Ahhh, Chaturanga Dandasana — the yoga pose that yogis love to hate. There’s no denying the physical and mental challenge of hovering inches above your mat in a low plank position without losing your cool. While chaturanga can be a great way to tone your arms and core, your alignment needs to be spot on. But, chances are, you aren’t performing the pose as safely and soundly as you’d think.
“It’s a problem I see across the board from beginners to seasoned practitioners, and you can develop really bad habits that lead to injury,” says Jillian Turecki, Senior Yoga Instructor at Kula Yoga Project in New York City. With more than 20.4 million Americans practicing yoga, according to latest Yoga in America study by Yoga Journal, that’s a lot of bad chaturangas.
Chaturanga is among the primary poses that yogis do over and over again in yoga class, especially in popular vinyasa-based classes. But when we repeatedly perform a pose incorrectly, we risk overtaxing our joints — in this case our shoulders.
When the shoulders aren’t stabilized and positioned properly in a weight-bearing pose like chaturanga, it can cause overuse injuries and more serious joint damage, due to the unique nature of the ball and socket joint. “You’re putting more stress on all the soft tissue in your shoulder,” says Dr. Adam Cohen, Associate Professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital Systems and Board-certified orthopedic surgeon and shoulder specialist. “This can compress your shoulder joint and can cause impingement syndrome,” a common shoulder injury, and even rotator cuff damage.
Because chaturanga is a challenging pose, there’s a tendency to rush through it without thinking about our alignment because we just want to get it over with. But not paying attention might be the biggest problem. Chaturanga relies on the coordination of so many muscles to get it right.
According to Turecki, the main problems she sees in class are twofold and go hand in hand. One, the shoulder blades lift off the back and “wing out.” Two, the head of the shoulder rounds forward, reaching towards the floor. Both of these actions place tremendous stress on the shoulder joint. To compensate, the butt often lifts up into the air.
This happens for a couple of reasons, Dr. Cohen says. The muscles in the front of the body (pectoralis major and deltoids) tend to be strong, while the muscles in the upper back are weak. Additionally, the muscles that are meant to stabilize the shoulder girdle (rhomboids and serratus anterior) are often not engaged. And, because the pectoralis minor is tight for many individuals, this too can contribute to the shoulder heads falling inwards.
Before fixing your chaturanga, it’s important to address these muscle imbalances and strengthen the weaker parts in the body. This will naturally help to bring the shoulder heads back and into alignment, according to Dr. Cohen. Stretch the pec minor daily and before yoga class. Strengthen the upper back muscles (rhomboids, trapezius, serratus anterior) as part of your overall workout routine. When you’re ready to move on, here’s a breakdown of the pose.
How to: To begin, arms should form a 90-degree angle to the floor as you lower down from plank position. That means you have to shift your body forward while in plank — much farther than you think — and broaden across your collarbones. Fire up your upper back muscles to pin your shoulder blades onto you back. Next, bend your elbows and hug them in towards your ribs as you lower down towards the ground. Your hands should be by your lower ribs — not directly under your shoulders. Lengthen your tailbone and reach your heels towards the back of the room and keep your neck long. Through the entirety of the pose, be sure to engage your core.
Not quite there yet? Since chaturanga is difficult to hold, Turecki likes teaching it on the floor so students can learn the alignment without tiring. For this variation, start by lying on your belly, and bring your hands by your lower ribs. Engage your upper back, lift your shoulders and hug your elbows in. Tuck your toes and activate your quads to lift your thighs off the floor. Lastly, engage your core and you are in the correct alignment. You can also place a yoga block under your pelvis and chest to support your body as you work the same alignment points.
A healthy chaturanga will help bring you one step closer to a long and healthy yoga practice (and shoulders!). But it’s not the only pose that poses safety risks. When in doubt, ask your instructor for additional guidance or to help you modify for any injuries or discomfort.
For a complete library of yoga tutorials and routines, visit dailyburn.com/yoga.
Originally posted on February 17, 2014.