Sure, you know push-ups, but do you know Chaturanga Dandasana? This widely done yoga pose, also known as Four-Limbed Staff Pose, is yoga’s version of a traditional push-up. Unfortunately, there are many ways to foil this move, and I’ve seen it all! Elbows splaying out to the sides rather than in toward the side body; lowering down in pieces (sometimes looking like a “worm” motion where students land their thighs, hips, belly, chest and then splat—head); letting shoulders round and slump forward rather than properly moving them back.
Are you guilty as charged? Read on to learn how to do this move with strength and stability, and also creative, fun ways to invite challenge into your training routing with chaturangas.
Chaturangas are not included in some types of yoga, so if you typically take a “hot” yoga class such as Bikram, chances are you’re missing out on this very strengthening pose. If you take “vinyasa” or “flow” yoga, a chaturanga links other poses or sequences. However, if not broken down or focused on, there’s a good chance you are missing the finer details of it—which can lead to injury and major stress on shoulders, wrists, back and core.
1. Start in a plank position. Take the time to set up your plank properly; your hands should be about shoulder-width apart, with the fingers spread wide. Feel your arm bones plug into the sockets. Your clavicles will widen and there is space across your chest. Gaze is lifted just beyond your yoga mat. Draw your shoulders back, so there is no tension.
2. Engage your belly inward and upward, so that the back is protected and strong. Lengthen your tailbone back toward your heels. You will feel your legs engage. Last, press out through your heels. Simply holding plank—just like this—will increase your strength, too! I often tell students that in plank, there’s a sensation of moving your chest (or heart) forward, but also sending your lower body back in space.
3. Now comes the actual move—the lowering down. Keep sailing your heart forward, and extend your weight so that you actually start to roll forward onto your toes. Your elbows will want to flare out sideways, but this is incorrect form. Hug your elbows in tight to your side body (but without using your arms like little shelves to rest on as you lower! That is cheating!)
4. As you bend your elbows, you will begin to lower down. Traditionally, the correct form is to lower half way down—where the shoulders and the elbows meet and there is a 90 degree angle formed. Keep your shoulders rolling back as you lower; there is tendency to let a rounded shape creep in the upper back.
5. Keep your core very engaged. Breathe! Avoid letting the belly pull you to the floor. This is a gravity-defying move!
6. This move transitions into a backbend traditionally called “updog.” If you are strong enough to make this transition without collapsing your body onto the yoga mat, keep reading….
The Follow-Up Poses
From the low point of your chaturanga, flip one foot at a time, or roll over the toes, keeping your thighs OFF the yoga mat. Straighten the arms and on a big inhalation, roll the shoulders back as you lift your chest toward the sky. Continue to keep your belly in and up to protect the back (and stretch and tone the abs). Next, roll over the toes and take yourself to a downward dog.
If this seems too hard, and during the chaturanga you couldn’t keep your body lifted and had to lower all the way to the floor, just do what we call a “cobra” until you build proper strength. Your elbows are already bent, so slide your hands back until your wrists are just under the shoulders, and roll the shoulders back to create this slight (and gentle) backbend known as cobra. The tops of your feet will stay pressed to the ground until you decide to roll back to downward dog.
Two Major No- No’s…And Why They Can Cause Injury
Letting your belly pull you down. If you are collapsing to the ground, which often happens if you are new to this pose, you’re missing out! This type of fall to the floor usually means the belly and back need more strength, so they can sustain the transition. You should instead drop your knees on an angle (with the knees slightly behind the hips) until you can control the body and lower safely. This continual collapse will cause strain to your back and shoulders, and won’t do anything to build core strength. Think of lowering like a board—in ONE piece. NOT “in” pieces. Often, I will see people drop their hips, belly, and then their chest. We don’t want this. Chaturanga is a strong, powerful move and means you lower everything with control at the same time.
Letting the elbows open out to the side as you lower. Once again, this is not only incorrect yoga form, but causes strain to shoulders, back and neck. Drawing your elbows in and keeping the shoulders back and safely away from your ears will help keep your chest open, and your arms and wrists strong and engaged. Also, don’t look down; keep the gaze beyond the mat.
Fun Variations And Tricks To Try
One of my favorite offerings to students with regard to chaturangas is to change it up and throw out fun and challenging variations. If you can master the basic chaturanga, then here are some cool moves to try:
1. Once you’ve lowered half-way down, hold this for a breath or two, and then push back up to plank. You can do this a few more times to really build some heat and strength.
2. From plank, lift one leg hip height…now lower half-way down. Push back up and repeat on the other side.
3. Lower half way down, now lift one leg and push back up to plank! (Therefore reversing variation number 2). Do both sides.
If you continue to work on chaturanga, which is one of the most challenging poses to do in yoga, doors of strength will burst open. A tip I find helpful is to practice this move near a floor-length mirror, so you can watch for misalignment (since you now know the correct form). As you lower down, turn your head to side and watch the entire length of your body as it lowers. Are you doing the worm? Or, are you lowering down with control, and in true plank form? You will find yourself stronger in the gym, and more open and able to do even more glorious things on your yoga mat!
Model: Lana Russo
Photographer: Andreas Rentsch
Clothing: Top by Prana; Pants by lululemon