I teach vinyasa-style yoga, mostly intermediate levels and regularly in a room heated to 100 degrees with additional humidity. I see all shapes and sizes of practitioners, with varying degrees of strength, flexibility, and body awareness.
Something I’ve noticed in class is the common desire to do the transition from high to low plank — chaturanga dandasana — without lowering one’s knees to the mat. Though from what I've noticed, the strength and muscle awareness are not present enough to be able to do this transition without compromising alignment.
I have seen how improper alignment can apply unnecessary tension to the joints, which can result in injury. Here are five key suggestions to watch out for while practicing the transition from high plank through chaturanga, that will help practitioners build strength and alignment, as well as get the most benefits from this tremendously strength-building transition.
1. Keep the sides of your neck long.
Gaze toward the horizon, the top of your mat. The chin stays slightly tucked, creating even more space in the back of the neck; however, avoid hanging the head. Maintain alignment in your neck and shoulders whether you practice chaturanga from your knees or from your toes. Hanging the head puts too much tension on your neck and shoulders and also closes off your airway.
2. Keep your shoulders above elbow height.
I’ve heard practitioners say that they lower as far as possible in chaturanga because that’s how you build more strength. That's simply not true, when the shoulders dip lower than the elbows, impingement can occur in the shoulder joint and cause injury over time. You should try to keep your shoulders above elbow height. Practice with a mirror on one or both sides of you to observe your alignment. Look to see a 90-degree angle between your biceps and forearm. Look how low your shoulders are going; if shoulders are regularly dipping below the elbows, start practicing from your knees.
3. Keep your hips in line and hug in to the midline of your body.
In addition to keeping your shoulders above elbow height, it’s equally important to hug everything in to the midline of your body — elbows included. Engage the muscles in your core and stabilize through the hips to keep them level instead of drooping.
Elbows should be near the sides of the ribs as you lower, rather than out to the side like in a traditional push-up. Drawing your elbows in toward your ribs helps contract the muscles in your shoulders and upper back as well as the triceps so the transition is graceful and smooth. Another important factor is keeping the legs strong and core muscles engaged.
4. Exhale to lower and transition slowly.
It’s common to see yogis breeze through chaturanga to upward-facing dog, without using the muscular control necessary to do the transition properly. I suggest going slowly and being thorough with alignment and muscle engagement. Building strength is paramount for this transition to be done correctly.
When you step (or float) back to high plank, make sure you have enough breath so that you can exhale through the transition. The exhale breath helps to strengthen the muscles in your core, think of drawing your navel in toward your spine. Make the breath a focus for your practice.
5. Lower your knees to the mat and build the strength over time.
You’ve heard me say this throughout the article, and it is something that I recommend in every class I teach. Another suggestion is to skip some chaturangas — if at any time there is pain in your shoulders, it’s better to skip the transition than to do it incorrectly and risk further damage.
Chaturangas are done so frequently in practice these days, but it's important to keep your joints safe and body strong for a long and healthy practice. If at any time you can feel alignment being compromised during your practice, either skip the transition or move through it from your knees instead. Keeping your knees on the ground doesn’t make the posture less strength building; I think that by making this modification you can build more strength over time and in the way that will help your structure remain sound and healthy.
No matter whether you’re a seasoned practitioner or new to yoga, building the foundation of strength and alignment is key to a lifelong practice that benefits your body, mind, and spirit. Practice these suggestions, go slowly, and give yourself credit for small accomplishments along the way. Proper alignment doesn’t happen overnight, but with attention to detail and focusing on what’s important, the strength and stability will come with time, diligence, and practice.