Chaturanga Is Yoga’s Everest. But How to Conquer It?

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

The Chaturanga Pose is HARD and getting this pose wrong over and over leads to frustration and rotator cuff injuries. So, it’s a good thing that you’ve found this article, because I’m going to cover everything that you need to know, and the steps you need to take to perfect your Chaturanga Dandasana.

These steps include some basic arm and shoulder exercises, that as well as being good preparation for chaturanga dandasana, also make good preparation exercises for a yoga push up.  If you can do a push-up – pushing up from the floor into a plank position, then it should be fairly easy to control yourself as you lower back down from the plank into chaturanga dandasana.

Chaturanga – four limbs (chatur – four, anga- limb)

Danda – staff (the spine, the central “staff” or support of the body)

By practicing a series of specific movements, you will in time be able to pull everything together and effortlessly use these small body motions combined with your strength to perform the perfect chaturanga dandasana.


Roll Your Arms Outwards

This first exercise might seem unrelated to chaturanga dandasana, but trust me it is absolutely vital.

In a standing position, place your hands on your belly button, your elbows will be bent. Now bring your hands forward about 6 inches.  

What you’re going to do is complete a movement that will open your arms outwards, so that your hands are pointing straight forward and your elbows are drawn into your sides.

There are two ways to do this. And one of them is the wrong way! The focus of the incorrect movement is on the elbows. Try it now, open your arms so that your elbows come to your sides and your forearms and hands are pointing straight forwards. I just want you to notice that action and how it feels.

Now let’s do this the right way.

Assume the starting position again, but this time the focus of the movement is on your upper arms, not your elbows. You’re going to roll your upper arms outwards, and this movement needs to come from your upper arms.

So isolate those muscles and use them to turn your arms out. As you do that your elbows will automatically be drawn in. Elbows follow the movement, they don’t lead it.

Repeat this movement several times and relax between each attempt.

Depending on your proficiency with yoga you may need to practice this quite a lot before you are able to control the movement with your upper arms.

This movement is key to the process, so don’t give up and don’t be tempted to skip ahead. If you can’t do this initial movement, then you won’t master chaturanga dandasana.

From there, do the same action but this time with the arms straight, try to get the same feeling. Roll your arms out and then back in. You may be able to feel a slight increase in tension in the back of your shoulder blades, and perhaps in the backs of your arms. Relax the movement, then repeat a few more times.


So what is this movement doing?


If you are doing it correctly, this movement activates the infraspinatus muscle.

The infraspinatus muscle is one of the four muscles that make up your rotator cuff, and the main function of the infraspinatus muscle is to externally rotate the humerus and stabilize the shoulder joint. The humerus is the bone in your upper arm that runs between your shoulder and your elbow.

If you do this exercise slowly and smoothly, focusing on feeling both your upper arms and the backs of your shoulder blades, you should find that you can develop a feeling for your upper arms and shoulder blades, which will guide you when you begin to go into chaturanga dandasana.

Once you are comfortable with that movement, you can move onto the second stage of this first exercise.

To move into chaturanga dandasana you’re obviously going to be on the floor and your hands won’t be hanging up in the air, they’ll be pressing down.

This movement has a slightly different effect when your hands are pressing against something and encountering resistance. When your hands are free, when you roll your arms out, your hands also move outwards. But down on the floor they will stay in the same position.

So to find some resistance without involving your body weight down on the floor, we’re going to make use of a wall.

Stand a little way back from the wall and place your hands on it. Your wrists should be a little higher than your elbows, so that your forearms angle up.

Try to lift your rib cage a little bit, and if you can, try to lift your back ribs a bit too.

Now repeat the same exercise as before. Relax your arms, lift your ribs, lengthen your neck and roll your upper arms out.  As your arms move outward you’ll notice that your elbows move in again, and then relax.

The main thing to focus on with this upper arm exercise, is that the action of rotating your arms outwards activates the muscles in your shoulder blades, which is what you’re trying to make happen.

Ignore the fact that your elbows are moving inwards, don’t put your focus there. As I said before, your elbows merely follow this activating movement.

When you use your external rotators – the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles – to cause this movement you will make the back of your shoulder joint strong, which helps your arms both when you’re pushing up and when you’re lowering down.


Pushing The Hands Downwards

The second action that you need to practice for Chaturanga dandasana, is a push forwards into your hands.


Why do this action?

This is similar to the push in downward dog. In downward dog if you press forwards into your hands they don’t move. That same action pushes your rib cage back and up.

In chaturanga dandasana, with your hands on the floor, what happens is you roll your arms out and then push your hands forwards and that will actually push your body back.

At the same time as you’re lifting up, you’ll press back with your feet. So your hands push forward, moving your body back, your feet push back, moving your body forward. And rather than be compressed, your body slowly presses upwards. So what you’re doing is using an outward push of the feet and the hands to push the body up in between them.

So now that’s explained, let’s move onto the exercise.

Again do this practice on the wall. Place your hands against the wall, forearms slightly angled upwards so the wrists are higher than your elbows.

Open up your front ribs to lift them away from your pelvis, and also try to lift your back ribs a little bit. Try to lengthen both sides of your neck.

Now roll your upper arms outward, and as you do that push upward into your hands, then relax. When you push into your hands, the direction of that force should be as though they were going to move up the wall. But you’re actually using friction to keep the hands in place.

You’ll find that as you push into your hands, your shoulders move down.

Okay, time to move onto the floor and see how that feels. You’re not going to do a push up, you’re just going transfer the movement you’ve practiced to the floor.

Get into position for the push up. Your wrists should be a little bit ahead of your elbows.

Lift your front ribs away from your pelvis, back ribs too if you can. Lengthen your neck. Roll your upper arms outward, so your elbows move in. Keep your shoulders relaxed and push forwards into your hands.

You’ll feel your shoulders move back. Don’t try to lift your pelvis, keep your pelvis on the floor. Just focus on your ribs.

So to run through this again. Hands on the floor, wrists slightly ahead, lift your head and lengthen your neck, then draw your front ribs away from your pelvis, back ribs away if you can, keep your neck long. Roll your upper arms outwards and feel your shoulder blade muscles activating.

Keep your lower legs relaxed, push into your hands forwards against the floor so that your shoulders move back and down towards your pelvis, then relax.

Practice this movement several times.


Let’s check what you should be doing with your feet

Just lie flat with your arms relaxed on the floor by your sides. Position your feet so your ankles are hinged and your toes are pointing down and pressing into the floor.

From that position lift your knees slowly, focus on your knees leaving the floor and  focus on feeling your feet pressing down. Your thighs will lift up, now press into your feet a little more to lift your pelvis and lower abdomen. Then relax.
practice this movement a few times (or many times) until you’re comfortable with it.


Now put both parts together

Assume your starting position, lengthen your neck, move your ribs forward
away from your pelvis, roll your upper arms out, push forward into your hands and feel your body move back. Push into your feet to lift your knees and your hips, push further into your feet so your body moves forward, then relax. Keep practicing until you’ve got this move down.


Spreading Your shoulder Blades

The purpose of this exercise is to teach you how to stabilize your shoulder blades relative to your ribcage. By stabilizing your shoulder blades you give the muscles of your arms and shoulders a firm foundation to work from.

The key muscle that you’re going to use for this is your serratus anterior muscle. This muscle attaches to the inside edges of your shoulder blades and extends forward where it attaches to the sides of the ribcage.

When the serratus anterior muscles contract, they spread the shoulder blades, moving the inside edges of the shoulder blades away from the spine and away from each other.

The basic action here, is to activate the shoulder blades, so that when you push up into Chaturanga dandasana, (or into a full plank position with your elbows straight), the serratus anterior spreads the shoulder blades. And as you lower down from plank to chaturanga dandasana, or all the way down to the floor, these muscles resist the shoulder blades moving together.

They’re still active and instead of the shoulder blades collapsing inwards, the serratus anterior muscles gradually reduce their contraction and allow the shoulder blades to slowly move back together.  


How To Activate The Serratus Anterior

The first step (and this is important for beginners, particularly if you don’t have much shoulder awareness), is to practice moving the shoulders forwards and backwards, without jerking them.

So on your knees, get comfortable and just use a slow smooth movement, there should be no change in the shape of your rib cage. Lift the front ribs and back ribs if you can, try to keep your ribcage still and then move your shoulders forwards and back, then relax.

Repeat that exercise to the point where you can do it comfortably, without your ribcage moving and sinking down as you move your shoulders.

The next step is to focus on feeling the inside edges of your shoulder blades spreading apart. As you move your shoulders forward see if you can isolate that feeling as your shoulder blades spread apart. Lift your ribs and keep them lifted, move your shoulders forwards, feel your shoulder blades spreading and then relax.

We’re going to change your focus for this exercise now. Instead of moving your shoulders forwards, focus on spreading your shoulder blades and in particular the inside edges of the shoulder blades.

Since the inside edges of your shoulder blades are where the serratus anterior muscles attach to, if you focus on moving those inside edges, you are more likely to activate the serratus anterior which will stabilize your shoulder blades relative to your ribcage.

To do this, lengthen your neck, and try to feel those inner edges of your shoulder blades, spread your shoulder blades and then relax. Keep doing this until it’s a familiar and natural movement. And just like the way your elbows followed the upper arm roll out earlier, your shoulders will move forward following the movement from your serratus anterior muscles.

If you don’t have a lot of experience of moving your shoulders independently of your rib cage and you’re finding it difficult to isolate those muscles and feel what’s going on, then you can try an exercise with some yoga blocks. If you don’t have yoga blocks, you can use some books or magazines.

Lie with your chest on the floor and rest the front of your shoulders on the blocks.
The repeat the same spreading action as before. Keep your neck long, spread your shoulder blades, as you do your shoulders press down and your rib cage lifts up a little, and then relax.

Now you can practice lifting up from the floor into chaturanga dandasana without lifting your pelvis. You just want to focus on your upper arms.

Get into your starting position on the floor. Set up your arms so that your wrists are slightly ahead of your elbows. Lengthen your neck, open your chest, roll your upper arms out, remember to push forwards into your hands, and then from there, keep your elbows rigid and spread your shoulder blades and then relax.

When you’re comfortable with that movement, press a little harder into your hands and lift your ribcage, then slowly lower.

If you like, you can add your legs in now. Lengthen your neck, open your ribs moving them away from your pelvis, roll your upper arms out and press forward into your hands. Then lift your knees and your hips, press back into your feet, and then from there spread your shoulder blades and relax. Repeat a few times.

Once you’ve got those basic actions, particularly the arm motion, you can work towards a full chaturanga dandasana.

Down on the floor, get into position with your wrists slightly ahead of your shoulders. Lengthen your neck, move your ribcage away from your pelvis, roll your upper arms outwards, push forwards into your hands, spread your shoulder blades and let your ribcage come up. Lift your hips and your knees, press back into your toes and then lower down, relax and repeat.

Once you have mastered that, put it all together. Set up your arms, extend your neck, open your rib cage, then in a combined motion, arms roll out as you press into your hands and toes, lift up and lower.

Getting your chaturanga dandasana right will take a lot of practice, but these muscle isolating exercises will get you there if you follow the steps properly. It’s difficult to move body parts in a new way and it’s difficult to feel the action of muscles that have been under-utilized in these motions. The key, as with everything worthwhile is to persevere and practice.

These exercises and steps will allow you to push up in chaturanga dandasana from the floor or lower down into it from a full plank without causing any injuries.

Good luck!

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.