by Yinn Lim (Photo: Conny Marshaus)

Chaturanga Dandasana translates to four-limbed (Catu-Anga) staff (Danda) pose (Asana). This is commonly referred to as low plank in a yoga sequence.

Chaturanga Dandasana is one of the postures yogis move through during the Surya Namaskar A and B (Sun Salutation A and B) sequences. Have you noticed the beauty and grace of a yogi moving from high plank through Chaturanga into Upward-facing dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)? A fluid motion that requires strength as the body undulates from one asana to the next.

Many yoga practitioners believe that it is a matter of arm strength, and yes, whilst true, there are also other factors that play a part in execution of this move. Let’s have a look at what they are:

1)     Alignment

Are your fingers spread-wide pressing into the mat, second and middle fingers pointing forwards, palms grounded? This is your first building block of the pose, strength from the ground up. Elbows and shoulders should be stacked directly over the wrist so that your bones can provide more support for the working muscles. To do this, you may have to move slightly forward over your toes.

Draw up the space between your shoulder blades to engage the upper back muscles for support. This posture is a balance of muscle strength in the front AND back of the body.

By gently pulling in the lower abdominal muscles, the pelvic floor is engaged – more support for all the muscles!

Don’t forget your legs! Draw the backs of knees up to the ceiling – this engages the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves.

The spine should be long and this includes where your head is! Your neck is an oft-forgotten part of the spine. And where your head is, is guided by where your gaze (Dristhi) is. So focus on the tip of your nose (Nasagrai Dristhi) which more or less corresponds to keeping your gaze a few inches in front of your fingertips. This should keep that spine nice and long.

Now you’re ready to lower yourself from high plank to low plank.

2)     The Movement

Essentially important is to maintain the “plankness” of the body. This means arm, back, leg and abdominal muscles are switched on. As you lower, keep the elbows close. You want to feel the elbows grazing the sides of your body as they bend.  Chicken arms can lead to injuries! If you’re moving into Upward-Facing Dog, do NOT lower your body so far towards the mat that your elbows are bent at angles less than 90o. Injury alert!!!

A good way to get a feel of how far you should lower towards the mat before stopping is to have a yoga block, long skinny side of the block on the mat, below your heart space when you’re in high plank. Stop lowering your body when your sternum touches the block. You may be surprised how the pose feels when you pause at that point.

This is where the magic of Upward-Facing Dog can happen – you have given yourself enough space and strength to flow openly from Chaturanga Dandasana to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, as you roll over the toes or as some yogis practise, untucking the toes to balance on the topsides of their feet.

What if you’re not yet at the point of being able to safely flow through Chaturanga Dandasana? Save those shoulders by dropping onto your knees. Everything else, alignment and engagement of the arm, back and core muscles, is the same as though you are doing the pose on your toes. Because of where the knees are in this variation, you should lower your body all the way to the ground, maintaining the “plankness” we discussed earlier. From the ground, you can either open the body into Cobra (Bhujangasana) or you can move into Upward-Facing Dog by opening the heart space towards the front of the room and lifting your torso and legs off the mat even as you ground the topsides of your feet into the mat.

Remember to listen to your body – have a chat with your yoga teacher if you have a shoulder or wrist injury. No point trying to muscle through a perfect textbook Chaturanga when your body is hurt.

This pose has so many benefits – building of arm, wrist, back and abdominal strength. It strengthens the muscles along the spine, improving posture. And as your physical strength builds, so will your confidence and inner strength.