Chaturanga Dandasana, sometimes called Low Push-Up, is one of the most difficult poses to actually get right. Now, I hate to talk about “getting a pose right” in yoga, because one of my own personal mantras is that in yoga, we aren’t striking a pose, we’re working the pose. So the idea that there is a “getting it right” in Chaturanga is somewhat antithetical to my normal way of thinking about asanas. In this particular case, however, I think it is actually important to be a stickler about proper alignment and form. I’ve personally caused a great deal of unnecessary pain in my elbows and wrists by doing Chaturanga (and Up Dog, I suspect) incorrectly. For well over a month, I was practically unable to do any yoga, and experienced a shooting pain from my right wrist all the way up to my elbow. The pain was so bad, in fact, that I really feared that I had suffered some kind of permanent nerve damage. Fortunately, whatever was busted in my arm/wrist/elbow eventually healed, but the experience sure scared the hell out of me. After going through such an ordeal, I really think it’s a shame that more teachers don’t nag their students about maintaining better form in Chaturanga.
Poor form in Chaturanga resonates throughout the entire rest of your practice, I’ve found, increasing the risk of injuring yourself in other demanding poses. For instance, if you are not attentive to the positioning of your elbows and wrists in Chaturanga, this usually translates into sloppy form in poses like Bakasana, Eka Pada Koundinyasana II, Handstand, and so on. In arm balances and inversions, if you allow your elbows to fly out, you can put an incredible amount of stress on the wrist joint, especially on the outside edge.
Doing Chaturanga correctly, then, helps protect the wrists, elbows, and shoulders in at least two way. (1) It helps to promote good form in other poses where the elbows are bent (or where the elbows are straight but have a tendency to bend). (2) It helps to build the muscles that are necessary to do more difficult arm balances correctly. Also, more generally, by really focusing on good alignment in a basic pose like Chaturanga, and coming to appreciate the subtleties of the asana, you tend to develop an overall increase in your body awareness, which translates to all the other asanas, not just arm balances.
So what’s the difference between doing it right and doing it wrong?
Here’s a picture of how not to do Chaturanga. Notice how my elbow is not directly above the wrist, but well behind it.
Here’s another picture of how not to do Chaturanga. Notice how my elbows are flying out to the sides, instead of going straight back.
Here’s a picture of a better (but certainly not perfect) way to do Chaturanga.
Notice that my elbow is situated directly above the wrist, and that my arm bends to form a perfect 90 degree angle — no more, no less. This means that any pressure on my wrist is coming down on it perpendicularly, which is much easier on the wrist than if the pressure were to come down on it at an angle, exactly what is happening in the first picture above where my elbow is situated behind my wrist instead of directly above it.
One reason I think that people do Chaturanga in such mangled ways is that, quite frankly, Chaturanga is a really hard pose. It’s difficult for many people to accept that they just can’t do it, or that they may not have the strength necessary to do Chaturanga safely and correctly in every vinyasa. Especially for people like me who have been practicing yoga for a long time, there is a tendency to think of certain poses as being conquered, as if we can put a check in the box next to “Chaturanga” on some master list of asanas. But this is just not the case. We never conquer any of the yoga poses; at least I’m not able to. And now that I’ve learned to swallow my own pride a little bit, I find myself either skipping Vinyasas in class, or skipping the Chaturanga/Up Dog part of the Vinyasa and, instead, lowering all the way to my stomach and taking a Low Cobra. When I take these options, I do so usually later in the flow when I’m feeling particularly spent in my arms.
What it boils down to is this. Instead of doing a bad — and unsafe — rendition of Chaturanga, I’d rather skip it and preserve my wrists and elbows. When I’m 60 years old, I still want to be able to kick up into a Handstand in the middle of my Sun Salutations, but I know I won’t be able to if I let my youthful pride get the best of me and I blow out my wrists and/or elbows in the next few years doing bad Chaturangas and Up Dogs over and over.
Disclaimer: I am not a certified yoga instructor, and the ideas and opinions expressed here are not intended to be formal instruction on yoga poses. If you plan to start up a yoga practice, or if you have one and plan to do any of the yoga poses described in this blog, please seek out an experienced, living, breathing yoga teacher to guide you with hands-on instruction.