Oh, Chaturanga. My favorite misunderstood yoga posture. It's also my favorite posture to hear us Minnesotans with thick accents pronounce. It always makes me chuckle.
Chaturanga is used so frequently in the Vinyasa style of yoga, but I often find that its frequency causes students to become less mindful of their alignment and just whip through it on a quick exhalation. The most common injuries I hear about from yoga students are shoulder injuries. Not that Chaturanga is the main culprit, however, I do think it has a lot of influence on shoulder injuries.
Although there are many styles of yoga and different perspectives on alignment and form within the various yoga postures, I like to look at postures from an anatomically sustainable place. What I have to share may be very different from another teacher, but I believe that the longer yoga is around the more we get to learn about the human body and how it moves in space. We know more about the body now than we did 50, 100, 150 years ago. We also can't ignore the fact that our bodies are used every day in a very different way than they were 50, 100, 150 years ago.
With that, let's talk about Chaturanga Dandasana:
Shoulder and Elbow Relationship:
As much I as love inversions and hand balancing postures, I have to acknowledge that the anatomical structure of the shoulder joint isn't exactly ideal for hand and arm weight bearing. In brief the shoulders are mobile, weak joints. If compared to the hips they are the complete opposite. As humans we were designed to walk on our feet and use our legs hence our strong, less mobile hips. In some yoga postures we have to educate our body to now bear the weight of our body on our hands and arms. Of course it's totally possible to hold your entire bodyweight in your hands in a safe manner, but it has to be done in a way that is supportive of the structure of your shoulder joints.
In order to keep the shoulder joints happy in Chaturanga it's important to keep the heads of the shoulders in line with or higher than the elbows, especially when transitioning to Upward Facing Dog. It's quite efficient for the shoulder joints to move to Upward Facing Dog if the shoulders stay slightly higher than the elbows in Chaturanga. Continuous dropping of the shoulders below the elbows causes the shoulders to be less stable and could lead to rotator issues or injuries. No bueño.
A lot of yoga practitioners have no idea how low they're going in Chaturanga unless they're looking at their profile in a mirror or someone points it out to them. From time to time I have my students put a yoga block under their torso or shoulders and ask them to hover above the block. A reference point can make a big difference.
Elbow and Torso Relationship:
Not only do you want to keep your shoulders in line with or above your elbows, but in Chaturanga you want the elbows to hug into your torso. When the elbows wing out it, again, leads to less stability in the shoulder joints.
To get students to feel the hug of the elbows into the torso I often have them place a strap just above their elbows. The loop in the strap should be pulled tight enough so that the elbows are just outside the ribcage. When lowering into Chaturanga students get to feel the draw of the elbows inwards PLUS the strap will catch their chest and stop them from dropping too low. Bonus! Students are usually amazed when they try this trick.
If someone is unable to keep the heads of the shoulders above their elbows I just encourage them to drop to their knees. Taking some of the pressure out of the hands and into the legs will allow students to refine their alignment in a sustainable way. Same goes for students who become fatigued throughout practice. As a student gets tired alignment often becomes an afterthought. After your 50th Chaturanga it's okay to take a knee or even skip it entirely. Knowing when to modify and back off in a yoga practice will allow for you to maintain a happy and healthy practice for a long time.