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!