There are few poses that strike as much fear in the hearts of new yogis as chaturanga, the mysterious push-up-like pose encountered over and over and over again in the average vinyasa yoga class. Most teachers will take the time to break it down into detail for newbies, but it’s rare to receive in-depth instruction once you become comfortable with vinyasa basics. This, unfortunately, is tragic… because practicing chaturanga improperly — especially over and over in a class — can lead to shoulder injury down the road.
The challenge is that a proper chaturanga requires enough arm strength to lift the full weight of your body, and building that kind of strength simply takes time and practice. Sometimes it’s fun and challenging to dive right in and attempt a difficult pose in its full glory… I know from experience. But with chaturanga, its ideal to build towards it by practicing plank pose and dropping your knees to the mat (often called ‘Knees-chest-chin’ pose) to ensure proper shoulder alignment.
In the heat of a vinyasa class, I know it’s not always easy to back off from a pose. We really want to try! So, I’ve come up with some ways that you can begin to gun up those biceps and triceps, firm those abs, and get some chaturanga action without actually going horizontal.
Say Hello to the Wall
No need for a mat! Find a place where you have clear floorspace and an empty wall.
- Stand facing the wall with your feet parallel, hip-width apart, and your toes just touching the wall.
- Bend your elbows, keeping them tight to your ribs, and place your palms on the wall. Spread your fingers wide.
- Take a deep, full breath, then as you exhale firm your belly and engage your arms as if you’re trying to push the wall away. Lengthen your tailbone towards the floor to keep you bum from sticking out (this is especially important when you do move to the floor).
- Keep your neck long as you soften your shoulders away from your ears, cinching your shoulder blades together.
- With your elbows at a 90 degree angle, notice the sense of strength and power in your biceps and inner arms. Breathe space around your heart, and let it lift gently upward.
This is the shape of chaturanga. Practice this to get a feel for the pose in your body, removed from its usual context on the floor. You can use this short exercise to orient yourself and become familiar with the proper alignment.
Get Your Tilt On
Take it to the next level: begin to introduce gravity by practicing the shape of chaturanga at an angle that is increasingly horizontal. You can do this by finding places around your house that have level, solid surfaces that you call lean into for support. I like to practice this everywhere… against my bed frame, dresser, kitchen counter, dining room table, and the back of the couch (as pictured). But I’m a little wacky like that — be careful and make sure you pick something that is secure enough to support your full body weight. Keep in mind that the lower the surface is to the ground, the more you’ll be working against gravity — so start with higher surfaces and work your way down as you get stronger.
- Stand facing your surface of choice, and place your hands shoulder-width apart firmly, right at the edge.
- Step back until your arms are straight, then take about another step or two back, so that your body is angled toward the surface. Imagine that you’re creating an even triangle with your arms and legs being the sides, and the floor the base.
- On an exhale, firm your abdomen and keep your core strong and straight as you lean toward your hands, stopping as soon as your elbows reach your ribs.
- Stay here for 5 long breaths as you hug your biceps in, mold your shoulder blades flat to your back, and keep your chest broad and open.
- As you exhale, press into your palms and lift your torso back to neutral, keeping your spine straight and abs strong.
- To release the pose, take a step or two back and lean into your heels, bending forward with a flat back. Press into the pinky-edge of your hands to mimic the shape of downward-facing dog (see below). Lift your navel toward your spine, stretch your bum away from you, and allow the space behind the heart to disengage.
Graduate to Horizontal
Play around with chaturanga against different surfaces, keeping the structure of the pose secure, and you’ll start to develop the core and arm strength needed to hover off the floor. Have fun with it… try it out around your house — maybe even around your neighborhood! As you get stronger, hold for more breaths, and continue to increase the horizontal level of the pose. When you’re ready to take it to the floor, remember the shape of the pose as you come into plank, then keep your spine long, tail tucked, and hips low as you lower sweetly towards the floor. You may find that you feel lighter and lowering from plank is a piece of cake! And then, you should celebrate by eating some!
Happy chaturanga-ing to you! Feel free to write and let me know how it goes :)