Chaturanga (staff pose) is a beautiful and strong posture that when executed effectively gives the practitioner a sense of empowerment and sustenance. When executed poorly though, or with avidya (misunderstanding), it can become a place of discomfort or become an overuse injury. In a previous SYN article, the shoulder in particular was illustrated in detail (re. T.Templeton) along with other great cues for stability in this posture. (For the more on the mechanics of how to do the full version of chaturanga please peruse the article section.)
The question I often hear from students is: how can I take a vinyasa class, if chaturanga is tricky for me? Some students that feel less efficacious in chaturanga may be new to yoga, dealing with an injury in the upper body, or are still building the muscular strength to do this posture with success and aptitude. However, there are other students that would simply prefer to do something other than the standard full chaturanga each time they flow through a Surya Namaskar (sun salutation).
I am a proponent in teaching yoga, whenever possible, to meet every student where they arrive that day. It doesn’t mean I need to teach a gentle class when a power vinyasa class is on the schedule. But keeping the framework of the class in mind, each student may be able to accomplish the parts of the class that are working for them and adapt the parts that are not working as well for them on a given day.
Beyond an actual injury, if a student loves the flow of my vinyasa class but something is sore from chaturanga (maybe even the next day), I want them to find an alternative that works best for them. I often tell students, dare I say it, to just ‘skip the chaturanga’ and go from plank to downdog (or plank to updog then to downdog). Cherish your Chaturanga! And in any form you choose!
Here now, I implore you, even if you love your chaturanga, to revisit it in the following ways the next time you take a class. 1) look at yourself in the mirror 2) give yourself a ‘time out’ or ‘reset’ every so often in your practice and modify your chaturanga 3) practice detachment/aparigraha and actually NOT do a chaturanga in a vinyasa class for a day or week.
1. Look in the mirror: Check in the mirror for correct body alignment (or take a selfie).
- Is it truly a staff/danda from head to heels?
- Is your core strongly engaged like a plank of wood?
- Are your shoulders above your elbow height (avoid them going below)?
- Are your wrists under elbows?
- Are your elbows behind the shoulders (not winged out wider but also not hugging tightly in toward the ribcage)?
- Along with this ‘looking’ at the posture, can you feel it (engaged and supported upper back/core/legs)?
2. Reset & Adapt: Give yourself a few rounds in your sun salutation practice to adapt your chaturanga in a way that feels stable, not rigid, nor overly powerful (you know that big ‘grunt’ you hear when someone is pushing too hard in their chaturanga – make sure that isn’t you).
- Option 1: From plank, come onto hands and knees and lift chest up to cow before transitioning to downward facing dog
- Option 2: From plank, press back to downward facing dog (skip chaturanga completely)
- Option 3: From plank, set knees down but behind hips and position arms correctly, lower down to the floor with a strong core and a straight line from head, land your chest line between your thumbs, then continue to cobra ending in downward dog
3. Let Go and detach from the need to do chaturanga
- Do this as a commitment to yourself, to your yoga practice, to the Yamas of yoga
- Make room for what you notice by not doing one chaturanga, or maybe not doing several or even an entire class or a month without one. (Build strength in a different way like through dolphin or other arm balances.)
- Allow your experience of an adaptable chaturanga make room for a more simplified and meditative form of this part of your sun salutation. Maybe other areas of your sun salutation become brighter.
- When you go back to the full version of chaturanga, what do you discover within that posture now? What did you learn from letting go of it?
By no means am I an ‘anti-chaturanga’ type of gal! I see the love we all have for it and how it so sweetly and smoothly can fit like the bestest of gloves in our flow of sun salutations. In yoga, though, we sometimes hastily move through our practice and aim for the stronger parts, and yet at other times feel defeated when those stronger parts begin to create havoc on our joints. From a purely physical awareness, integrity in chaturanga, in whatever shape or adaptation that comes in, is most imperative. Whatever your reason is for grimacing at chaturanga or never wanting to skip one in a class, consider the bigger picture: that even through chaturanga, we can gain insight and wisdom through our sadhana by cherishing all those parts that show up.