Why It Took More Than Practice to Perfect My Chaturanga
When I️ was growing up in the ’70’s and ’80’s, the way we were taught new gymnastics stunts, such as back handsprings and handstands, was by practicing them with a spotter or on our own on a big squishy mat. The idea was that if you practiced them enough, eventually one day, you’d be able to do the skill. Unfortunately, many yoga poses are still taught with the same old-school mentality despite modern exercise science’s understanding of the importance of cross-training and regression—breaking moves down into smaller pieces and mastering those before putting them back together. Chaturanga is a perfect example.
For many yogis (myself included), practicing vinyasas until Chaturanga gets easier isn’t an option, because the pose itself causes pain (in the wrists, for me). And without adequate strength, it can also cause injury. For years, I️ almost always modified the pose by lowering my knees, which alleviated the pain—as long as I kept up my cross-training routine.
There’s a myth in the yoga world that with “proper alignment” the correct muscles activate. Tips for Chaturanga usually focus on alignment mistakes you may be making—hands too far forward or backward; shoulders dipping too low; or legs, glutes, or abs not engaging enough. While alignment does matter, unfortunately you can’t fix a strength or mobility deficiency with alignment cues. Being able to move pain-free while maintaining proper form, requires you to have the mobility to get your bones into the correct position and the strength to keep them there and support your joints as you move into and out of a pose.
It wasn’t until I started working on building upper body strength with a personal trainer that I was able to do a well-aligned Chaturanga without pain. Over the course of 4 months, I’ve progressed from bench-pressing 30 pounds to 65 pounds, with a narrow grip to target the triceps and deltoid muscles and a spotter for safety. For the first time ever, I’ve been able to do a Chaturanga without wrist pain and without collapsing my chest and hips.
This isn’t to say that I’d be able to do the dozen or so chaturangas in a vinyasa class pain-free. That would take even more practice and strength. But what I discovered is that I needed to regress the movement, to build strength in my shoulders outside of the context of this complex pose that also simultaneously loads the wrists. And I needed to use external load—resistance bands, free weights, machines—that could be incrementally increased over time to strengthen my upper body while also keeping my wrists neutral. Without external load, I only had two options, the partial weight of my body on my knees or on my toes.
A Couple of Reasons for Yogis to Consider Cross-Training
Current exercise science demonstrates the importance of cross-training, that is, taking advantage of other movement modalities to create a more well-rounded movement practice. For example, yoga is good for building upper-body pushing strength but uses the same load every time and doesn’t offer any options for pulling. By cross-training with external load, you have the ability to build strength in all directions at every joint, isolating specific muscle areas that need the most work, and decrease your risk of injury.
Exercise science evidence also shows that the best way to do that while minimizing the risk of injury is incrementally, what’s known as progressive overload. That is, building strength by gradually increasing the resistance placed on your body, above and beyond what you have previously experienced. For example, for many of my students, the heaviest thing they have ever pushed is a grocery cart or a heavy door. For them to build the strength to do a Chaturanga using progressive overload, they need to train the body by pushing something heavier than they’re used to, but probably not as heavy as half their body weight to start. Resistance bands, free weights, and machines simply offer more options.
By strengthening all the muscles that support your upper body, your Chaturanga will improve. This idea of building strength with external load can also be used to troubleshoot other yoga poses. Most of us aren’t prepared to push half our body weight away from the floor in Plank, Downward Dog, or Chaturanga, much less our full body weight in Crow Poseor Handstand.
Ultimately, you do need to practice to master a skill. However, to prevent injury, you also need to address any of your underlying weaknesses as well, which is simply easier to do using external load.
Chaturanga Strength & Mobility Self-Tests
Do you have the upper-body strength Chaturanga requires?
With a simple self-test, you can check if you have enough strength to perform a Chaturanga while maintaining stability. You’ll need access to a gym. There, see if you are able to push a little more than half of your body weight on a chest press machine.
Do you have the range of motion Chaturanga requires?
While many people don’t have the strength to do Chaturanga maintaining good alignment, many others might not have the range of motion (ROM) that the pose requires at the wrist joint. Both can result in pain.
I had sufficient passive range of motion in my wrists—we call this “flexibility”—but I struggle with active ROM—what we call “mobility.” It’s easy to force your wrists into the required position by dumping your body weight into them in Planks and arm balances, but it’s another thing altogether to be able to actively achieve that ROM with motor control, strength, and stability.
To check your own mobility in the wrists: Bring the insides of your forearms and palms together in Prayer, and then attempt to extend the wrists away from each other to make the letter T with your arms. If you have more of a letter V with your hands, then you don’t have enough active range of motion in your wrists to do Chaturanga without risking a repetitive stress injury.
3 Beginner Cross-Training Tips for Chaturanga
If you are interested in adding external load to your movement routine to build shoulder strength for Chaturanga, ideally you would start by working with a personal trainer. However, if you don’t have access to a personal trainer, my trainer Andrew Serranooffers the following tips to get you started using the chest press machine at a gym.
1. Use enough weight.
The most common mistake people make is practicing too many reps without enough weight, in order to feel the burn, Serrano says. Rather than focusing on sensation, choose a challenging weight—one where you can do 5 to 6 reps with good form but not many more.
2. Address all of your weak points.
If you can push more than half of your body weight, but you still experience wrist pain, then you might also need to work on your wrist and forearm mobility and strength. Two of the videos below show how I’ve been doing that. And Serrano says, you may also need to strengthen the rotator cuff, in addition to your pushing muscles. Try the move in the following video with a resistance band to strengthen your rotator cuff and deltoids.
3. Make sure to balance pushing with pulling.
Lastly, it is also important to practice pulling exercises to cross-train all the pushing from chest-pressing, Serrano says. Try the pulling exercise in the following video.
About Our Expert
Trina Altman, B.S., E-RYT 500, YACEP, PMA®-CPT, STOTT PILATES® certified instructor, is the creator of Yoga Deconstructed® and Pilates Deconstructed®, which both take an interdisciplinary approach to foster an embodied understanding of yoga and Pilates and their relationship to modern movement science. While at Brown University, Trina took a Kripalu yoga class which ignited her passion for the practice. Emphasizing the importance of inner focus, she teaches anatomy for yoga teacher trainings across the country. She has presented at Kripalu, PURE YOGA® NYC, Yogaworks, Cal-a-Vie Spa, SYTAR, the Yoga Alliance Leadership Conference, ECA, UCLA, and multiple yoga conferences. Her teaching fosters body cognition and self-discovery, firmly grounded in anatomical awareness. Trina works out of Los Angeles at Equinox and The Moving Joint. You can find her online classes and courses at www.trinaaltman.com