Chaturanga dandasana, also known as low plank, is a yoga posture that has caused many folks a lot of grief over the years. Let’s learn the anatomy behind the statement that there is only one right way to do this yoga posture. In this article, I’ll unpack how to do chaturanga based on that anatomical understanding. I’ll also describe the benefits and explain some of the most common verbal cues given.
What’s in this article:
- An overview of chaturanga dandasana
- What are the benefits of chaturanga?
- Cautions for chaturanga
- Learn some anatomy to understand the technique
- Muscles that allow you to lower down
- Doing chaturanga step-by-step
- Common cues and alignment
An overview of chaturanga dandasana
The name “chaturanga” is the commonly used shorthand for the full name of this yoga pose, chaturanga dandasana. It is also referred to as a low plank, but that is not a Sanskrit translation. If we break down the Sanskrit we get a sense of the quality and shape created by this posture. So, what does chaturanga dandasana mean?
- Chatur means four
- Anga means limb
- Danda is a stick or a staff
- Asana means posture or pose
The right way to do chaturanga
There do seem to be a number of “rules” or common suggestions when it comes to the question of how to do chaturanga correctly. There is really only one way to do chaturanga correctly and that is the way in which it works for you today and at this moment. I say this because, as your body changes in terms of strength and flexibility, the technique you can, or dare I say “should” apply, is also going to change. Whether you’re a yoga teacher or a yoga practitioner, a good assessment of where you or a student of yours is at this moment should be what guides you to correct, change, or offer variations and modifications to this yoga pose.
What I’ve learned about this posture
Chaturanga pose is used in power yoga and in vinyasa yoga. Ashtanga yoga practitioners will also attest that there is a lot of chaturanga to do in the primary series of Ashtanga. As an Ashtanga yoga teacher and practitioner for more than 20 years, I have had the opportunity to observe what happens in my own body.
More importantly, I have had the opportunity to watch a large variety of students with various abilities do this posture over and over again, and I know a thing or two about functional anatomy. The large number of students I have observed, along with the more objective understanding of anatomy, has led me to question many of the common suggestions used in chaturanga dandasana. This is what I’m going to share with you.
What are the benefits of chaturanga?
Chaturanga dandasana fits into a category of poses that require strength. It’s also a posture that is used as a transition. It typically lives between a step back or jump back (depending on the style of yoga you practice) and upward facing dog. This is the reason it is often repeated so many times during a single practice.
Building overall strength
Since we can classify this posture as one requiring strength, and since we repeat it so many times, it can certainly help us get stronger. The strength created in a posture like this ends up happening through, literally, the entire body. And the strength we gain over time is useful for other postures where we hold a similar shape. In the same way, other postures that build strength can help your chaturanga. We will talk about this more, shortly.
Let’s start broadly and then focus on the main places where we need to build our strength. Because we have “danda” in the Sanskrit name, we should hold in our mind a stick or a staff. This implies rigidity, or in our body, a quality of strength. In order to maintain the stick or staff-like quality, you’ll need what is often referred to as core strength. The muscles in and around your torso need to engage to prevent the sagging of the pelvis. Remember, a stick or staff is straight, and this core strength I’m referring to should help to keep your torso and spine as straight as possible.
Developing shoulder strength and stability
The area which needs the most attention in order to do chaturanga as safely as possible, is the shoulder girdle. Conversely, chaturanga has been referred as “the shoulder shredder” because of shoulder pain, and even injury, that shows up in this posture when it’s not done appropriately. I even wrote an article about the shoulder joint in chaturanga called “The Shoulder Joint In Chaturanga: Who Are You Going To Blame?”
Without totally geeking out on the anatomy just yet, let’s expand our understanding of strength to include the words stability, or stabilizing. This is an often forgotten function of muscles. Stabilizing is muscular contraction without movement. We do it when we need the type of strength that we were describing for the torso above. It’s not like your abdominals contract and shorten your torso. That would be movement. Instead, your abdominals actually contract to stabilize the bones they attach to in place!
In the same way, we need to stabilize the entirety of the shoulder girdle in addition to building strength in muscles that actually move the shoulder joint itself. For simplicity’s sake, the key stabilizer of the shoulder girdle that you need to strengthen is the serratus anterior. This is not to say that muscles such as deltoids, triceps, pectoralis, the rotator cuff, and others aren’t involved. They definitely are. But, these muscles are more involved in the movement of lowering from high plank into chaturanga.
Cautions for chaturanga
By far, the largest reason for caution when learning chaturanga dandasana is the potential for a shoulder injury when repetitively doing the pose. This is a common place for practitioners to report injuries, as we saw in our own research on the relationship between reporting shoulder injuries and chaturanga.
There are multiple possibilities for the actual cause, but generally speaking, the largest factor is the number of times one does chaturanga in a practice. Please note that this is relative to a yoga practitioner’s strength and the ability to appropriately apply the best technique. The simplest way to say this is that overall fatigue happens in multiple muscles when yoga practitioners perform the same action over and over again, if they are not prepared for it.
This can happen in the triceps, but the more dangerous potential for injury in chaturanga is if the rotator cuff muscles start to dysfunction. I’ve already mentioned that our focus will be on the serratus anterior muscle for stabilization. What often happens when there is not enough stability of the overall shoulder girdle, is that the rotator cuff group of muscles has to work harder than they are designed to work. This can lead to conditions such as frozen shoulder, impingement syndrome, and generalized pain in the shoulder joint.
Learn some anatomy to understand the technique
As I’ve already mentioned, serratus anterior is probably the single most important muscle to understand when it comes to establishing a good chaturanga pose. This is because activating serratus anterior is critical for stabilizing the shoulder girdle, particularly in the step before chaturanga, which is known as high plank. This is step one.
Step two is the more obvious strengthening of muscles such as the deltoids, triceps, and the rotator cuff group of muscles. The truth is that these muscles will strengthen over time. So let’s circle back to the serratus anterior and making a strong foundation for these other muscles to develop on top of.
Establishing the foundation of the shoulder girdle
I don’t know if I can stress this point enough. I have talked about serratus anterior for years in workshops and in other writings — especially when it comes to chaturanga pose and doing it correctly. What we want to do is establish the right foundation so that your individual body and muscle patterns can develop in a way that is appropriate for you.
Serratus is at the heart of creating the positive pattern you need in chaturanga (low plank). At this point, I want to broaden your perspective on where and how you connect to strength in serratus anterior. Sometimes a yoga posture develops strength simply by doing that yoga pose. Chaturanga does not easily fit into that way of looking at a posture.
In this case, I suggest that you create strength from various other places in your yoga practice to feed the strength you need for chaturanga. I’ve written about this in my series on the sun salutations already. For our purposes here, I’ll try to make the connection more simply through high plank, which often comes just before chaturanga dandasana.
When we arrive at high plank, before we lower into chaturanga, we have the opportunity to develop the stability of the shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle includes the entirety of the shoulder. In other words, it includes the scapula as well as the shoulder joint itself, which is where the humerus (upper arm bone) meets the scapula.
Serratus is a protractor of the scapula. In other words, it brings the scapula toward the front of the body. However, when your hands are on the floor as they are in high plank, engaging serratus causes the torso to lift away from the floor between the two shoulder blades. You may be familiar with this in a different way.
We are almost always familiar with the winging of the scapulae when we lower down into chaturanga. In order to prevent the winging of the scapulae, you need to engage serratus anterior. I’ve written about this HERE in more depth. My point here is that if you don’t already have a relationship with your serratus anterior muscle, it’s going to be difficult to connect to it once you are in low plank or chaturanga. High plank is a much better place to feel the serratus and connect to the sensation of its contraction.
Here’s what you should do to find your serratus anterior, undo a winged scapula, and establish the foundation of your chaturanga:
- Establish your high plank. But instead of being on your toes, just go down to your knees.
- Let your chest sag or hang through your shoulder blades.
- Then, imagine you are pressing the floor away from you.
- Alternatively, imagine a sharp object pointing up at your breast bone. Try to lift your chest away from it by pressing your hands into the floor.
- Think of making an arch-like shape between your hands and across your upper chest.
- DO NOT make an arch-like shape along the line of your spine.
- Once you connect to this movement, close your eyes. Repeat dropping your chest through your shoulder blades and then connecting to serratus by pressing through your hands to lift the chest back up through the shoulder blades.
- When you think you have it, hold that position and feel for tension just below your armpit on your ribcage.
Muscles that allow you to lower down
I’ll try to stay out of the anatomical weeds here as we talk about lowering into chaturanga. There is one principle that you absolutely need to know about in order to understand chaturanga. That principle is what is technically called an isotonic eccentric contraction. In plain English, this is where a muscle gets longer during a contraction. I know, contraction and length seem at odds with one another, but this does happen all the time. It’s the same principle that slows us down as we fold forward in a standing forward bend. The hamstrings get longer to slowly lower us as we fold. Without their contraction, gravity would take over and we would go into our forward fold rather quickly.
In terms of chaturanga, the triceps are doing an eccentric contraction to help us control the rate at which the elbow bends. It is probably the single most important muscle when it comes to controlling the speed with which we lower into chaturanga. That’s not to say that deltoids don’t help, they do. The other muscles that help are the rotator cuff group of muscles.
The rotator cuff group
Most of us are familiar with the rotator cuff group because of the injuries that are associated with it. Those injuries are also a common symptom of overworking chaturanga. This happens when we do too many chaturangas before our muscular ability is capable of handling this repetitive motion. Rather than relying on the rotator cuff as the primary source of shoulder strength, set up your shoulder girdle with stability from focusing on serratus. This allows your rotator cuff group to maintain a mechanical advantage during its contractions as you lower into chaturanga.
Your rotator cuff group is really about steering or guiding your shoulder joint in its movements. It’s not built for power per se. It’s built for dynamic (during movement) stabilization. The problem is, when your shoulder girdle is not stabilized properly, you increase the amount of work that the rotator cuff muscles have to do. This alone can cause dysfunction, to various degrees, of the shoulder joint.
Doing chaturanga step-by-step
Here are my basic instructions for doing chaturanga from high plank with an eye toward developing a long-term and sustainable chaturanga dandasana:
- From high plank, make sure to connect to the contraction of serratus anterior. As described above, make sure you are lifting your chest up and through your scapulae.
- This can be achieved by pressing firmly into your hands on the floor.
- Another option is to intend the shoulder blades around the front and sides of your body as you push.
- Last option, think of that sharp object that you don’t want to touch as pointing at the center of your chest.
- The next step is the hardest: Maintain the engagement of serratus anterior as you begin to bend your elbows.
- It sounds like an overly simplistic instruction, but it’s not so simple.
- Sometimes imagining a strap around your chest is helpful.
- It’s better to do a small amount of movement at the shoulder and elbow joint as you maintain the engagement of serratus anterior.
- You may need to start on your knees so there is less weight on your shoulders. It’s better to do a small amount of movement right, than a large amount incorrectly.
- All of the above needs to happen while also maintaining the integrity of the “danda” part of the posture. That is, maintain a straight (stick or staff) line from the top of your head through your spine and pelvis, and then down your legs to your heels.
- Because of the body position and your intention to maintain a straight line, your body will turn on the muscles it needs to maintain that.
Common cues and alignment
There are a number of common cues and alignment suggestions that get repeated over and over again for chaturanga. I’ll try to give you some context for these and where I agree and disagree.
Elbows at a 90 degree angle in chaturanga
This cue about the elbows in low plank or chaturanga dandasana is probably the most common cue given. There is nothing wrong with it by itself. However, this could be the wrong angle for you. I mean, what is the right alignment in chaturanga after all? A 90 degree angle is a good linear angle, however there are two aspects that can be problematic.
First, when you take your shoulders forward to create the 90 degree angle, they are further away from the foundation that is trying to support them. In other words, the mass of your upper body, particularly your chest, is now in front of your hands which are the foundation for your upper body. You are essentially creating a cantilevered upper body. In that situation you need more muscular effort to maintain the integrity of the shoulders.
However, if your body mass is aligned closer to the line of your hands (blue line in image below), you have more support under the heavy body mass. In that situation your elbow angle may be less than 90 degrees because your elbows will move behind your wrist slightly.
I’ve heard many people attempt to correlate the elbow and the knee in terms of design and function. We often hear that we should not let our knees go past 90 degrees. And then, we try to apply this same principle to our elbows. For me, this falls flat. These are two very different joints, with different structures holding them together. What you do at one does not necessarily apply to the other.
The second point I want to make here is that a 90 degree angle at the elbow in chaturanga will also guarantee the same angle at the wrist joint which can be problematic. Many of us have tight wrists from doing what I am doing at this moment, typing! Too much compression at the joint can cause wrist pain and injuries.
That’s not to say that 90 degrees at either of these joints is bad or wrong. My point is that we should not be overly ambitious to achieve this. It’s more important to see what’s possible in your body and let this evolve over time. Notice in the image of the stable chaturanga above, that when the elbows are slightly behind the wrists at less than 90 degrees, this allows for a greater angle at the wrist joint (green lines on hand and forearm).
Don’t let your torso go below your upper arms
This is generally a good idea. But it does depend on your individual abilities. As I mentioned in the step-by-step process above. You may want to keep your torso well above the line of your upper arms while you begin developing the appropriate movement patterns and strength. As you advance and develop strength in the right places for chaturanga, going down to the line of your upper arm makes sense as long as you can maintain the integrity of your shoulder girdle.
It’s also possible that, depending on your strength and ability, there is no problem with going lower than the line of your upper arm. I’ve been going lower for years now with no repercussions to my shoulders that I am aware of. The point is that like every other yoga pose, it develops and changes over time as you and your abilities change and develop.
Keep your elbow against your body
Pressing your elbows against your body can be helpful. Personally, I find that students that do too much of this squeeze are using their arms as a sort of scaffold to maintain the integrity of the upper body in chaturanga. It can be used effectively, but I would call this a modification.
Personally, I direct students to keep their elbows close to their sides but not squeezing. Doing this will force their body to recruit the right muscles to maintain the integrity that we are looking for. However, the instruction to hug the elbows in could also be an overcompensation for elbows that fall out. This does happen a lot to students, especially beginners. But why?
The body recognizes your desire to lower down into a low plank position or chaturanga. It will naturally try to recruit the muscles that it needs to accomplish this. As I mentioned previously, the triceps is the muscle that does that eccentric contraction to control us as we lower into chaturanga. If the triceps are not strong enough, the body will send your elbows wider in order to recruit the larger pectoralis major muscle to help control your descent into chaturanga.
Don’t let your shoulders dip down and forward in chaturanga
This is a common problem corrected with chaturanga. It happens when someone does not have the strength to stabilize their shoulder girdle. So, the body compensates by tilting the shoulders down and often sticking the butt up. These are symptoms of the larger problem in chaturanga that I have been discussing. That is, there’s not enough stability coming from the serratus anterior and for the shoulder girdle in general. The shoulders are too far forward from trying to achieve the magical 90 degree angle, and there is not enough strength in the triceps and other muscles to maintain it.
To me, correcting the symptoms is like tossing on a band-aid (plaster for my friends in the UK and Europe) with some make-up for good measure. It never really gets at the underlying cause. In chaturanga, those causes are lack of stability or going beyond your abilities. Unfortunately, you often get verbal cues that try to correct the symptoms with things like, roll the shoulders back or squeeze the shoulder blades together. In my anatomical understanding and experience, I suggest you go back to serratus and create a solid foundation of strength and stability so your chaturanga develops positive movement patterns over time.