If you find Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) to be the most awkward part of your Sun Salutation, you're not alone. Many people flop and strain through it, hoping their alignment will improve with time and grim determination. Unfortunately, that's wishful thinking. This popular pose requires meticulous alignment and robust muscular engagement. Until you master the actions of the pose, a trouble-free Chaturanga Dandasana will remain out of reach.
To clean up your Chaturanga Dandasana, you have to pull it out of the flow of the traditional rhythmic Sun Salutation, where this dynamic pose can easily devolve into collapsed hips, a flopped belly, and splayed elbows. A sloppy Chaturanga Dandasana is not only awkward, it invites injury to the lower back, shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
In this series of poses, you'll focus on Chaturanga Dandasana by supporting your body's weight with props. The support will give you a sense of what the pose is supposed to feel like and also help establish a template for practicing it safely and correctly once the support is removed. Consider the props training wheels for your Chaturanga Dandasana. When you're ready, reintroduce the traditional pose into your practice gracefully and with confidence.
Action Plan: Here you'll focus on engaging two complementary muscle groups that surround the scapulae: the rhomboids and the middle fibers of the trapezius, and the serratus anterior and pectoralis minor. The former pull the scapulae toward the spine; the latter pull the scapulae away from your spine. The pectoralis major, the deltoids, the rotator cuff muscles and the latissimus dorsi offer additional upper-body support.
The End Game: Supporting your body's weight with props allows you to focus on alignment and muscular engagement. Over time, this sequence will reinforce good habits and strengthen your body, leading to a safer and more skillful pose.
Before You Begin: Practicing Chaturanga Dandasana requires some preparatory work to heat the body. Either stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or sit in Virasana (Hero Pose) and warm up your shoulders with Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), Garudasana (Eagle Pose), and Viparita Namaskar (Reversed Prayer Pose). To prep the abdominals and hip flexors, take Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose) 3 or 4 times. Finally, prepare your midback (paraspinal muscles) with 2 or 3 rounds of Salabhasana (Locust Pose).
Step 1: Support Your Chest and Abdomen
Let the bolster do the heavy lifting so you can align your hands, arms, and shoulders while you engage your scapulae, or shoulder blades.
To begin, place a bolster lengthwise in the middle of your mat. Lie prone on the bolster so that the top is an inch or two lower than your collarbones. The bolster should feel comfortable and it should support the majority of your weight. Press the balls of your feet into the floor and straighten your legs.
Place your hands alongside your bottom ribs. You'll know your hands are in the right place when your forearms are vertical. Raise the front of your shoulders so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor and your elbows are at 90 degrees. Look slightly forward to support the lift of your shoulders and chest.
Press your hands firmly into the floor (without lifting off the bolster), and feel the front of your shoulders and chest engage along with the back of your arms. Press your hands down and create a pulling action, as if you were pulling the mat toward your heels. This action engages your side body (the latissimus dorsi muscles) as well as the muscles that connect the inner and bottom borders of your scapulae to your spine.
Squeeze your upper arms toward your ribs. Imagine you have a pocket full of change between your arms and your ribs and you're loath to drop it. This will help you fire up the muscles that connect the scapulae to the ribs, most notably the serratus anterior.
Finish by firming your quadriceps and your abdominals. Feel the overall composition and alignment of Chaturanga Dandasana, and take 5 to 10 cycles of breath before bringing your knees to the floor and releasing the pose.
Why This Works: By supporting the weight of your body, the bolster shifts your focus to the alignment of your upper body and the muscular actions of the posture.
Step 2: Align Your Arms and Shoulders
Make a loop of approximately shoulder width. Wrap the loop around your arms just above your elbows. Shift your body into Plank Pose with your hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Having your hands in this position (instead of directly below the shoulders) will fire up muscles throughout your body, setting the stage for a healthier pose. Press down into the floor through the base of your fingers and the balls of your feet. Support your posture by engaging the thigh and abdominal muscles. Now you're ready for the transition into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Shift from the balls of your feet to the tips of your toes. Bend your elbows and lower yourself until the strap supports your bottom ribs. As you do so, continue to shift your upper body forward. Imagine that the movement of the body is like an airplane landing instead of an elevator descending. The strap will help you stop when your elbows are at 90 degrees.
Revisit the actions you worked on in the previous pose. Press firmly into the floor with your hands and lift the front of your shoulders so they're in line with the elbows. Create a pulling action with your hands as if you're trying to draw your body forward. Feel how this engages the muscles that line the inner border and bottom tip of your scapulae. These actions will pull your scapulae slightly down and toward your spine. Balance this movement by squeezing your upper arms toward the side of your ribs, engaging the muscles that line the outer border of your scapulae. These actions will strongly tether your scapulae to the back of the rib cage and support a stable, aligned pose.
Keep your thighs firm and your abdominals engaged. Chaturanga Dandasana is not a comfortable pose in which to breathe, nor is it easy to sustain. Do your best to hold the pose for 3 to 5 breaths before lowering down and settling into the embrace of Balasana (Child's Pose).
Why This Works: The strap indicates how far to lower yourself from Plank Pose and promotes proper alignment in your upper body.
Step 3: Lean In and Fine-Tune Your Pose
In this version of the pose, your body is at a 45-degree angle to the floor instead of parallel to it, which gives you greater leverage to move into the pose and sustain it.
To begin, place the seat of a sturdy chair against a wall. Hold on to the back of the chair with your hands shoulder-width apart, straighten your arms, and step back until your body is angled at approximately 45 degrees. At this point, you will be leaning into the chair and your arms will be perpendicular to your ribs. Another way to think of this is that your shoulders will be at 90 degrees. Before you begin your supported descent into Chaturanga Dandasana, lengthen your tailbone toward your heels, engage the front of your thighs, and draw your navel toward your spine.
Initiate the movement to Chaturanga Dandasana by shifting further forward onto the balls of your feet (don't try to go all the way to your tiptoes as you did in the previous version) and slowly bending your elbows. Imagine the strap is still wrapped around your arms. Hug your elbows in as you lower toward the chair. Remember that you're not just lowering straight down—you're also moving your chest forward so that your elbows stay aligned with your wrists. Stop when your elbows are bent at 90 degrees and your arms are parallel with your torso. As you did in the previous versions, look slightly forward, lift the fronts of your shoulders, and draw your shoulder blades onto the back of your ribs.
To release the pose, slowly straighten your arms and return to Plank. Repeat the transition from Plank to Chaturanga Dandasana and back to Plank several times. If you dream of a graceful, unsupported Chaturanga Dandasana,incorporate all three versions into your home practice until your body gets the alignment, strength, and rhythm to sail through the pose.
Why This Works: The chair takes some of your body weight, allowing you to fine-tune your technique.
Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.