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