific photographs of Sebastian Kaulitskyi)

Anatomy of this cue
This is an anatomical action called protraction that primarily engages the serratus anterior, a key stabilizing muscle that connects the inner borders of the scapula to the lateral ribs. When the serratus anterior muscle contracts, it pulls the scapula away from the spine.

Without the support of this muscle, the shoulder blade can detach from the back ribs, pushing off the back in a position yoga teachers call “winging.” Although not inherently injurious, impacts do harm the stability of the shoulder. The muscles of the chest, arms and neck have to make an extra effort, which means that we expend energy every time we go from plank through chaturanga to upward facing dog.

How to practice this cue

Since shoulder control requires conscious awareness, it helps to practice scapular protraction in a less intense scenario before supporting our body weight in Chaturanga. Shoulder press-ups are my favorite strengthening exercise.

Stand facing a wall with your hands firmly shoulder-width apart, as if you were imitating a plank pose. Keep your head, neck and lower back still, your arms straight and your spine neutral. Begin by retracting the scapula, bringing the shoulder blades closer to the spine, which will move the sternum slightly closer to the wall. Then push off the wall, pushing your shoulder blades further apart and slightly moving your sternum away from the wall. Pause here in scapular protraction. Relax your neck and you will be able to feel the serratus anterior muscle just under the skin of the side ribs and armpits.

Then return to scapular retraction. Repeat the pushing motion as many times as you like. When it feels natural—whether after a few reps or a few weeks—move into a plank position with your knees on the mat.” go into Plank pose with your knees on the mat. When this feels familiar, get into a plank position with your knees up. You will notice your ribcage drop and your shoulders roll forward.

We try to avoid this shoulder-forward position, or rounded shoulders, because it puts unnecessary stress on the front of the shoulder joints, especially when you bend your elbows to come into Chaturanga.

While the “push the floor” tip has its purpose, it unfortunately also contributes to this pattern, so the second underrated tip for Chaturanga is important.

2. Expand the collarbones

After you’ve practiced pushing off the floor, it’s very important to widen your collarbones, pull your sternum forward, or roll your ribcage forward. These signals bring the head of the humerus back into the center of the shoulder girdle, thereby distributing your body weight more evenly throughout the shoulder joint and giving you greater stability and muscle support. This makes it more efficient—and easier—to move through your vinyasa.

Anatomical illustration of the subspinatus muscle and the flatus minor muscle
Left: Infraspinatus. Right: Teres minor. (Photo: library of scientific photographs of Sebastian Kaulitskyi)

Anatomy of this cue
This reposition requires you to target the muscles at the back of the shoulder, including the external rotators of the shoulder: the subspinatus and the teres minor. This creates 360 degree support around your shoulder joints. But since the back of the body is relatively mysterious to us, we need to rely on a clue that relates to the more familiar front of the body.

How to practice this cue

The trick is that the second cue asks you to do almost the opposite of the first cue. It takes finesse and practice to maintain both actions simultaneously. The following movement can help you come into contact with a subtle shift of the shoulder back, training your body to feel the external rotation of the shoulder.

Try this move while lying face down on the floor to get a target to move away from. Take cactus hands (arms straight out at shoulder height, elbows bent at a right angle and palms down) and press your elbows into the floor so that your hands, wrists, and forearms come off the floor. It really doesn’t matter how high your arms go up, or even if they go up at all. You simply pay attention to what you feel when your muscles are engaged at the back of the shoulder blades and feel the stabilization of the humeral head. If it’s comfortable for your neck, you can even turn your head to the side to watch the slight movement of your shoulders.

If your elbows are uncomfortable on the floor, rest them on folded blankets, towels, or yoga blocks so that your elbows are at a level higher than the height of your hands, reducing the amount of external rotation needed to begin.

Once the feeling becomes familiar, see if you can recreate it while standing against the wall. Place your palms at shoulder height and width. Push the wall away, then bring your chest forward as if a flashlight on your sternum is shining a beam up the wall to the ceiling. The movement will be much less when your hands are locked in place and your arms are in front of you rather than wide apart, but you will feel the key posterior shoulder muscles engage to hug the heads of the humerus back into the centers of their sockets.

When the standing version feels familiar, switch to all fours and recreate the feeling. Then go into Plank with your knees down and then into Plank with your knees up.

When you can do both at the same time with strong and straight arms in the plank, you are ready to experience the transition to Chaturanga. Focus on maintaining the almost opposite sensation of your shoulder blades rotating around your side ribs as your collarbones simultaneously lift and expand as you move forward and bend your elbows into Chaturanga. You can feel the ease and efficiency of simply straightening your arms to move from Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog.

3 things you can do while practicing these lines

Leaving our habitual patterns is never quick or easy, so expect imperfection, especially when starting out. Even though you may feel familiar with these two tips in Plank, you may find it helpful to try the following when applying them to Chaturanga:

Lower your knees

Try keeping your knees on the mat as you transition from plank to chaturanga the first few times in each practice, or for as long as it takes to feel completely familiar with this new shoulder position. Reducing the load on your shoulders gives you a little more freedom to build new neuromuscular pathways without putting a full load on your joints.

Do not bend your elbows to 90 degrees

As you lower into Chaturanga, keep your shoulders above your elbows. When you lower your chest closer to the floor and raise your elbows to a 90-degree angle, you increase the gravitational load on the front of your shoulders, making it harder to keep your humeral heads centered. Look at your shoulders as you lower to get visual feedback about shoulder position rather than relying on gut feeling about what previously underused muscles are doing.

Exploring the new, more balanced shoulder alignment in Chaturanga is much easier if you stay a little taller and more energetic. It also reduces the strain on the shoulders.

Do not hurry

You may never stay in Chaturanga long enough to explore its nuances as much as you do in other foundational poses. And you don’t need to. Perfection is not the goal of yoga practice; instead, we use it as an opportunity to fill our bodies and minds with greater awareness. This awareness can be used to break our programmed patterns and paths and experiment with new ones. If we can do this in a difficult pose like Chaturanga, perhaps we will become more able to do it in the complex conditions of everyday life.

About our contributor

Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor who offers group and individual yoga classes in Queenstown, New Zealand, and by request at practice.yogamedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her research into anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students build strength, stability, and mental clarity. Rachel is also the co-host of the new Yoga Medicine podcast.

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