Understanding Vinyasa Flow Yoga... Part 10: Chaturanga Dandasana
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Here’s part ten, and the final in this series: Yoga Foundations - Understanding Vinyasa Flow Yoga!
Be sure to check out some of the previous articles, to follow the journey through the whole series.
Chaturanga Dandasana, such a desired asana, often considered the epitome of a strong flow practice!
But what commonly happens with this posture is that we try to do it when our bodies are not quite prepared, and when we don’t fully understand the best technique for us (remember we all have different bodies so it can’t be a one type fits all approach).
Chaturanga features many times in a typical vinyasa flow class, sometimes as much as 20-30 times!
We don’t do any other asana (other than upward dog, usually done as a pair during the ‘vinyasa’ movement in class) with so much repetition, so even more of a reason to really invest time in understanding how to do this posture well.
And while this post will be looking at how to move towards a stronger and safer Chaturanga - I also want to raise the question - why do we have such attachment to this asana?
Sure we want a strong practice that we feel, and that energises us, but there are other alternative movements we can use as well, and I believe changing up your ‘vinyasa’ movements will help you build a more sustainable practice, a stronger and more adaptable body. More about that later!
Back to Chaturanga…
So, let’s be real. Unless you’re already a very active person with plenty of upper body strength this posture is going to be very difficult when you first start out with it.
And that’s ok.
It’s important to be honest with ourselves and understand our own individual body well - to know where our strengths and also where our potential vulnerabilities are.
And it’s good to face some challenge: to hone our focus, to push ourselves a little, to grow and advance our practice! And this statement doesn’t just reflect the physical requirements, it’s also the mental attitude and the benefits that come with:
Trying something new
Connecting with your body
Reviewing through trial and error
Being humble to know when is the time to hold back, while not comparing yourself too much to others.
Building strength towards Chaturanga
As mentioned above, if you haven’t done a lot of upper body strengthening in your life before, this is something you’ll need time to progress with before Chaturanga becomes accessible for you.
Think about doing push-ups, as essentially chaturanga is a push up!
How many push ups can you do on your knees?
How many can you do with your knees off the ground?
If the answer to the latter is zero, or one-two (which is very common so don’t worry!), then the version of Chaturanga with knees off the ground is probably a step too far at the moment. Again, that’s ok.
With persistence and practice you can probably get there, but it’s also not the end of the world if you don’t!
One great way to build strength is to start practicing some push ups. At the wall or against a bench or chair to begin with. Start closer to the wall initially and then gradually move yourself a bit further way.
Try 10 reps of elbows out, and 6 reps of elbows in.
Elbows in is the shape we’re making with Chaturanga and one of the reasons this is tougher than elbows out (aka traditional push ups) is that it requires more strength in the triceps at the back of the upper arm - and this is commonly a weaker area for many people.
So doing these reps with our elbows inward is helpful in preparing us for Chaturanga.
But, I’d also like to clarify that there is also nothing inherently wrong with having the elbows out sometimes either.
Conventional push ups are done with the elbows outwards, which suggests there is nothing wrong with that movement. Ideally it’s good to have strength for both options (eg elbows in and elbows out).
Though, it’s generally understood that elbows in gives you the most stable shoulder position for the transition of Chaturanga to Upward Dog. But it depends on the number of repetitions you’re doing, if it’s not tons, and you’re mixing up the type of movements you’re doing, it may not be at all problematic for your shoulders to have your elbows a little wider - so long as this doesn’t result in a rounding of your shoulders too much.
Progressing your strength training part 1:
Once you’re feeling more confident with the push ups at the wall/chair or similar, then try them on the ground.
I teach this very often in my classes, and it’s my preferred version for my own practice as well. Essentially it’s taking chaturanga on your knees and lowering to the ground.
The lowering should happen in a slow and controlled way.
Your chest needs to come a bit forward rather than straight down between the hands, so keep you gaze slightly forward to encourage your body to go in that direction.
Try to bring your hips and chest down at the same time.
Keep resisting the floor away as you lower so your shoulders stay nice and active and you’ve got more opportunity to build strength by going slow with resistance rather than a rushed drop.
Try to keep your spine neutral like it would be in plank, and try not to collapse in your belly/lower back region.
Once you’ve felt ok with lowering all the way down, and can do 5-6 reps of that without losing the strong form of plank-body (aka long spine, belly lifted, lower back not collapsed) then you could introduce the challenge to press back up!
Use half a breath per part of the movement eg inhale to lower exhale to push back up. Then try holding yourself for one full breath when you are lowered. It’s tough!!
Do not feel defeated if you can’t do many reps, or if your range of movement is small to begin with. That’s ok. We all have to start somewhere, but if you keep at it you’ll really start to notice a difference.
Progressing your strength training part 2:
Another way to get familiar with the Chaturanga shape is to use a bolster or a stack of blocks underneath you. Roughly positioned under your hips and chest but just adjust to wherever is comfortable for you.
Position your hands back alongside your ribs, shoulder width or probably a bit wider will feel more spacious for your shoulders.
Aim for somewhere between approx 110 and 90 degree angle at your wrist joint - guided by how comfortable your wrists are bearing weight with a strong bend in them like this.
Resist the floor away with your hands so your shoulder and arm muscles are active.
Lift in your belly to engage your core muscles so you’re not just going to collapse around your middle when you try to lift up.
Then press jnto the floor even more and lift the weight of your hips and chest away off the bolster/blocks.
You only want to lift about 1-2 centimetres so you’re holding your own weight instead of the bolster taking it all.
Hold this position for a breath or 2 if you can, but otherwise just do pulses of lifting and lowering until you tire.
Try first with your knees on the ground - see if that is the best version for you to start with, and whenever you’re ready for more weight bearing effect, then try the knees lifted version.
The crux of this practice is being able to hold your body in a plank-like position, but with a bend at the elbows and more weight distributed to be carried by your upper body.
From this base of strength
If you’ve gone through all of the above over a period of time and you’ve managed to hold that plank line you are much more likely to be sufficiently prepared to take Chaturanga in class, and within a flowing vinyasa sequence in a stable and safe way.
You’ll still want to bear in mind how many times you’re repeating it though, and whether at any point you’re feeling an amount of fatigue in your body that means you lose that ability to control yourself well and maintain the stability around your shoulders and your core.
Let's talk more about variations...
In all my teaching I really focus on emphasising that there cannot be one version of the practice/or a pose that suits us all.
Our modern human bodies don't have one true alignment.
Therefore, appropriate alignment for modern day yoga practitioners MUST be focused on options and variations.
We need to ensure we’re moving in a way that maintains the integrity of our own body structure, as it is right now. We should also have some consideration for the long-term.
Hence it’s an ongoing exploration to find a version of a pose or movement that feels comfortable, manageable and stable for us, and that may change overtime.
Part 1: Busting the Chaturanga myths
Chaturanga with the knees down is a perfectly valid version. You can lower to the floor and from there, transition to a backbend of choice.
Your wrists don’t have to be at a 90 degree angle. Most wrists are not comfortable with this range of movement, and weight bearing there can sometimes cause problems - so if that sounds like you, move your hands a little further forward
Equally your hands don’t have to be shoulder width. A little wider can feel more spacious in your shoulders and make it a little easier to direct your elbows inwards towards your sides. So, explore for yourself if going a bit wider with your hands feels better for you. Just be sure you don’t go too wide that you lose your sense of stability.
The entry from plank doesn't require the 'shift forward' movement. Do you know that one? Effectively, you lean yourself more forward (ie onto tip toes) before bending the elbows to lower into Chaturanga. Well, it's not at all necessary, and just ends up putting more strain on your wrists and shifting yet more weight onto your upper body.
So I encourage you to experiment. Make little variations step by step and see if you can find your optimal alignment for where your practice is at right now?
Part 2: Chaturanga alternatives
Now, what if we want more alternatives for chaturanga or to avoid them completely?
Try a version with your hands in fists. This can be helpful if you're dealing with any discomfort in your wrists.
If invited to take a 'vinyasa', just don't do it. Stay in downward dog instead. Any teacher truly aligned with your best interests will be happy you've chosen a better option for your needs.
Or just move to plank and then back to downward dog while others might be doing said 'vinyasa'. This still gives you an opportunity to move with breath and link up with the flowing idea of the vinyasa, but is a better option for when you're a bit fatigued.
Roll your front body down rather than trying to lower your torso in a straight line. Essentially, this is about bringing the body down gradually, to reduce the weight-bearing load on the upper body. Bring your thighs down first, followed by your hips, belly, chest, and chin.