Chaturanga Dandasana : The Controversy


If you practice yoga, chances are you have done chaturanga dandasana, or 4 limbed staff pose. Chances are even greater that the first 10-10,000 times you have done it, you did it incorrectly. It is such a common pose so commonly done wrong. What is worse, is that if repeatedly done wrong, and I mean for years, you risk serious long term injury to your shoulder joint. So, should we, as good yoga teachers actually be teaching this pose? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? These are questions I have been asking myself a lot recently. And no matter what your opinion is, understanding the anatomy of the pose and the potential pros and cons are very important. Chaturanga is basically a low pushup where the elbows point back towards the feet close to the torso, rather than a traditional pushup where the elbows extend out from the sides of the body. Engaging the legs and the core assist in executing the pose but proper stabilization of the shoulders is critical in recruiting the upper body muscles. Without core and leg strength and stabilization of the shoulders, rounding of the shoulders, tightening of the front body, and weakening and over stretching of the back body occur. If you do this for 60 minutes or more, 3-7 times a week, you can understand how problems can arise.

I don't want to teach you how to get into chaturanga correctly, you can google that. My aim here is to educate you on the anatomy of the shoulder and to get yoga practitioners thinking about the pros and cons of teaching chaturanga. Typically, we say the shoulder is made up of 3 joints; however, I recently have learned that some anatomists say there are 5 shoulder joints, where 2 are considered "false joints". "False joints" are joints that lack the characteristics of true joints with ligaments and capsules, but they are still joints because the movements they provide play an important biomechanical role (Roy, Andre' "Rotator Cuff Disease Clinical Presentation" Medscape, June 2009). The glenohumeral joint is the articulation between the head of the humerus (arm bone) and the glenoid cavity of the scapula. It is what we consider the ball and socket joint of the arm. It allows for a lot of movement in the arm. The acromioclavicular joint is the articulation between the acromion process of the scapula and the lateral end of the clavicle (or collar bone; if you follow the collar bone towards the shoulder, the acromioclavicular joint is where it meets the top of the shoulder). The sternoclavicular joint is the articulation of the medial edge of the clavicle and the sternum (more precisely the manubrium and first costal cartilage). It is the visible part of the clavicle near the neck. This joint can aid with many scapular movements and can be raised to a 60 degree angle.

The 2 "false joints", formed primarily from the many muscles on the back and shoulder, are called the scapulothoracic joint and the subacromial joint. These joints are important in assisting many movements of the scapula and arm.

All these joints, and the muscles and ligaments that attach, commonly make up the shoulder. Keep in mind one very important point here - because the shoulder and the upper body were not designed to be weight bearing its stability has been sacrificed for mobility.

Focus on that last sentence - shoulder and upper body are not designed to be weight bearing. Yet here we are in most yoga classes bearing weight on those areas over and over again.

Let's get back to talking about chaturanga. To effectively execute chaturanga, the practitioner must have a lot of stability in their upper body. But wait, didn't we just learn that the stability has been sacrificed for mobility?

So, what do we as educated practitioners and teachers? Do we not teach this complicated posture? Do we risk shoulder health, hoping that people will get stronger and more stable before they get injured?

What do I do? I adapt. I assess every class and based on the skill level of the students, I decide whether or not to stop the class and break down chaturanga for everyone, or perhaps just quietly assist the few people that need clarification. I give people permission to skip as many chaturangas as they want. I remind them that if their form starts to waiver they should modify or skip chaturangas altogether. I work on shoulder stabilizers and core strengthening in other poses. I stress that people should pay attention to their bodies.

I do believe that chaturanga is a wonderful pose with a myriad of benefits. But I want to provide my students an understanding of their strengths and to give them the space to get stronger and more stabile. I want to enable my students to make smart decisions for their bodies each and every day, and at each and every practice.

I would love to know what you think about this controversial pose and how you handle it in your practice.

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Photo Credit: Corinne DiPietro

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