Should We Practice Chaturanga? by Kathryn Bruni Young

Should We Practice Chaturanga? by Kathryn Bruni Young

Kathryn is the founder of Mindful Strength, the host of the Mindful Strength Podcast, an international teacher and a creative thinker in the field of yoga and movement. With over a decade of teaching experience, Kathryn has a passion for helping people feel strong and confident in their bodies and helping teachers elevate their teaching strategies.

Chaturanga (or a half push-up for the non-yogis) has been the topic of much discussion over the last five years as the rise of yoga injuries has come into the mainstream. Many yogis have suffered shoulder injuries, and we have begun to look at what we have been doing in our postural yoga practice. I think my first question here is does it make more sense to look at what we have been doing (chaturanga and specific alignment) and debate over it, or do we also have to look at what we haven’t been doing?

Is chaturanga unsafe, or were we just vastly unprepared to practice it? Should we cut it out, or should we work on our shoulders?

I think it’s important to say that of course, no one has to do any movements they don’t want to do. No one is a better or worse human if they don’t want to do a few push-ups. If you want to forget about chaturanga all together that is your choice. But if you want to practice this tricky pose I have some good ideas for you.

I also want to say that if chaturanga is hard for you it’s probably because no one has taught you a really effective strength development strategy.

When I grew up doing ashtanga yoga the message around progressing usually centred around “do your practice and all is coming”. If you can’t do a movement today don’t worry about it, you can come back to your practice tomorrow and try again. On the one hand, this is helpful, it means that practice is a process and that it’s not about getting anywhere fast. On the other hand, this mentality towards practice doesn’t address progressive loading, deloading when necessary or a well-balanced approach to movement. When I look back I now understand why everything was such a slow progression, why it took some people years to feel comfortable in movements like chaturanga. I can also start to see why poses like chaturanga have been demonized in many progressive yoga circles.

As I travel to studios around the world a common thread comes up, teachers and participants want to make their classes safer. I’ve found that many people have removed chaturanga from their practice because they don’t know what else to do.

Being able to control your body weight as it moves towards the floor is a great skill to feel comfortable with. It will help us with day-to-day tasks, and being more at ease when we are on the floor especially as we age. Weight-bearing movement for the upper body is also an important part of maintaining bone mass in the wrists, shoulders, spine and ribs.

A few months ago my colleague Jenni Rawlings posted a question to the community that I’m sure got her a lot of comments! “Is chaturanga a bad pose, or are we just really bad at doing it?” This brings me to my next thought, if we are strong and controlled through a movement that we have been adequately prepared for, is that movement unsafe or dysfunctional? In my opinion, no. If we are practising a pose or movement that we are not strong and stable in, that we have not been adequately prepared for could it be unsafe or dysfunctional? In my opinion, yes, it could be.

So if we agree that chaturanga is a part of yogi life, and that controlling our body weight up and down from the floor is a nice thing to be able to do, how do we put all of this into practice?

There are a couple of key concepts that have to be addressed, first of all, the body needs the right amount of load to adapt and progress. Too much load = potential for injury, not enough load = tissues don’t get stronger. If the loads we apply to the body overwhelm our tissues capacity we can start to run into problems.

Secondly, no one really get’s stronger practising at their max. Weightlifters know this, which is why they only max out once a week (at the most, and probably only if they are at a high competition level). When I look at how yogis have been practicing push-ups or chaturanga I see that we are basically going to our max every time we practice, it’s no wonder we are having a hard time.

If we want to develop strength we have to train between 60-90% of our max more often. This means we have to be practicing in the range of 6-8 chaturagas or push-ups at a time. I know what you are thinking, I can’t do 8 chaturagas in a row! Don’t worry, I know. In my opinion, if you can’t get through 6 push-ups or chaturangas in a row you are likely training with too much weight and you have to learn to drop the weight (no I don’t mean weight loss) so that you will be better situated in your working range (60-90%) as opposed to going to your max every time. Let’s take a moment and just digest that a bit.

Deload Your Movements

How do we deload the movement so that we can be more in our working range? The incline push-up is a great way to modify the load without modifying the position. It’s exactly the same movement but instead of having your hands on the floor, place your hands on the side of your couch, countertop or wall. This will take some of the weight off your movement, which will allow you to practice more repetitions while feeling more in control of your movement. This is a great way to start working on the strength that is required for chaturanga.

Pull

My second tip to improve your chaturanga is start doing some pulling. Pulling will probably make everything in your upper body stronger, especially if you haven’t done any pulling in a while. Bent over row with a kettlebell, or pulling on a resistance band are both nice ways to start getting some pulling in. When we look at a push-up we see that the shoulder blades move (hopefully) from protraction at the top of the plank to retraction at the bottom of the push-up. If you haven’t been engaging in some pulling activities retraction will likely be hard, and you will probably be lacking some of the basic strength your shoulders need to practice these movements with efficiency.

Accessory Work

When I first started working with a personal trainer he added rotator cuff and lower trap exercises to my programs, and at first, I didn’t know why. He explained that accessory work would help my shoulders get stronger regardless of what I wanted to do with them, from throwing a ball to floating into handstands. I find that these accessory exercises can also help to balance out the tension in the upper body, which is a great way to maintain mobility and decrease neck tension and upper trap tension.

Novel Movements

Trying different things will help us adapt in new ways and allow us to have new experiences in our bodies. There are always new ways to move and as long as you aren’t trying to lift loads that are too heavy there are many ways to complement your practice. This mini-clip will give you some new ideas for developing your upper body strength.

Alignment

Alignment is such a hot topic, and it is a major part of the chaturanga debate. Do we lean forwards on to the tips of our toes before we lower down? Do the elbows have to hug in towards our ribs? Do the elbows have to end up at 90 degrees? Do we only go half way down? There’s a lot here.

I don’t think that the 90-degree bend is reasonable or effective for developing a strong push, so I let that one go right away. I recommend not leaning forwards onto the tips of the toes and rather going straight down, I find people end up in a better position at the bottom when they practice this way. The length of the arms will change this for certain people, but generally, I find that if people lower right down without worrying about the 90-degree bend most people end up in a stronger position. I don’t think the elbows have to hug the ribs, I think there has to be some wiggle room here. And yes, I recommend going right down to the floor and if you really want to work on your strength push back up.

Once we have the strength and control to manage chaturanga I think it is reasonable to practice it in whatever way you want. I think when we remove the movement altogether because it is hard we might have a tendency to give up on our upper body strength. My hope for this work is that we will be able to see what strength training has to offer and use it to help us in our yoga practice, whatever that might look like.

Thank you for sharing,

Kathryn Bruni Young

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