How to develop a solid Chaturanga for yoga
Chaturanga Dandasana aka the yoga push-up or low plank, is that elusive yoga move that beginner yogis feel they’re never going to be able to do. Believe me, I’ve been there. I remember the first time I tried lowering through plank into Upward Facing Dog several years ago. I had zero shoulder or arm strength and no idea what parts of my body I needed to activate in order to get up into the pose, stabilise and balance in it. And sure enough, I sunk in my belly and shoulders because I didn’t have enough core or upper body strength. How was I ever going to move towards more advanced poses such as arm balances?!
Over the past few years, I have been able to kick up into arm balances such as forearm balance / pincha mayurasana and hold them without dumping into my lower back, without sinking in my shoulders, without face planting the floor. All of this comes after 3 years of regular practice, and building up my strength through the yoga basics (see what I’m getting at!) If you have a perfect and consistent chaturanga, you will be able to hold various arm balances, because a strong chaturanga is the foundation of arm balances such as handstand, pincha mayurasana, crow pose and all of the rest.
Here are my 5 top tips on how to develop a solid chaturanga…
Elbows hugging into the sides: when I’m teaching, I see so many students lowering down through chaturanga when they haven’t built up the strength to maintain the correct form. Most students who are new to yoga wing their elbows out to the sides and do a wide-arm press-up to lower down. This definitely won’t help build your tricep muscles!
Try these drills: from plank, slowly lower down and keep your elbows tightly connected to your sides as you do so, then push back up, lower, push back up. Repeat this drill again and again until you start to build strength in the triceps and shoulders. If you aren’t strong enough to lower down without your knees on the floor, then drop the knees down, lean your bodyweight forwards, hug the elbows in to the sides and then lower (also called knees chest chin). Rinse and repeat.
Shoulders in line with elbows: the key to arm balances is shoulder strength, as with all arm balances you are essentially holding yourself up with your arms and shoulders. You need to be able to hold a plank position with your shoulders in line with your elbows, and maintain this as you bend your elbows and lower all the way down through chaturanga. Again, repeating the drills above with this tip in mind will help you get there, and this is how I’ve personally built up strength in my shoulders. Keep hugging your shoulders into the midline (meaning: squeeze your shoulder blades together) to keep the shoulders active as you lower. Shoulder strength takes a little while to develop, so the key really is to practise chaturanga consistently. Use two blocks tall side up underneath your shoulders to help you to lower down without dipping the chest too low, and practise again and again!
Core strength and stability: core strength is something that came a little easier to me than the shoulder and arm strength, probably from years of doing more sit-ups than press ups. However, in arm balances I still struggle to locate and control my core when I’m upside down! What is core strength and stability anyway? It’s not just being able to do as many sit ups as you can. Core strength is a deep activation of the innermost abdominal muscles. Yes, you need strong abdominals, but you also need core stability to be able to hold strength poses and arm balances, and transition between poses. You can have a crazy strong core, but if you don’t know how to keep it stable you will never move from arm balance to arm balance with ease. Practise those chaturanga drills while keeping your core absolutely stable. To help, have someone push down on your back while you’re in plank, and resist this by pushing your spine up into their hand.
How to breathe: ultimately the most important part of arm balances, because without breathing properly in poses, you create more tension. Exhaling deeply as you lower down through chaturanga will help you to engage the abdominals, as when you exhale your abdominals naturally contract. Not only will this make the lower down much easier (have you ever tried lowering down on an inhale? Not fun!), but you will naturally take an inhale in upward facing dogif you've exhaled as you lower down. Think exhale to lower down through plank chaturanga, inhale to press back up into plank.