Skillfulness in Action: Refining Chaturanga Dandasana

As a teacher, I am dedicated to specificity and alignment. Part of what I love about Vinyasa Flow is that, when aligned correctly, the flow or linking of poses can move seamlessly from one to the next. Essentially the alignment of one pose can help to inform and create the appropriate alignment for the next pose.  

Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) is a mainstay in many Flow classes. And the sequence within Surya Namaskar A that includes Phalankasana (Plank Pose), Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), Urdva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose), and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) is repeated again and again throughout a Flow class.

Because this sequence is repeated again and again in a Flow class, physical alignment needs to be impeccable in order to build the appropriate strength and suppleness it offers, and to avoid injury.  

Most injuries in yoga stem from repetitive stress, rather from than blunt force. So that sloppy Chaturanga Dandasana done repeatedly in a class can be cause for a sore shoulder, or even worse, a torn rotator cuff.  

The beauty of Surya Namaskar A is that if the first pose is well aligned, the rest tend to be better aligned as well. So the alignment of Chaturanga Dandasana can be derived from the correct alignment of Phalankasana. (pictured below)

Phalakasana (Plank Pose)

  1. Begin on hands and knees on a yoga mat.

  2. Place your hands shoulder-width apart with your fingers spread open and every finger and knuckle joint planted evenly.  

  3. Align your shoulders slightly ahead of the wrist creases (about half an inch).

  4. Plant the balls of each foot and reach back through the heels strongly. (The ball of the foot is the protrusion just above the arch of the foot and below the toes.)

  5. Pressing downward through your hands, lift your knees off the floor and straighten them so that your body is in a straight line, slanting downward from your head to your heels.  

  6. Lift through your hips and thighs as you drop your tailbone heavily between your legs.  

Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

Chaturanga Dandasana is a Plank Pose with the elbows bent in a 90-degree angle and squeezed into the midline. For many students, the strength this pose requires eludes them and things start to go south. Rather than suffering through a haphazard and potentially injurious Chaturanga, here are a few ways to modify this powerhouse of a pose. These modifications will help you build strength in a measured way without inadvertently injuring yourself in the process.  

Chaturanga Dandasana Variation 1: Knees Down with Blocks 

A standard yoga block at its highest height is one of my favorite tactics to teach students about the correct position of the shoulder/upper arm in Chaturanga. While we are not all the same height, most of our forearms are similar in length. So the highest height of a standard yoga block should support most people, allowing the elbows to be in a 90-degree angle with the shoulders in line with the elbows and the elbows over the wrists. Tapping the knees down in this pose lessens the amount of weight the arms need to support, which allows you to lower down with more control, thus building strength in a safe and appropriate way.

  1. Begin in Plank Pose with two yoga blocks on the highest height, shoulder-width apart and about an inch in front of your hands.  

  2. From Plank, keep the tail heavy and the shoulders slightly ahead of the wrists then simply tap the knees to the floor. Be sure not to move your knees closer in toward the hands.

  3. Continue to keep your shoulders ahead of your wrists, your thighs lifted and your tailbone heavy.  

  4. Keeping your elbows squeezed in toward the midline of your body and your low belly drawing in and up, on an exhalation, start to bend your elbows until your shoulders lightly tap the blocks.

Chaturanga Dandasana Variation 2: Straight Legs with Blocks 

  1. Begin in Plank Pose with two yoga blocks at their highest height, shoulder-width apart, and about an inch in front of your hands.  

  2. Align your shoulders about a half inch ahead of your wrists and firmly plant the balls of your feet into the floor.  

  3. Lift your thighs so that your hips are about as high as your shoulders, but drop your tailbone heavily between your legs so that your low belly feels taut.  

  4. Maintain the actions of your thighs, feet, and tailbone, and as you exhale, bend your elbows. Squeeze your elbows in toward the midline of the body, so the upper arms graze your sides.  

  5. Place your shoulders on top of your blocks.

  6. As in Plank Pose, lift through your hips and thighs as you drop your tailbone heavily between your legs, and continue to stretch your heels back.  

  7. If your pelvis reaches the floor by the time your shoulders reach the blocks, you probably need to walk your feet a little closer to your hands. Then strongly lift your thighs toward the ceiling, reaching your heels back as you bend your elbows and lower your body.

  8. If your shoulders reach the blocks but your buttocks stay high up where they started in Plank Pose, drop your tailbone more. Imagine lowering your body as one straight line rather than “diving” forward with just the shoulders and chest.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of practicing with blocks you can try moving them off to the sides of your mat so you can still see them as you’re lowering, but they won’t be there to actually catch you. This allows you to hone your proprioception so you can begin to consistently catch yourself in Chaturanga Dandasana. 

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Enjoy another article from yoga teacher and writer, Kate Heffernan – Yoga and the Art of Befriending Your Body: It’s an Inside Job.

Reprinted with permission from Kate-Yoga blog.

Kate Heffernan is a Boston-based Vinyasa Flow Yoga Instructor.  As a teacher, Kate is known for her ability to weave together an intelligent and well-crafted sequence that builds on a specific theme.  In her Vinyasa Flow classes, students can expect to find the joy of vigorous movement married to the consciousness of precise instructions focusing on proper alignment.  Kate creates a space for her students to experience their own yoga practice on any given day, whether that practice includes a more vigorous Vinyasa sequence or a cooling Yin and Restorative sequence with an extended Savasana.  Kate is a lead instructor at Down Under Yoga, where she instructs public classes as well as teacher trainings.  Kate was named one of Boston’s Top 20 Yoga Instructors in 2012 by   

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