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.
Aug 2019 edit. Check out this quote from Dr. Shante Cofield saying basically the same thing: “I really don’t think there is such thing as a bad movement. I do however think there are movements that your body is not prepared for, and other movements that your body, given your specific anthropometrics [the specific measurements and proportions of one’s body, editor’s note], will never be able to do. I’m far less concerned with arm balances than I am with feats of extreme flexibility. Go slowly, build the foundation, layer the sexy stuff on top, and make sure you have fun.”
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 7/23/2017 in Hampton Roads, VA and 9/16/2017 in Washington, DC. 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!
18 Comments on “The Hidden Pulling Actions in Chaturanga or The Problem is Never the Pose”
AndreaMarch 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!
DrFosterMarch 22, 2017 at 2:23 pm
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!
JuliaMarch 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 🙂
DrFosterMarch 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.
EmmaApril 25, 2017 at 6:21 am
I completely agree that Chaturanga is neither a pulling or pushing pose and that muscular action should be EQUAL anteriorly and posteriorly.
But I tend to notice in high plank that students have NEITHER! The scapula are ‘over retracting’ if that’s even a thing?! And the chest is completing collapsing towards the floor which completely bypasses any engagement of the rhomboids. Yes the rhomboids serve to retract the scapula but there has to be some element of muscular engagement here so the rhomboids are retracting the scapula to the appropriate amount, hence why I think the focus is more on engaging the serratus anterior which helps find that balance.
Hope that makes sense!
DrFosterApril 25, 2017 at 10:34 am
I get it — I, too, see people “hanging” in their shoulders. If verbal cuing doesn’t work, That becomes a signal for me to head over to those students, place my hand on their upper back and say “push into my hand”. That will turn on serratus anterior. Occasionally someone will also have their head drooping in plank, and I’ll place my hand on the top of their head, and say “push into my hand” which will generally turn on a whole host of muscles to create more central stability throughout their body. That’s why students need yoga teachers 😉
EmmaApril 25, 2017 at 10:39 am
Yes – I do the same! ‘Puff/push your upper back into my hand’ it’s a fab cue! And that plumbline from the crown of the head to the heels also! (or knees if people are dropping the knees first before lowering)
Joey GottliebMay 2, 2017 at 6:29 pm
This is awesome! So great to see this broken down and also addressing the critical component of US! What’s our role in the pose and what can we do to craft a pose that works for us? Love the idea of finding neutrality in neutral poses and engaging appropriately in poses that have strong push/pull, forward/backward emphasis. I think it’s also important to consider how we offer modifications for unique bodies and conditions. We’d want to emphasize back body engagement for someone who comes in with severe kyphosis and forward head posture and the reverse for one of those “hangers,” right? And then a myriad of other options too… haha!
DrFosterMay 14, 2017 at 2:19 pm
YasminJuly 4, 2017 at 7:43 am
I totally agree and am all for efficiency and efficacy. I like how you explain push/pull and bring clarity to what is isometric. I went from pure Biomechanics, to Somatic and wow what a shift. Sensing helps to re-pattern, focusing less on thinking about individual muscles but exploring the bone rhythms of the body. How when you initiate movement from one part the rest of the body responds.. I began to explore low load, releasing restriction if needed and reconnecting disconnection. Especially around the shoulder girdle. Creating pre-yoga beginner movements before even modifying or attempting poses like Chaturanga. Re-patterning Neural pathways in low load made transitioning to high load, effortless. Thank you for sharing. A reminder for me on the importance of biomechanics.
DrFosterJuly 13, 2017 at 12:09 am
yep, that’s what I do in my “Chaturanga Clinic” workshops! Love the way you state this!
Sushil BirlaOctober 15, 2017 at 1:21 pm
Joey and Yasmin struck the right chords … customization of the development sequence to the initial state of the body …
Yasmin breaks it down nicely for me … start with low load … remove restrictions …
Over and above teachers’ observations that the posterior is weaker in most people, add the weakening effect of crippling injury.
My 2 cents: Controlled Lowering of the body from the plank position should be working the posterior – the antagonists… if lowering correctly … that is how I was taught Dandasana.
KristyMarch 4, 2019 at 8:14 am
I felt something when I was going down in Chaturanga yesterday, like my elbow needed to pop, then felt pain from my elbow to shoulder. It didn’t really bother me in class after that, but when I got home I realized if I try to bend my arm all the way, I can’t, and it hurts on the inside around my antecubital area and inner lower bicep, feels stiff and swollen, but doesn’t look swollen, feels like I need to pop it and can’t, and radiates into my outer shoulder on flexing and shoulder makes a popping sound if I move it in circular motion. Any idea what this could be?
On a side note, I’m in very good shape, but 47 and going through menopause, and I can tell with decreased estrogen levels my joints are more vulnerable.
DrFosterMarch 4, 2019 at 2:42 pm
my advice would be to see a physical therapist ASAP. Make sure they also check out neural tension and neck. Best wishes and quick healing!
EmmaMay 17, 2019 at 9:15 am
Hi, I know it’s an old thread but have just come across it. I have been practicing chaturanga for a while now working on the posture and techniques and every now and again just getting to the the bottom of the movement something on the left side of my back( possibly around the area of the QL) gives way/is suddenly painful and I have to come out of it. Would you have any idea on what could be causing this? Thanks!
DrFosterMay 17, 2019 at 6:13 pm
I’m not able to answer individual medical questions here, but please see a physical therapist to get it checked out!
Johanne ChristophersenMarch 11, 2020 at 12:05 pm
When your body is asked to perform a function that requires strength, you will tend to recruit the strongest muscles to do the job, instead of using all the appropriate muscles in a more balanced action. In Chaturanga, if you try to do the full pose before achieving enough balanced strength in your upper body, the powerful muscles at the front of your arms and chest will heroically try to create the pose. Your upper arms will rotate far forward toward the floor, your elbows will splay out because you ve lost muscle tone at the inner edges of your shoulder blades, your organs will hang heavily, and the muscular actions throughout your entire body will lack balance. You ll tend to lift your pelvis away from the floor to try to support the pose because the muscles in your upper body are not working in a balanced way. The pose will look and feel heavy, dense, and extremely difficult. Doing the pose in this way is a perfect setup for straining the tendons that attach the muscles in the front of your arms and chest to the bones. The weaker you are in your back body, the more likely this will happen. The next step in your journey toward Chaturanga Dandasana is to begin bearing more weight. However, if you are especially weak in your upper body or you are recovering from injuries, I recommend some preparatory nonyoga movements. You should never continue to practice Chaturanga Dandasana if you are experiencing pain around your shoulder joints. Such pain is a sign you have probably strained the muscles and created an inflammation of the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones. When the action of your muscles is not balanced and one muscle is overworking, that muscle attachment can pull off the bone slightly, creating a strain injury. Practicing Chaturanga under these conditions will inevitably make the pain worse and prevent the injury from healing.
DrFosterMarch 11, 2020 at 3:30 pm
Thank you. I’m generally in agreement with everything you wrote. FYI some of my views have changed since I wrote this blog post. However, I’ve always been of the mind-set that Chaturanga is an advanced pose, meaning: there are certain strength pre-requisites that are major, which you cannot gain by simply doing Chaturanga (without a high likelihood of creating muscle imbalances or injury). Thanks for sharing.