How does one do chaturanga without fucking up one's anterior shoulder? Like really. The shoulder is not meant to have the socket put pressure on the anterior side. Why do we even have chaturanga? What do they even accomplish? DO THEY REALLY HELP?
Dear Chaturanga Problems,
I believe that you are referring to not only chaturanga daṇḍāsana, but the flow from plank to chaturanga daṇḍāsana(half plank), to ūrdvha mukha śvānāsana(upward facing dog), to adho mukha śvānāsana(downward facing dog)--which has been shortened and referred to simply as a “chaturanga,” quite liberally for about a decade.
Based on that assumption, I will give it to you straight: “chaturanga” is not necessary. It was popularized through Vinyasa Flow style yoga classes, and it kind of became the bread and butter of that style for a long time. Many Vinyasa-style teachers use the chaturanga flow sequence as a sort of “reset button,” in between the left and right sides during flow, but very few actually break down the proper alignment for chaturanga to be sustainable. Because of this, many people end up with bum shoulders after several years of regular practice.
A properly aligned chaturanga to ūrdvha mukha svanasana strengthens the core and abdominal organs as well as the arms while creating wrist mobility, but those benefits do not take away from the damage done to the entire shoulder girdle after regular repetition over a long period of time (i.e.: 6+ chaturangas every yoga class, over many years of practice).
Here are some really specific alignment cues that you may not be getting while moving through a chaturanga flow sequence during a Vinyasa-style class: From plank, firm up the tops of your thighs--these are the quadriceps muscles, and they have a direct relationship to your core by way of your psoas--actively press the mat away from you with your hands and visualize your spine lengthening from the crown of your head through your heels, on an exhale breath, energetically tilt your pubic bone toward your navel to engage your lower abdomen. Draw your gaze forward and, on an inhale, imagine a force pulling you forward by your navel. Follow that force and rock forward on your toes. Exhale and lower halfway down so that your elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle and are about three to five inches away from your side-body, based on your own comfort. Hold here for two breaths and keep everything from your quadriceps to the crown of your head fully engaged as though you were still in plank pose. Flip the tops of your feet onto the mat and press down firmly. Without changing your core/quadriceps engagement or the level of your hips, lift the barrel of your chest forward and up into upward facing dog. Keep a slight bend in your elbow joints and hold here for two deep breaths. Exhale and curl your toes under as you press your hips up high into downward facing dog.
Pay particular attention to your shoulder joints while in chaturanga. The angle of your elbows have a direct relationship to whether or not you pike your hips and allow your chest to sink between your shoulders. Over time, this is what causes an immense amount of pressure on the anterior shoulder and, because the shoulder joint is a shallow ball and socket joint, it often causes uncomfortable and/or chronic impingement issues. By maintaining a 90 degree bend in your elbow joint with plenty of space between your elbow and your side body, the scapula and the muscles that cross over it are able to do their job of supporting ball and socket mobility.
A great way to ensure that you are able to focus purely on the alignment of your chaturanga is to lower your knees down to the mat while moving through chaturanga and into upward facing dog. This not only provides control, but it is a protective measure to avoid burnout of the shoulder joint over time.
Chaturanga flow is a flex move, in my opinion, and if you really don’t want to do them, then you shouldn’t. Some wonderful alternatives to the chaturanga to downward facing dog flow sequence are: bālāsana(child’s pose), bharmanasana(table top), and (my favorite) pressing straight back into downward facing dog from plank.