Frequent Chaturangas can leave your students imbalanced. Here's how to use Purvottanasana to as an effective counterpose.
There are two types of yoga students: those who don't do Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) enough, and those who do it too much.
Too Much or Not Enough Chaturanga?
Ok, perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration. Still, it makes an important point. The stereotype of a "not enough" student is a middle-aged woman who has never worked seriously on her upper body strength. She either practices a "soft" style of yoga that does not demand Chaturanga, or a more challenging style that allows her to choose her own asana sequences, so she conveniently skips Chaturanga.
The stereotype of a "too much" student is a young, muscular woman or man who loves a tough workout. She (or he) practices a "hard" style of yoga based on Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations), so she inserts Chaturanga Dandasana, and certain other standard poses, between every asana in her sequence. She practices a long sequence, and therefore ends up doing a lot of Chaturangas every day. Also, the dynamic transitions in a linked, flowing sequence to and from the characteristic "push-up" position of Chaturanga demand additional upper body strength and apply it through a greater range of motion than the static pose does.
So, is there anything wrong with that? In general, there isn't. However, sometimes, when you get so much of a good thing, you need to counterbalance it with another good thing. Enter Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose): The Anti-Chaturanga Dandasana.
Purvottansana as a Chaturanga Counterpose
Let's look at these two poses from an anatomist's point of view to see why they complement one another so well. First of all, Chaturanga Dandasana strengthens a lot of muscles. Chief among them are the main chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) and the main muscle that joins the front of the shoulder to the upper arm (anterior deltoid). It also strengthens several muscles that flex the trunk or hips (including rectus abdominis, obliquus abdominis, iliopsoas, and rectus femoris). All of these muscles are on the front of the body. Making them strong is an excellent thing to do, but unless your student balances that strength with flexibility, and with similar strength on the back of her body, this strength can cause some problems.
Strong, tight pectoral muscles, if not adequately opposed, pull the shoulder blades (scapulae), collarbones (clavicles), and upper arm bones (humeri) forward and inward, creating hunched shoulders and a closed chest. They limit arm movement and chest opening in Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and backbends. Strong, tight anterior deltoid muscles pull the humeri forward and up in their sockets. If not adequately opposed, this can contribute to painful and damaging impingement of the top ends of the humeri against the upper-outer shoulder blades (the acromion processes of the scapulae). Anterior deltoid tightness also severely limits arm placement in Shoulderstand. Strong, tight abdominal and hip flexor muscles, if not adequately opposed, encourage slumped chests in standing postures and make it almost impossible to do a fully open backbend.
No single posture is the antidote to an overdose of Chaturanga Dandasana, but if you had to pick just one, Purvottanasana would probably be your best choice. Why? First, it stretches most of the muscles that Chaturanga strengthens. Second, it strengthens opposing muscles (antagonists). Purvottanasana stretches pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, the anterior deltoids, rectus abdominis, obliquus abdominis, iliopsoas, and, to some extent, rectus femoris. It strengthens the rhomboid muscles (which draw the shoulder blades toward the spine, antagonizing the pectorals), the posterior deltoid muscles (which pull the arms backward, antagonizing the anterior deltoids), the erector spinae (which backbend the spine, antagonizing the abdominal muscles), and the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles (which extend the hips, antagonizing the iliopsoas and rectus femoris). In short, while Chaturanga primarily strengthens the front of the body, Purvottanasana stretches the front of the body and strengthens the back of the body. This makes the two poses wonderfully complementary.
There are some notable exceptions to this pattern, though. One is that both Chaturanga Dandasana and Purvottanasana strengthen the triceps muscles (the elbow-straightening muscles on the back and outside of the upper arms). Another is that both poses bend the wrists backward and put weight on them. In spite of these exceptions, Purvottanasana is an excellent pose to teach your students to balance a practice that’s heavy on the Chaturanga.
How to Teach Purvottanasana
Here, in compressed form, are instructions you can give your student to bring her into the classical version of Purvottanasana. "Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your hands alongside your hips and your fingers pointing forward. Bend your knees until the soles of your feet touch the floor. While exhaling, press your feet and hands down to lift your hips as high as possible off the floor. Then straighten your legs one by one and lift your hips still higher, pressing the soles of your feet toward the floor. Lift your chest as high as possible, then drop your head back, keeping the back of your neck as long as possible." This version of the pose will go a long way toward counterbalancing Chaturanga Dandasana. If your student's practice is based on Surya Namaskar, she might benefit from working it into her Sun Salutation sequence so she does it just as often and holds it just as long as Chaturanga.
If your student is willing to use props in her practice, you can teach her how to use them to modify Purvottanasana to enhance its specific effects. Here, we'll focus on one way she can do the pose on a chair to ease the pressure on her wrists, increase the stretch of her chest and front shoulders, and more effectively strengthen the muscles that oppose Chaturanga. The actions of the asana are divided into two parts, actually two separate poses. The first is a "Chair Dip." The second is the full pose.
To teach these versions of the pose to your students, first help her set up her props. You can give the following introductory instructions: "Lay down a sticky mat with its end against a wall. Place a stable chair on the mat with its back to the wall. Stand in front of the chair with your back toward the seat. Bend your knees and place your hands on the seat with your fingers pointing out to the sides, draping over the edges."
Turning her hands out this way helps your student rotate her upper arms outward, increasing the stretch on her pectoralis major muscles. Draping her fingers eases pressure on her wrists. Once you've established this basic alignment, ask her to place her heels about two to three feet away from the chair. The exact distance you want is the one that will position her shoulders directly above her wrists in the final pose; you will help her adjust this later. Now take her into the Chair Dip: "Lift your chest as much as you can while you inhale, then, while exhaling, bend your knees to lower your hips as close to the floor as possible without losing any of the lift of your chest. Keep your elbows pointing straight back as you do this. Finish by inhaling again, lifting your chest even more." This dipping preparation for Purvottanasana will stretch your student's pectoral muscles and anterior deltoids more than standard Purvottanasana does.
Now, without interrupting the flow of your student's movements, teach the full pose: "On your next exhalation, move to full Purvottanasana on the chair. Do the following movements in order in one smooth, continuous sequence on a single, long out-breath. Push firmly down through your feet and hands; straighten your knees; engage your hamstrings, buttocks and back muscles to lift your hips and belly as high as possible; activate the backs of your shoulders, upper arms and upper spinal muscles to lift your chest as high as you can; and, finally, drop your head back, keeping the back of your neck long. On your next inhalation, intensify the pose by pressing your feet and hands down even more firmly and lifting your hips and chest still higher." At this point, check to make sure that your student's shoulders are directly above her wrists; if not, help her change her foot position to correct this.
Next, repeat the sequence of dipping and lifting: "Keeping your chest lifted, and without moving your feet, smoothly lower yourself all the way back to the dip position on the next exhalation. Once there, inhale and lift your chest even more. As you exhale again, move smoothly back to the full Purvottanasana position. When you get there, inhale once, then return to the dip on the next exhalation." Ask your student to repeat the cycle three to ten times. At the end of the last cycle, have her hold Purvottanasana for thirty seconds to one minute, breathing naturally. Then tell her how to come out of the pose: "Step your feet one by one toward the chair, lower your hips, and stand up."
Teaching your student to move repeatedly from the Chair Dip to Chair Purvottanasana and back is an excellent way to counterbalance her Chaturanga Dandasana practice, especially if in her practice she jumps repeatedly into or out of the pose, or moves into and out of it from poses like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog). One dynamic technique offsets the other.
Ultimately, yoga is about balance. It's good to be strong, but balanced strength is better than unbalanced strength, and strength coupled with flexibility is better than rigid, restrictive strength. Chaturanga Dandasana is one of the key strengthening asanas. It's a great pose, and it's even better when complemented by Purvottanasana, The Anti-Chaturanga Dandasana.
ABOUT OUR EXPERT
Roger Cole, Ph.D. is an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher (www.yogadelmar.com), and Stanford-trained scientist. He specializes in human anatomy and in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms.