If you find Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) to be the most challenging 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 attention to detail—including meticulous alignment and robust muscular engagement. Until you master the actions of the pose, a trouble-free Chaturanga will remain out of reach.
To clean up your Chaturanga, spend some time practicing it separately from the flow of the traditional rhythmic Sun Salutation, where this dynamic pose can easily devolve into collapsed hips, a sagging belly, and splayed elbows. A sloppy Chaturanga is not only awkward, it invites injury to the lower back, shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
One way to practice the pose it to focus on holding up your body’s weight with props. With this support you can get a sense of what the pose is supposed to feel like. It also helps establish a template for practicing the pose safely once the support is removed. Think of the props as training wheels for your Chaturanga Dandasana. When you’re ready, reintroduce the traditional pose into your practice gracefully and with confidence.
Focus on engaging two complementary muscle groups that surround the scapulae. First, the rhomboids and the middle fibers of the trapezius muscles at the upper part of your back. And secondly, the serratus anterior and pectoralis minor. The former pull the scapulae toward your 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—even if you haven’t quite developed the upper body strength to hold yourself up. Over time, this sequence will reinforce good habits and strengthen your body, leading to a safer and more skillful pose.
If you dream of a graceful, unsupported Chaturanga Dandasana, incorporate all three versions shown below into your home practice until your body gets the alignment, strength, and rhythm to sail through the 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
Why: The bolster does the heavy lifting so you can align your hands, arms, and shoulders while you engage your scapulae, or shoulder blades. By supporting the weight of your body, the prop shifts your focus to the alignment of your upper body and the muscular actions of the posture.
How: 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 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 engagement at the front of your shoulders and chest, and 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.
Finally, firm your quadriceps and your abdominals, and take 5 to 10 cycles of breath before bringing your knees to the floor and releasing the pose. Feel the overall composition and alignment of Chaturanga Dandasana,
Step 2: Align Your Arms and Shoulders
Why: The strap indicates how far to lower yourself from Plank Pose and promotes proper alignment in your upper body.
How: Make a loop of approximately shoulder width and wrap it around 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 your 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 your 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. With these actions, you will strongly tether your scapulae to the back of the rib cage for 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, but do your best to hold the pose for 3 to 5 breaths. Then lower down and settle into the embrace of Balasana (Child’s Pose).
Step 3: Lean In and Fine-Tune Your Pose
Why: The chair takes some of your body weight, allowing you to fine-tune your technique.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.
How: 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, and step back until you are leaning into the chair with your arms straight. At this point, your body will create a 45-degree angle and your arms will be perpendicular to your ribs. Lengthen your tailbone toward your heels, engage the front of your thighs, and draw your navel toward your spine.
Move into Chaturanga Dandasana by shifting further forward onto the balls of your feet (don’t try to go all the way to your tiptoes). Hug your elbows in and slowly bend them to you lower yourself toward the chair. Keep 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.
Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.