Myth #10: There is one single right alignment in chaturanga
Where do these cues for the “right” alignment in chaturanga come from?
There is definitely a good intent behind all the cues you hear about the “right” alignment in chaturanga because practitioners certainly report pain and injury in chaturanga. But, is there one “right” alignment in chaturanga that would fix all that?
What’s necessary for healthy chaturangas?
Let’s back up for a moment. Rather than going straight to lining things up in chaturanga, let’s talk about what makes a healthy chaturanga anyway. In the most general way, I’d suggest that the quality we’re looking for in chaturanga is stability. Specifically, we need stability around the shoulder girdle. And we need stability throughout the core of the body in order to maintain the integrity of the posture and avoid injuring ourselves.
Where does stability in chaturanga come from?
There are many muscles that have to work to maintain stability in a posture like chaturanga. In and around the shoulder girdle, serratus anterior is working to stabilize the scapulae to the rib cage. We have some activity from pectoralis major across the front of the chest. And, the triceps are also eccentrically working along the back of our arms. And, of course, the rotator cuff muscles are working to dynamically stabilize the shoulder joint itself.
In our torso we need all of the layers of abdominals from rectus abdominis on the surface to the deep transverse abdominis to maintain stability of the trunk in chaturanga. Recent research on muscle activity in plank pose specifically measured strong activity in rectus abdominis and the abdominal oblique muscles (Bolgla et al., 2018). They didn’t evaluate the activity of the transverse abdominis, as it is a deep muscle and more difficult to evaluate. But, we would expect it to be strongly active as well when maintaining stability of the torso in chaturanga.
Common cues for alignment in chaturanga
So let’s take apart a couple of the common cues that come up around alignment in chaturanga. Let’s talk about when they might apply and when they might not. One cue that I often hear with respect to alignment in chaturanga, is to line up the elbows with the wrists. Another common cue that I hear, which is another way of saying that same thing, is that the elbows should be at 90 degree angles. These are not cues that work well for most practitioners.
Elbows at 90 degrees
Holding the elbows at a 90 degree angle or lining up the elbows and wrists often puts the shoulders farther forward than most people can maintain without straining the shoulders. It just puts too much of the upper body weight on one side of the center of gravity (in front of the line of the forearm). That’s more than the shoulders, hands, and wrists can hold for most practitioners. It also puts the wrist at a smaller angle, adding to the potential stress on the wrists.
Elbows tucked at your sides
Another cue that I often hear with respect to alignment in chaturanga, is that your elbows should always be tucked in to the sides of your body. This cue might be a good long-term direction for most people to work towards. But it won’t necessarily be accessible right away. Students doing chaturanga are likely at many different experience levels in their practice. Some students who are newer to practice may have a good amount of strength in pectoralis major (sometimes from sports or time spent in the gym). But they may not have cultivated the strength of the triceps to eccentrically contract while lowering down with the elbows tucked in. Allowing their elbows to go out a bit lets them use some of the strength that they have from pectoralis to do the pose.
The bigger challenge with chaturanga
Alongside all of these more specific cues for alignment in chaturanga, I’d suggest that the bigger myth is that everyone should do a million chaturangas in their first vinyasa yoga class. Or there’s the related myth, that the solution to shoulder pain in chaturanga is more chaturangas “because that will build strength”. In reality, chaturanga requires shoulder strength, but not just any shoulder strength. In fact, stability of the shoulder rather than strength is really a better description.
Specifically, as I said, you are working towards strengthening that relationship to serratus to stabilize the scapulae. If you try to do too many chaturangas and rely solely on the rotator cuff muscles to keep the shoulder in place in a weight-bearing posture like chaturanga, it probably isn’t going to go well over the long-term. Sometimes what’s happening is not an issue with chaturanga specifically, but really is just too much practice too soon.
There’s no single magic cue
What students often don’t want to hear, is that there is no single magic alignment cue for making many repetitions of chaturanga instantly doable. What many students are missing is time and other postures, which are more effective at building strength in the right places, so that chaturanga becomes stable and repeatable. It’s also possible, depending on the student, their age, fitness level, and history of shoulder injuries/issues, that chaturanga just isn’t a helpful posture for them where they are in their practice right now. Every pose isn’t necessarily for everyone all the time.
Bolgla, L.A., L. Amodio, K. Archer, J. Estes, R. Leung, K. Magoni, A. Mullikin, D. Roberts, M. Weems, and D. Beazley. 2018. Trunk and hip muscle activation during yoga poses: Do sex-differences exist? Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 31:256-261.