Monday, December 7, 2015

How to Avoid Shoulder Injury While Doing Chaturanga Dandasana

By Janine L. Agoglia

Yoga can sometimes get a bad rap for causing shoulder injuries. The main reason for shoulder injury in yoga is repeatedly doing Chaturanga Dandasana incorrectly. When done with proper alignment, Chaturanga, or Low Push Up, is a great pose for core and whole body strengthening. It is an important and frequently done pose in the Vinyasa and Ashtanga practices, but many instructors, due to the nature of flow styles of yoga, don't spend enough time teaching students to do it properly, which results in many injured shoulders. One of my personal missions as a yoga instructor is to make sure all of my students fully understand how to do Chaturanga, both to understand how to use their bodies efficiently and to reduce the possibility of injury.

I often joke in class that "Chaturanga Dandasana" does not mean "Collapse to the floor before Upward Dog,"  rather it translates from Sanskrit as "Four Pointed Staff Pose." This is important, because it is the repeated collapse that leads to shoulder injury. Many students who lack the strength will just fall to the floor (hoping nobody is watching) and then come up into Upward Facing Dog as if Chaturanga never happened. Chaturanga can strike fear in the hearts of many yogis, but when you learn to do it correctly it is an amazing, powerful pose.

The good news is that there are many ways to modify this pose so that you can practice it safely and build strength over time. One way is to lower your knees to the floor so that you have a shorter lever and don't need to support as much weight. At your lowest point, the shoulders should be level with your elbows (see photo #3 below), but until you develop the strength in your core and upper back, you don't need to go that low. You can bend your elbows half an inch and still be doing a great Chaturanga, provided that you are using your upper back and not shrugging your shoulders.

How To:

Chaturanga is basically Plank Pose with bent elbows. Ideally there is no bend at the waist or the neck, only at the elbows.

Start in Plank pose with knees either on the floor behind the hips (photo #1) or off the floor in a straight line from the shoulders to the heels (photo #2). Shift your weight forward as you bend your elbows, with your elbows pointing toward your heels. Your chest moves
forward and your shoulder blades move toward your your waist. This is key. If your shoulders shrug, you lose connection to your larger back muscles and you risk shoulder injury. Keeping your shoulder blades depressed prevents the weight of the pose from falling into the shoulder joint. Your upper back muscles (especially the Latissimus Dorsi) are much larger and stronger than the smaller arm muscles (deltoids, rotator cuff muscles) so if you engage the larger muscles, it is much more efficient. The forward movement of the chest places the shoulder joint in front of the elbow joint, creating the proper pose alignment, but it is crucial to move the shoulder blades in the
opposite direction. Make sure to also use your legs so that the upper body isn't doing all the work. As your chest moves forward reach your heels backward, lift your thighs upward (without hinging at the pelvis) and squeeze your glutes. If your knees are on the ground, still think of lifting your thighs, but not by bending at the pelvis; instead think of your whole body hinging at the knees and moving forward and down as a unit. Engage your abdominals by squeezing your ribs toward your hips. In the end there should be one long line from the top of your head through your heels (photo #3).

Using Props:

Get a strap and a block. Place the strap around your upper arms, just above the elbow crease and place the block about 18" (give or take)in front of your fingers. Start in plank and move forward into Chaturanga so that your lower ribs are resting on the strap and your forehead rests on the block (photo #4). For women the strap should be below the breasts. This position requires less upper body effort so that you can feel your alignment and find your shoulder blades so that you can engage your upper back muscles without needing to hold yourself up. Stay for 5-10 breaths. Make sure you are using your legs to help you lift as well.

It is much better to to have proper alignment than to get as low as possible. This pose is about strengthening so if you are not using your muscles properly, you will most likely end up injured. It is much better to take the "less is more" approach here.  Modify with your knees on the floor and a slight bend in the elbows until you develop the strength to perform the full pose. Remember, yoga is not about finding the perfect pose, it is about being in the moment in your body. Safety is important, as is relinquishing the struggle. Enjoy the journey.

Janine L. Agoglia has been teaching Vinyasa yoga since 1998. Her yoga journey started in 1995 with Iyengar Yoga and she discovered Vinyasa yoga in 1997. The combination of breath with proper body alignment is what fuels Janine's practice and the classes that she teaches. She believes that yoga should be safe as well as challenging, creative and fun. She always emphasizes proper alignment within the flow, as well as focus, breath and humor to help students find the balance between strength and ease. Deepening one’s physical awareness helps one strengthen his/her spiritual awareness and mind-body connection. Janine loves being able to help people deepen their own practices, finding yoga in everyday life on and off the mat. Her DVD, “Vinyasa Yoga for Regular People” is available for purchase at the front desk at Lumina Mind Body Studios in Wayland, MA.

In addition to being the Co-Director of Yoga and teaching yoga classes at Lumina Mind Body Studios, Janine is also a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist who practices at Integrative Therapeutics in Natick, MA.

To contact Janine, please email or visit her website,