Chaturanga Dandasana Tutorial: How to Save Your Shoulders

Going Deep on One of Yoga's Toughest Poses

Chaturanga dandasana is one of yoga's most challenging postures, so it's startling how often it's introduced to yoga beginners with only the slightest bit of instruction and no real discussion of the dos and don'ts that make a huge difference in preventing shoulder injury. I know this because, after years of doing the pose the way I was originally taught, I found myself in physical therapy for rotator cuff tendonitis.

When I was able to return to my full practice, I had to rebuild chaturanga from the ground up in a way that made sense for my body and was sustainable for a lifetime of yoga. One of the best things I did was attend a shoulder workshop taught by Tiffany Cruikshank, a self-described anatomy nerd and founder of Yoga Medicine. The way that she teaches chaturanga is sure to change your practice for the better. 

Start in Plank Position

Yoga Plank Position
Plank Position. Adrianna Williams / Getty Images

This is a pretty straightforward plank. The arms and legs are both very straight. Your shoulders are over your wrists and your heels are pressed back. You could draw a line from your heels to the crown of your head because the hips are neither drooping down nor sticking up. The legs are firm and the core is engaged (think about pulling your belly button towards your spine) to allow you to maintain a straight body throughout this sequence—a nice-looking plank. 

Shift Your Plank Forward

Plank Preparing for Chaturanga
Plank Preparing for Chaturanga. Adrianna Williams / Getty Images

Is this a nice-looking plank? If this was the final pose, I'd have to say no. The shoulders have come in front of the wrists and she is up on her tip-toes. But this shifted-forward plank position is the key to a safer chaturanga. 

Take a moment and think about the body mechanics. If your weight is back in your heels and your shoulders are over your wrists, what is going to happen when you lower down? Your shoulders will come down to your wrists and your forearms will be on a diagonal, which is not what we're going for at all (see below number 6 for an example of this "don't" position). That angled position does not offer the support the shoulders need.

There's one other big thing to do in plank that will set you up for the next step. It takes a moment to do it while you're getting used to it but it soon becomes second nature and won't slow you down. Roll your shoulders back to blossom your chest through your upper arms. This will also naturally cause your head and neck to come up a bit out of their flat position (you can see this if you compare this image with the one above), but they will still be in line with your spine so that's OK. 

Now you're ready to lower down.

Lower to Chaturanga

Chaturanga with the Safest Alignment
Chaturanga with the Safest Alignment. Adrianna Williams / Getty Images

The next step is to bend your elbows straight back, hugging them into the side of your body as you go. They should definitely not wing out to the sides like they might in a traditional push-up. Notice that because your shoulders were already in front of your wrists, your forearms naturally assume a perpendicular position to the floor. 

The big question is: How low should you go?

The answer is: less low than you probably think. The ideal version of the pose has the upper arms parallel to the floor. Contrary to what you have probably seen in countless yoga classes, do not go any lower than that. The idea is not to skim as close to the floor as you can before whipping yourself into an upward facing dog. Quite the opposite. When you let the shoulders come lower than your elbows, you are dumping a lot of weight on your vulnerable joint. This is exactly the kind of wear and tear that causes injuries when repeated over and over in the course of many practices. 

In fact, it's perfectly fine if your shoulders stay well above your elbows, especially if you're building strength or have had shoulder problems in the past. Even if you just lower your torso a few inches down from plank, that is a perfectly valid version of the pose and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. 

When I first learned this pose, a lot of emphasis was placed on pushing back through your heels. But that doesn't actually make a lot of sense since it has the effect of moving your shoulders back when you want them to stay forward. Prioritize the setup of the arms and shoulders, since those are the areas that are at risk, and let the heel do what they will. 

Try to find a place where the pose feels sustainable. Where you can actually take a moment's pause and hold it at the bottom instead of treating the whole thing like a quick transition between plank and upward dog. 

Your Chest Stays Broad in Upward Dog

Upward Facing Dog
Upward Facing Dog. Adriana Williams/Photodisc/Getty Images

Remember when we stopped to broaden the chest forward in plank? This has the effect of preparing you to move into a better upward facing dog as well. The most common problem in upward dog is that the shoulders are rolling forward and hunched up by the ears. Because of our careful setup in plank, the shoulders stay back and down throughout your chaturanga and into your upward facing dog. All you have to do is roll over your toes, straighten your arms and you're there. 

DO - Lower to Your Knees

Chaturanga with the knees down
Chaturanga with the Knees Down. STOCK4B-RF / Getty Images

One of the reasons chaturangas tend to collapse to the floor is the upper body strength to lower slowly and hover is lacking. So how do you build that strength? At first stick to knees, chest, chin. It really will get you where you need to be to eventually start working on chaturanga. When you do start, it's fine to lower your knees to the floor after you've rocked forward in plank. Take a moment to broaden your chest as described above and then lower your upper body so that your arms come to a right angle. You can lift your feet up off the floor if you want to get fancy but it's also fine to leave them down.  

DON'T - Fall Back on Old Habits

Four-Limbed Staff Pose - Chaturanga Dandasana
Chaturanga the Old Way. Kristen Johansen / Getty Images

This pose is not terrible. It probably looks a lot like the way you're doing chaturanga right now. But if we compare it to the new way, you can quickly see the differences. Because her shoulders are over her wrists, we can interpolate that she didn't rock forward before lowering down. See how that results in a forearm that can't be perpendicular to the floor? Also, her chest is pointed at the floor, looking collapsed. The broadening of the chest in plank described above will take care of this. 

DON'T - Come Low to the Floor

Chaturanga Coming Too Low
Chaturanga Coming Too Low. Biggie Productions/The Image Bank/Getty Images

See that shoulder dipping way down below the elbow? That's the main thing you want to avoid. Chaturanga is not a push-up! We should probably stop calling it yoga's answer to the push-up because the idea is not to come as close to the floor as possible. It is much safer to keep the shoulder level with or higher than the elbow.

If you're not sure what the position of your arms looks like, do the pose in front of a mirror or ask a friend for feedback. If you're used to dipping down low, it may feel weird to stop higher up but it's the best option for your shoulders over time. If you feel like you want more of a challenge, hold your low position (with the arms at 90 degrees, of course) for a breath or two.

DON'T - Let Your Hips Sag or Elbows Stick Out

Bad Chaturanga
Lift Those Hips and Tuck the Elbows. Image Source / Getty Images

Don't lose sight of your basic alignment points! If your hips are sagging like this, it's a clear indication that you should drop your knees to the floor. You have to build the core strength to support your plank-like body throughout the pose. Also, hug the elbows strongly into your sides. You may even feel them hugging your torso in your low position, depending on how wide your shoulder are. 

Continue Reading