Unlike many yoga teachers, I was not particularly athletic as a young girl. I didn't practice gymnastics, dance, or sports. I was a reader and a dreamer and spent most of my time curled in a corner with a good book. When I reached high school, I was faced with the dilemma of gym class. I devised elaborate strategies for avoiding the hideous, navy blue, one-piece bloomers called "gym suits" and steering clear of any situation in which I would have to overly exert myself—climbing those scary ropes, running like a frenzied rabbit around the perimeter of the gym, and above all, my nemesis, doing push-ups. When I began to practice yoga in my early 20s, I was sorely (literally!) disappointed to run into my nemesis again. Even though it had a fancy-schmancy Sanskrit name, Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), I recognized my old foe. My beloved yoga practice, which was teaching me to inhabit and celebrate my body for the first time in my life, suddenly seemed to have an Achilles' heel.
At a meeting of yoga teachers in Seattle about four years ago, almost all of us had a Chaturanga injury to relate: elbow tendonitis or strained muscles in the upper arm, shoulder, or chest. We sounded like a bunch of NFL linebackers after a game, not a group of "conscious movers." Since then, Chaturanga has become even more common in yoga classes around the country because of the popularity of vinyasa practice (flowing from pose to pose without pause). As a result, many students are "blowing out" their shoulders.
My initial solution to the Chaturanga conundrum was to remove the pose from my repertoire. Eventually, however, I realized that instead of tossing the pose out completely, I could approach it as a strict and loving teacher that could lead me to a deeper understanding of integration and alignment. I set out on a mission to discover a way to safely include Chaturanga Dandasana in my own practice and my teaching. Through trial and error and with the assistance of a few expert teachers, especially John Friend (whose approach, Anusara Yoga, informs much of this article), I found that I could not only avoid injury, but I could also use Chaturanga to learn to practice poses that challenge my body from a place of inner strength and open-hearted surrender. Who would have thought that a yoga pose that looks like the dreaded push-up I hated in high school would eventually teach me about physical and esoteric energies, balancing effort and surrender, the true meaning of alignment, and the ultimate purpose of yoga?
Boot Camp with Heart
Chaturanga demands strength. When faced with such a pose, many of us tend to muscle our way into it. We approach the challenge with a determination to conquer the body through willpower and brute muscular effort.
But ideally yoga is not a practice of domination; it's a process of learning to flow with the dance of prana, of energy. I invite you to open to a new concept of strength in asana. Think of strength as not only muscular, but also as a resource inside yourself, an inner reservoir of power in your heart. When the muscles of your outer body are working in optimal balance with one another, you will have amazing access to this inner strength. As we shall see, when you practice Chaturanga with too much outer body effort, you habitually overuse the front of your body—particularly the front of your shoulders, arms, and chest—in an attempt to muscle the pose.
This excessive effort shortens the front body, and when you overwork the front of the body, the harmony of the entire body is disturbed. Your breath may become ragged, you may experience great aversion to the pose, and you may even injure yourself. But if you listen to and honor the warnings from your body, Chaturanga can teach you the beautiful symphony of balanced action. The pose demands clarity of attention if you are to experience the liberated state in which prana fills the body and you feel the energy that animates all life as a uniform, radiant brightness. Take it from me, who used to be a great doubter of the value of this pose: It is possible to experience a balanced, dynamic, and joyful state of mind and body in Chaturanga Dandasana.
To approach Chaturanga with a focus on inner strength rather than outer muscles, lie on your belly and allow your outer body to soften. Release any ideas that you can't do the pose because you are not strong enough. As you dissolve your lack of confidence and the belief that you are weak, you will expand energetically in your inner body.
Recognizing that there is a power source inside you greater than any limited concept of yourself, connect with that source by consciously firming your muscles onto your bones and dynamically drawing energy from the periphery to the core of the body. When this drawing in is performed through balanced action of the working muscles, the back of your body will come into play as much as the front. Your intention is to surrender to the pose, to stay open in your heart while still making the outer-body effort necessary to express the pose.
Practicing Chaturanga Dandasana without bearing your full weight is a great way to begin to explore both an open-hearted quality of strength and the optimal balance of muscular effort in your body. Still lying on your belly, bring your hands alongside your lower ribs with your palms down and fingers pointing toward your head. Your forearms should be vertical, with your elbows right over your wrists. Keeping your belly on the floor, tuck your toes under and lift your legs and upper body off the floor.
As you lift your upper body and head, there will be a tendency for the heads of your arm bones (the place where they meet your torso) to drop forward toward the floor. To counteract this, imagine that you are wearing long "energy gloves" that go from your hands into your upper back. Draw the muscular energy from your hands into your elbows and from your elbows into your shoulder blades. You'll feel as if your arms are slightly retracting into your body and drawing into a deeper source of energy and harmony. Your lower shoulder blades will move deeper into your back. Your arm muscles will tone in toward the bones, and you will begin to feel a circular loop of energy and support. The movement of your lower shoulder blades deeper into your back will loop through your body to the front, lifting your ribs and collarbones and creating a broadness across the front of your chest and your heart. Let your shoulder blades be wings that support this heart expansion.
Drawing support from your upper back and the muscular energy of your arms, lift the heads of your arm bones to the same height as your elbows, coming into a small backbend with your upper back. Then allow your inner body to expand into the support of your upper back. Maintaining the muscular supports you've established in your upper back, let the "wing span" of your shoulder blades increase.
Investigate this pose for a minute or more; you will discover that it is surprisingly challenging, even though you're not bearing the full weight of your body. In the beginning, you may feel that you need to make quite a bit of effort in your middle and upper back to maintain all these actions; you may even feel a sensation of slight tension. Over time, though, your back will become stronger and the actions will require less effort and feel more natural.
When your body is asked to perform a function that requires strength, you will tend to recruit the strongest muscles to do the job, instead of using all the appropriate muscles in a more balanced action. In Chaturanga, if you try to do the full pose before achieving enough balanced strength in your upper body, the powerful muscles at the front of your arms and chest will heroically try to create the pose. Your upper arms will rotate far forward toward the floor, your elbows will splay out because you've lost muscle tone at the inner edges of your shoulder blades, your organs will hang heavily, and the muscular actions throughout your entire body will lack balance. You'll tend to lift your pelvis away from the floor to try to support the pose because the muscles in your upper body are not working in a balanced way. The pose will look and feel heavy, dense, and extremely difficult. Doing the pose in this way is a perfect setup for straining the tendons that attach the muscles in the front of your arms and chest to the bones. The weaker you are in your back body, the more likely this will happen.
The next step in your journey toward Chaturanga Dandasana is to begin bearing more weight. However, if you are especially weak in your upper body or you are recovering from injuries, I recommend some preparatory "nonyoga" movements. You should never continue to practice Chaturanga Dandasana if you are experiencing pain around your shoulder joints. Such pain is a sign you have probably strained the muscles and created an inflammation of the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones. When the action of your muscles is not balanced and one muscle is overworking, that muscle attachment can pull off the bone slightly, creating a strain injury. Practicing Chaturanga under these conditions will inevitably make the pain worse and prevent the injury from healing.
At one point in my own history with Chaturanga Dandasana, I injured a tendon in my shoulder quite seriously. I know now that I was trying too hard to "effort" into the pose with the muscles at the front of my arms and I wasn't employing the back of my body. I had unplugged myself from my inner source of strength. After my injury, I consulted with a physical therapist and learned the following sequence to rebalance the muscles of my shoulder joints. If you are weak in your upper body, simple strength training as described here can greatly reduce your risk of injury and miraculously make Chaturanga available to you in a very short time. Even if you are already strong enough to support your weight, these exercises will accelerate your understanding and muscle balance in Chaturanga.
The first exercise uses a resistance band tied into a loop and focuses on strengthening the muscles that rotate your upper arms outward. For a resistance band, you can use rubber surgical tubing, available at medical supply stores, or athletic resistance bands, available at sporting goods stores or through a physical therapist. You'll need about five feet of tubing or band.
With your elbows at your waist and your hands in front of you at shoulder width, palms facing, loop the band around the backs of your hands. As you exhale, pin the bottom tips of your shoulder blades toward each other and push your hands outward against the resistance band. Move in slow motion: Your goal is not to accomplish as many repetitions as possible, but to experience each movement as fully as you can. Do this exercise 10 to 20 times, until you feel moderate fatigue in the muscles.
The second exercise focuses on your biceps muscles. If your shoulder blades tend to disengage from your back in Chaturanga Dandasana, it's likely that your biceps muscles are weak. To strengthen them, hold a weight of two to 10 pounds in each hand.
Pin your elbows to your waist and draw muscular energy from your elbows into your upper back. Keep your lower shoulder blades moving deeply into your back and simply lift the dumbbells toward your shoulders in the classic biceps curl. Lower the weights as slowly and consciously as you lifted them, with the same awareness of drawing your shoulder blades into your back.
The third exercise strengthens your triceps muscles, key muscles in Chaturanga Dandasana. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Maintain all the normal curves of your spine; in other words, don't flatten your lower back or your neck onto the floor. With a two-pound to 10-pound weight in each hand, place your hands beside your ears with your elbows bent. Keeping your hands and elbows shoulder-width apart, slowly lift your hands until your arms are almost straight, perpendicular to the floor. Keep the muscles between your lower shoulder blades drawing together, so that your lower shoulder blades move deeper into your back. Lower your hands back to the floor just as slowly and consciously as you lifted them.When strength training, you should feel moderate fatigue in the muscles after 10 repetitions, so adjust your weight accordingly. You can do up to 25 repetitions, as long as you don't lose the connection of your shoulder blades into your back.
The See-Saw Effect
Once you have developed sufficient strength in your upper body to bear your weight without collapsing and without disturbing the even distribution of muscle effort in the front and back of your torso, shoulder joints, and arms, you can move on to Plank Pose, the next stage of preparation for Chaturanga Dandasana. Plank Pose can teach you more about the art of merging optimally with the flow of energy in the body, which is the true meaning of what yoga teachers commonly call "alignment."
To come into Plank Pose, begin in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog). Bring your shoulders forward over your hands and lower your pelvis toward the floor until your body makes an even, slanted line from head to feet. Make sure your upper arm bones are directly over your wrists and let your heart melt toward the floor, taking care not to relinquish the support in your upper back. Slightly rotate your inner elbows forward and draw the bottom tips of your shoulder blades closer together.
You may notice a see-saw effect: When you anchor your lower shoulder blades deeper into your back, most likely your kidney area will both harden and collapse inward and the arch in your lower back will increase. Your abdominal muscles will probably become soft and hang off your front body. When you collapse like this, you lose the optimal energy flow that comes with proper alignment. To regain it, lift the top of your throat toward the ceiling, inflate and expand your kidney area, and draw the lowest part of your abdominals, just above your pubis, deeper into your body. You'll feel your pelvic floor muscles gently toning up toward your head as you do this, further supporting the pose. Now from this strong, toned outer body, let your inner body expand. Your mind will soften and rest, even in this strong pose, and you'll be cultivating the ability to be peaceful during adversity—a greater benefit to yourself and others than strong abs.
There are two ways to come into full Chaturanga Dandasana—from above and from below. From above, you can lower yourself into Chaturanga from Plank, which is the less difficult method because you're moving with gravity. Alternately, you can start from the floor and lift yourself against gravity; this method is more challenging but ultimately will integrate your body more strongly into the pose.
To move into Chaturanga from Plank Pose, maintain all the muscle supports you established in Plank Pose. You'll need to move slightly forward on your toes as you come into the pose so that your elbows end up over your wrists. A very common mistake is to come into Chaturanga from Plank with the elbows far behind the wrists and your rear end up in the air. In this position, it's just about impossible to lift the heads of your arm bones away from the floor. Be vigilant about keeping your upper arms back and your elbows close to your body as you lower yourself.
Finally, come into Chaturanga Dandasana from the floor. Start as in Ardha Chaturanga. Beginning from a foundation of open-hearted surrender, draw your outer body in toward the power center in your heart, like a hummingbird dipping into sweet nectar. Then, with love and devotion, allow your movement into Chaturanga Dandasana to offer this nectar back to the Source. When you extend this inner power back out as an offering, your kidney area will inflate, your legs and spine will energize, and your body will lift lightly into the pose—and Chaturanga Dandasana can become a pose of grateful prostration rather than an expression of gymnastic accomplishment.
If you fall back into performing Chaturanga Dandasana solely with the powerful frontal torso and arm muscles, the pose comes entirely from willful effort. Your arms drop excessively forward, your shoulder blades move away from your back and widen out to the sides. You lose integration with the back of your body and disconnect from your deepest source of energy and enthusiasm. But if you integrate your shoulder blades into your back, you connect with the deep well of nourishment in your heart. You learn to take refuge in the back of your body and to rely on the increasing stability of your shoulder blades, arms, and upper back.
Even in a strength-demanding pose like Chaturanga Dandasana, this heart opening will be experienced as a feeling of release and expansion from the inside out. In fact, the toning of your outer body enhances the peacefulness of your inner body. Appropriate toning of your muscles toward your bones, without aggression or rigidity, calms your nervous system and allows you to feel safe and in harmony with the powerful energies flowing around you and through you, even in a fiery pose like Chaturanga.
Chaturanga and other poses that demand such attention to the balance between effort and surrender can teach you dharana—concentration or focus. In such difficult asanas, you can be like the eye of a hurricane, with sensations, emotions, and even discomfort whirling around your center while you remain quiet and expansive within.