We will not be the first, nor hopefully the last, to write about the dangers of trying to do Chaturanga without proper strength training. Our hope is to disabuse the general public of false beliefs. One being that all things “yoga” are a safe way to mindlessly approach movement while under the guidance of an often under-qualified instructor. Chaturanga is one of the most challenging postures in any yoga class. It’s a straight plank with your elbows bent and tucked into your sides. Google it and you’ll see what’s up.
The shoulder joint is one of the most complicated and unstable joints in the human body. The shallow structure of the scapula’s curved edge, in which the head of the humerus sits, makes this joint prone to injury. If you’re going to repeatedly attempt movements like Chaturanga then you need to know that the alignment cues that go into making the asana’s classic shape (the elbows at 90 degrees) can put much strain on the front of the shoulder joint.
The spine in this posture is supposed to be held in an elongated line. In other words, The curvatures of the spine are meant to be held in balance, without one of the four curves looking exaggerated. Your lumbar curve is not overly pronounced and your thoracic spine extends to reduce the look of a hump. (We recently heard a yoga teacher tell students to draw in the lower belly in order to “puff up” the lower back. The last few sentences are the anatomical description for the experience that cue is trying to convey.) This foundation of core strength must be established firmly before attempting the posture. Try holding the spine in this line while lying on the ground (supine) and not letting it shift while you move your limbs. This takes focus and skill just lying down. The challenge will become increasingly more difficult while trying to resist gravity in Chaturanga. Once you properly train the core you can move on to shoulder function.
The front of the shoulder joint is most at risk. Let’s suppose you can properly maintain core strength/spinal alignment. But now, you must stabilize the shoulder complex, especially as you bend through the elbows. All this means is that your shoulder blades don’t peel off your ribs, a movement known as “winging.” Scapular stabilization is related to strength and the proper function (timing) of your rotator cuff muscles, lats, anterior serratus, pecs, trapezius, etc. The size and shape your scapulae and the heads of your humerus will influence how well you can control the shoulder blades in Chaturanga. (Note: Everything you do in yoga is going to be influenced by prior physical occupations and body proportions.) Performing Chaturanga repeatedly, without the ability to stabilize, can lead to damaging the tendons of your rotator cuff and even possibly the tendon of the biceps. My biceps?! Yes. The biceps help you position the scapula over the hands and also help you bend your elbows. So, if your scapulae wing and shift forward towards the ground the head of your humerus will most likely be shifted forward in the joint and the end of your clavicle can catch and pinch the aforementioned tendons.This same pattern of injury can occur in badly performed overhead patterns, especially when there’s weight involved. Translation into yoga speak: Downward Dog.
So if you really want to do Chaturangas and be safe here’s how:
Look to other forms of exercise to prepare your body.
Being able to do sustain a full plank with scapular stability is a healthier place to start when trying to build up to Chaturangas. Then move on to practicing pushups with the arms and hands wide away from the body. This is a less strenuous position for the shoulder joint. If the second you start lowering to the floor (bending your elbows) your shoulder blades start winging off your rib cage then you should assess, with the help of a movement professional, what you need to do to progress in a healthy way. While in yoga class, you should evaluate how ready you are for advanced vinyasa flows which include many chaturangas as you transition (Note to ego: Just drop to your knees when making these transitions till your ready. Or don’t and end up with scapular dysfunction. Whatevs.)
Not all Yoga moves are appropriate for all bodies. This may be disappointing, but it’s true. One of the biggest lies/misconceptions about a yoga practice is that it has to look a certain way or that your physical self must somehow conform to a specific style of performance. Not true. At All. If you know that doing Chaturangas, or any other asana, hurts then stop. You don’t have to include it. If you want it then go about pursuing your goals intelligently. Don’t believe the hype about practicing everyday to get stronger. Practicing the same pattern over and over will only (maybe!) make you stronger in that pattern, even if you are doing it incorrectly. Insisting on this kind of repetition can potentially lead to overuse injuries.
*The subject of this post was explored at the request of Anna Bluman. She is a fellow anatomy nerd and awesome yoga teacher. If you’re in London go see her! We would.