So you’ve gone to your first beginner yoga class. Or maybe you just got a Peloton and did their 30-minute Vinyasa flow. Or perhaps you’ve been practicing Ashtanga for years but something changed recently. I hear from yogis at all levels that something about their chaturanga is painful. Although many people begin yoga in hopes of improving their flexibility, there is also a lot of strength required in yoga practice. Chaturanga is a particularly challenging pose requiring significant muscular support to perform it correctly. Yet, it is one of the first moves you learn in many yoga practices.
Why is the pose so challenging? It requires you to slow your descent toward gravity with precise control. It demands a balance of small stabilizing muscles and larger prime mover muscles. It is also a combination of upper body and core strength. Oh, and you’re supposed to keep breathing!
So let’s talk about some of the places where this movement can break down and lead to pain.
The position of your head and neck has a big impact on what the rest of your spine is going to do down the chain. Often, you lose track of where it is in space; and it ends up too flexed or extended. If you’re looking down too far it can cause more flexion in your low back as well, or potentially a piked position where your hips stay too high as you lower down. Conversely, if you’re looking up with an extended neck, your low back tends to extend as well and sag toward the ground. Neither position is good for the low back, shoulders or neck. Ideally, you want to maintain a neutral neck position. If you work with an instructor or even practice with a friend, they can help you determine where your eyes should be looking to place your neck in the best position.
2) Shoulder blades
Your shoulder blades provide the foundation from which your arms move. Therefore, whatever is happening with their positioning on the ribcage will greatly impact the stability, or lack thereof, in your shoulder girdle. The biggest mistake you can make here is letting your chest collapse toward the ground as you descend into chaturanga. If this happens, your lower back tends to follow and you put a lot of excess strain on your shoulders and spine. You end up relying on your joints to support you rather than the many muscles helping out around them. To combat this, I tend to think of lifting the sternum (breast bone) away from the ground even as you lower your body. This helps to work against gravity’s effects and maintain stability throughout the transition into and out of chaturanga.
3) Deep core and lower abdominals
The core as a whole helps you to maintain appropriate intra-abdominal pressure to support the spine. In chaturanga, you rely on this pressure to maintain the spine in neutral and prevent collapsing into your joints. This is similar to what I mentioned above about the shoulder blades. Drawing your belly button toward your spine allows you to turn on some of your deeper (harder to access) core muscles. Sometimes when you exert yourself it is instinct to brace and push your stomach out, but here we want to do the exact opposite. However, keeping your abdominals drawn in can be really difficult to maintain as you exhale during your lowering. In fact, the breath sometimes feels like its contradicting what your abdominals are trying to do. It is important to learn to coordinate this combination of abdominal engagement with controlled breathing.
4) Hands and feet
Last but not least, if you don’t have your hands and feet placed correctly, it is much more difficult to achieve the above strategies. Ideally, your hands should be stacked directly below your shoulders, with your elbows close to your rib cage. This allows you the most stability with the least amount of strain on the joints of your arms. If your hands are too close together, your body does not have room to descend into the chaturanga and your elbows will flare out. If too far apart, your elbows and shoulders have to do unnecessary work to keep your body stable.
On the other end, your feet should sit relatively close together, weight forward on your toes, with heels stacked over your toes. If your heels drop outward, it makes it more difficult to draw your inner thighs together. Those inner thighs are a great place to find stability and access your deep core. As you hop back into chaturanga, there may be some variation of where your feet land; however, the more consistently you can align your feet properly, the less your upper body will have to compensate.
So what can you do if you are already having pain in your chaturanga? It may be as simple as awareness. You might try taking a private lesson to have the individualized feedback from a qualified instructor who can observe your movement and give you cues to improve your form. They may also be able to help you with modifications for the pose so you can complete it correctly, with good form, before you try the full version.
You may also want to consider seeing a physical therapist who is familiar with yoga practice. We can take a look at your movement patterns, determine imbalances that may be contributing to your pain, and develop a plan of care to address them.
Check out my previous blog article to learn 3 tips to a pain-free yoga backbend.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.