As many of you already know (I've mentioned it in this blog before) as a teacher I am dedicated to specificity and alignment. Part of what I love about Vinyasa Flow is that when aligned correctly, the flow or linking of poses can move seamlessly from one to the next. Essentially the alignment of one pose can help to inform and create the appropriate alignment for the next pose.
As I wrote in my last entry, Sun Salutation A is a mainstay in many a Flow classes. And the Plank, Chaturanga, Up Dog, Down Dog series found within that sequence is one that gets repeated again and again throughout a Flow class - usually called out as a Vinyasa (which isn't completely correct, literally speaking, a "Vinyasa" indicates linking breath with movement, so any two or more poses that are linked with an inhale, exhale etc is a Vinyasa... but I digress) because this sequence is repeated again and again in a Flow class, the alignment of it needs to be impeccable in order to build the appropriate strength and suppleness it offers and to avoid injury.
Most injuries in yoga stem from repetitive stress rather than blunt force. So that sloppy Chaturanga done a few dozen times or hundred times can be cause for a sore shoulder or even worse a torn rotator cuff.
The beauty of Surya Namaskar A is that if the first pose is well aligned, the rest tend to be better aligned as well. So the alignment of Chaturanga can be derived from the correct alignment of plank.
Plank: (cat while helpful, not necessary) Place the hands shoulder width distance apart, fingers spread open with every finger and knuckle joint planted evenly. Align shoulders slightly ahead of the wrist creases (about half an inch). Plant down through the balls of each foot and reach back through the heels strongly (ball of the foot is the protrusion just above the arch of the foot and below the toes). Lift through the hips and thighs as you drop the tail bone heavily between the legs.
Chaturanga is plank but with the elbows squeezed into the midline and bent to a 90 degree angle. For many students the strength this pose requires eludes them and things start to go south. Rather than suffering through a haphazard and potentially injurious Chaturanga, here are a few ways to modify this powerhouse of a pose. These modifications will help you build strength in a measured way without inadvertently injuring yourself in the process.
Knees down with blocks: A standard yoga block on the highest height is one of my favorite tactics to teach students about the correct position of the shoulder/upper arm in Chaturanga. While we are not all the same height, most of our forearms are about the same length, so the highest height of the yoga block should catch you right where you are meant to be caught in low push-up... with your elbow at a 90 degree angle, shoulders in line with elbows and elbows over your wrists. Tapping the knees down in this pose lessens the amount of weight you are having to support which allows you to lower down with more control, thus building strength in a safe and appropriate way.
Set up in plank with two yoga blocks on the highest height shoulder width distance apart and about an inch in front of your hands. From plank, keep the tail heavy and the shoulders ahead of the wrists slightly then simply tap the knees to the floor (be sure when you do this you don't move the knees closer in towards the hands and continue to keep the shoulders ahead of the wrists, thighs lifted and the tailbone heavy). Keeping the elbows squeezed in towards the midline of the body and the low belly drawing in and up, on an exhale start to bend the elbows until the shoulders lightly tap the blocks.
Straight legs with blocks: Set up in plank with two yoga blocks on the highest height shoulder width distance apart and about an inch in front of your hands. Align the shoulders ahead of the wrists about a half an inch and firmly plant the balls of the feet into the floor. Thighs lift so that the hips are about as high as the shoulders but drop the tailbone heavily between the legs so the low belly feels taut. Keep the actions of the thighs, feet and tailbone as you exhale bend the elbows. Squeeze the elbows in towards the midline of the body, so the upper arms graze your sides. Have the blocks catch you at elbow height. All of the actions in the thighs, feet and tailbone should be the same as when you were in plank.
PS. If your pelvis hits the floor by the time your shoulders hit the blocks, you probably need to walk your feet a little closer to your hands and really commit to the thigh lifting, heel reaching back actions as you are lowering.
If your shoulders hit the blocks but your butt got left up where it started in plank, usually you need to drop the tailbone more and think of lowering your body as one straight line rather than "diving" forward with just the shoulders and chest.
Once you've gotten the hang of practicing with blocks you can try moving them off to the sides of your mat so you can still see them as you're lowering but they won't be there to actually catch you, allowing you to hone your proprioception so you can begin to consistently catch yourself in Chaturanga.
Yoga Teacher based in Boston, MA. Teacher of Yoga Teachers. Committed to teaching anatomical, alignment & action based yoga asana that is rooted in mindfulness, skillfulness, & specificity.