Have you ever heard the phrase, “Take Chaturagana or Knees-Chest-Chin” in yoga class?
Many teachers use this cue as a well-intentioned alternative to Chaturanga or Four-Limbed Staff Pose. However, in my mind, it’s the equivalent of a teacher offering the option of “Take Warrior III or Triangle Pose.” Because beyond the fact that Chaturanga and Knees-Chest-Chin (KCC) take you from a higher to a lower position, these are fundamentally different poses.
Let’s start with Chaturanga
Chaturanga is a challenging pose. It requires you to keep a 90-degree bend in your elbows and lower your body with control without collapsing forward in the shoulders, winging your elbows out wide, going hyper-speed, or losing control of your core. If you can’t do this, then reducing the weight you’re balancing by coming to your knees is a pretty good idea!
But how to best do that? Look at what I’m doing in the photo above. This is a modified Chaturanga. It involves taking your knees to the mat. But in this variation, you maintain almost the same angle of your upper body so it’s the exact same depth and shape as Chaturanga, engages the same muscle groups, but puts less pressure on your wrists, shoulders, and core.
In fact, I’d recommend all practitioners do this as a prep pose rather than racing into Chaturanga the first few times each class. If you’re modifying Chaturanga as part of a vinyasa flow into a backbend, the next step would be to lower your hips to the mat, lift your knees, and draw your chest forward to Bhujangasana (low or high Cobra).
But wait. What about Knees-Chest-Chin?
Knees-Chest-Chin is when you start in Plank, lower your knees to the mat, and then drop your chest as well as your chin to the mat while your rear is still in the air. Then you slide through to Cobra or another low backbend. Some teachers assert that KCC is a viable alternative for students who, for whatever reason, aren’t quite ready for Chaturanga.
Like Knees-Chest-Chin, it lowers the knees and relieves weight. Some—myself included—argue that in addition to not being a useful way to build strength for full Chaturanga, this posture could be potentially injurious due to forceful lumbar and thoracic compression, as well as shoulder impingement.
Safety aside, is KCC going to help you build the technique and strength required for Chaturanga? I don’t think so. Let’s take an unexpected detour to the weightlifting community for inspiration. This is a group of people who prioritize safe alignment and form over how much weight they’re lifting. If a person can’t lift 300 pounds in a bench press, they don’t do a different exercise like a bicep curl instead, nor do they keep trying the same weight with improper form, risking dropping a bar on their face. Instead, they reduce the weight and repeat the same shape in order to build technique and strength without the risk of injury.
We can learn from that behavior. If we cannot practice the fullest expression of a pose safely, we need to practice a lower-intensity version that still allows us to refine the skill and build the required openness or strength—not just in relation to Chaturanga, but in every asana.
Why we practice the same shapes in different poses
Those of us who have a desire to explore arm balances would benefit from more time spent doing the very boring-looking pose in the image. Most arm balances are essentially something complex added on top of Chaturanga, so it makes sense to spend time practicing holding Chaturanga at various levels of intensity. Perhaps you begin with modified Chaturanga, then work up to full Chaturanga, and eventually come into Eka Pada Koundinyasa I (Hurdler’s Pose).
As teachers, perhaps we start to be a little more creative in how we assist students in building technique and strength. In preparation for Hurdler’s Pose, have you ever tried Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) with Chaturanga arms? Or even just Chaturanga arms in Tadasana (Mountain Pose)? Think about it.
Of course, as students, we are not obliged to build strength. But as part of our journey toward balance, an equilibrium between flexibility and strength is as aspirational to work toward as balancing the physical and mental aspects of our practice. Perhaps we can begin to look more closely at our students’ needs, wherever they are at, and offer a more refined set of options for a particular yoga pose.
About our contributor
Adam Husler has taught his signature style of alignment-focused yoga at classes, trainings, and conferences in 20-plus countries. Fueled by a fascination with anatomy and a desire to ask “why,” Adam offers creative, effective, and clearly sequenced teachings that focus on balancing flexibility and strength, physical and mental. Adam offers mentorships and trainings to qualified yoga teachers from his London base; is a member of Jason Crandell’s teaching faculty; and co-hosts the Honestly Unbalanced podcast by having open conversations with people who’ve spent their lives trying to improve yours.