March 19, 2017

The Hidden Pulling Actions in Chaturanga or The Problem is Never the Pose

Amid the growing awareness that yoga asana is not always an infallible and complete physical workout, has been a tendency to dismiss certain poses (for example: wild thing, sleeping pigeon, chaturanga) as culprits of injury.

The real culprit

In reality, the culprits of injury — no matter the physical pursuit — are excessive repetition of movement without quality of movement, and/or over-training. We know this is true in athletics, and calisthenics. You can be injured from walking if you over-do it. Yet on the yoga mat, we tend to conflate yoga asana with the completeness of yoga as a spiritual practice, and let common physical training knowledge fly out the window.

Recently I saw an article lumping chaturanga dandasana into this “Bad Pose Club” for a completely unwarranted reason.

Lack of pulling in yoga — it’s a real thing

First, a little background: yoga asana has (relatively) very little pulling actions. I wrote about this previously. It would behoove us as asana practitioners to incorporate more pulling into our physical training. As a physical therapist, I agree that there’s not pulling action in our lives if all we do is yoga (in fact, i teach aerial yoga for just this reason).

Chaturanga, one of the most frequently practiced poses of modern asana, has been accused of being a “pushing” pose — one of the culprits of the excess “pushing” action, and lack of pulling action on the mat.

Intro to Isometrics

To be clear, as an isolated, static pose, chaturanga is neither a pushing nor pulling pose. Shoulder muscles that are involved on the back of the body are crucial pulling muscles (rhomboids, mid-traps, lower traps, triceps, lats). These guys are acting like the strings to a marionette helping to hold you up.

Shoulder muscles that engage anteriorly in chaturanga (Serratus anterior, pec major and minor) function a bit like a hammock. There should be a powerfully matched muscular action front and back.

Static poses involve isometric contractions throughout your body. Isometric (iso = same, metric = measure) or holding in place. Any pose that is being sustained (or analyzed outside the context of a yoga practice) involves isometric contraction, like Popeye’s famous Biceps Bulge. If you only contract muscle on one side of a joint, the joint will move. So almost every isometric involves action from the opposing (“antagonist”) muscle to prevent the joint (or body part) from moving. 

Let’s be honest

Now that we’ve cleared up that chaturanga dandasana is neither a pulling nor pushing pose, we have to be honest. Most practitioners, most humans (dare I say) are simply not as strong posteriorly as anteriorly. The scapular stabilizers I reference above that are crucial pulling muscles are difficult for many of us to access — yogis and non-yogis alike. 

If you don’t “Consciously choose” to engage the scapular stabilizing muscles in chaturanga, and properly train and load your muscles, your chaturanga will have bad form. It will THEN belong in the “Bad Pose Club”, and you’ll be setting yourself up for injury.

This is a complex discussion, like everything we get our hands into at Yoga Anatomy Academy. Distinguishing between static / isometric and dynamic muscular action is a little bit of a cop-out. Rarely is chaturanga or any other yoga pose practiced in isolation. 

I also dislike oversimplification of ideas like “posterior chain” and a complex actions like pulling. If you really really want to geek out, the actual “Pushing vs. Pulling” muscles change with the line of pull or push depending on the angle / vector. The force (and whether the muscle is prepared for that force) depends on the weight that is being pulled. 

The problem is not chaturanga. The problem is excess repetition without quality form, and overtraining. No matter what your pursuit.

The problem is never the pose

What would you add? As always, Yoga Anatomy Academy would be delighted to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Every so often, we lead a workshop called “Chaturanga Clinic”. The next ones are scheduled for 3/26/2017 in Washington, DC and 7/23/2017 in Hampton Roads, VA. Check our events page for the latest. Sign up for our newsletter to make sure to find out about our workshops, retreats and online courses!

4 Comments on “The Hidden Pulling Actions in Chaturanga or The Problem is Never the Pose

March 22, 2017 at 12:11 pm

I would agree with this and unfortunately am physically dealing with it at the moment! I’m working on activating my serratus anterior because currently I’m feeling pain in the front of my shoulder/rotator cuff, I believe I’m putting too much weight into it.

Thanks for the great article! Additional exercises would be appreciated!

March 22, 2017 at 2:23 pm

Hi Andrea,
Any chance you can attend my workshop “Chaturanga Clinic” this Sunday in DC? It’s chock full of best practices and strength building and you walk away with a PDF showing many of the variations we practiced. If not, please see a physical therapist (I’m licensed in DC) or schedule a private yoga session with a teacher who really will know how to modify for you (I do Skype sessions as well). The shoulder is pretty complex, and you need it for life. A little investment in yourself now will help you build strength and prevent future wear and tear!

March 27, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Agreed on all points! I’m a new comer to your work and I’m loving your perspective on asana…
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the specific dynamics of how the structural position of chaturanga interacts with the effects of gravity. It seems only logical that the mechanical “bias” of horizontal length would mean that the majority of the mechanical load transfers to the anterior structures. So although the physics of “pushes” and “pulls” are far more complicated that diving the body into anterior and posterior muscle groups, it would seem to make sense that chaturanga is a predominately front body biased pose (much like salabhasana would be predominately back body biased). yes? no? maybe?!! Thank you so much for all you’re doing to elevate the practice and profession for all us yoga lovers. Shine on 🙂

March 27, 2017 at 2:18 pm

good question. As I indicated above (But will state more clearly here) the muscular actions of chaturanga depend on how you practice it. In real life, I see a lot of sloppiness and positions of flexion at the hips and glenohumeral joints, which would indeed indicate more muscle contraction anteriorly than posteriorly — due to poor form (which, when repeated, will contribute to wear and tear / injury). But think about the pose you chose to compare to chaturanga: salambasana is a position of extension of essentially all body parts. Therefore of course you are going to use muscles at the back of the body much more than the front of the body. Plus, you’ll be lifting those body parts against gravity, so the forces will be higher. You could also compare it to, say, lolasana, a position of flexion of everything except neck and elbows, where your knees are bent and feet off the floor suspended against gravity. Clearly lolasana works more front body muscles than chaturanga. Again, chaturanga — when done well — is a neutral position. In order to maintain that neutrality, your glutes have to work to balance the hip flexors, your scapular retractors and depressors have to work pretty hard to counter the pecs. For most people, this takes training of those very muscles. It is possible that the front muscles are doing 60% of the work and back muscles 40%, but we are getting into the weeds of it, rather than the essential point. Dismissing poses is frustrating to everyone, misses the real causes of injury, and does nothing to defeat the dangerous myth that yoga asana is the one and only thing our bodies need to age well.


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