Jumping Back To Plank: What's the Big Deal?

All my life in the yoga world, I have heard the instruction that one should never jump back into plank pose. Instead of landing in plank, this core yoga rule goes, we should land directly in chaturanga dandasana - in other words, we should always jump into the bottom of a push-up and never jump into the top of a push-up. The reasons usually cited for this instruction are that jumping back into plank is injurious for any number of body parts including the wrists, shoulders, low back, knees, ankles, and big toes.

I used to believe and teach this yoga rule as well, but in more recent times I have changed my perspective on the issue. I don't think that there is anything inherently wrong with jumping back into plank pose, and I think the widespread prohibition of this movement mostly serves to create some unnecessary fear and worry about our yoga practice.

Here are my main reasons for this viewpoint - I hope you use them to examine your beliefs and then come to your own conclusion about the "never jump to plank" rule!
 

Reason #1: You can certainly injure yourself jumping into plank, but...

I definitely agree that it's possible to injure oneself while jumping into plank pose. If you lack the ability to engage through your core, press strongly through your arms, and land lightly, some areas of your body may experience a higher-than-optimal level of stress, which could lead to injury. But I fail to see how this is different from so many other movements in yoga that can also be injurious if one lacks proper technique and body awareness - yet we don't make blanket statements about the importance of "never" doing most of these other movements.

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

If we jump back to plank with no arms, will this protect our shoulders? :)

One yoga transition that stands out to me as especially risky for the body if one lacks the proper strength and control is, ironically, jumping straight into chaturanga. Even though chaturanga is traditionally considered the safer asana to jump into, this pose is actually much more challenging to execute skillfully than plank pose. Chaturanga involves much higher loads to the neck, shoulders, and spine than plank pose does, and these loads are significantly higher if we jump into the pose (especially if we slam down with a lot of velocity like many yogis do) instead of lower slowly into it. In fact, so many yoga students lack the foundational skills to practice chaturanga well that I created a whole online tutorial on how to approach this pose with integrity.

I would suggest that contrary to popular teachings, one is at greater risk of injury from performing a sloppy jump-back into chaturanga than they are from performing a sloppy jump-back into plank pose.

 

Reason #2: Jumping Into Plank Is Commonly Practiced In Other Movement Systems Without Concern Or Widespread Injury

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

The "burpee", a common warm-up exercise that includes a jump-back to plank.

If you ever visit a gym or other fitness setting, a common movement used for warming up that you'd likely see is something called a burpee. (Yes, I agree that this is an odd name for an exercise, but a fun trivia note is that the burpee is named after the person who founded it - a physiologist named Royal H. Burpee.)

To perform a burpee, one begins in a standing position, lowers down into a squat, jumps back into plank pose with straight arms, often performs one push-up, jumps forward again into a squat, and then jumps up and lands back in a standing position. A typical "set" of burpees is anywhere from 10-15 done in a row, and people typically perform at least 3 sets (and often many more) in one workout. In addition to this classic exercise, there are many variations, such as the one-leg burpee, in which one jumps back into a one-legged plank instead of a traditional plank, the side burpee, in which one jumps into a variation of side plank, and the one-arm burpee, in which the entire movement is performed with one arm lifted.

In addition, multiple research studies have been done by exercise scientists which include the burpee as a movement alongside other classic fitness exercises. (Examples here and here.)

The fact that the burpee, which involves jumping back into plank pose repetitively, is so prevalent in the fitness world and is also included in research studies suggests to me that it has not been found by fitness professionals or sports scientists to be particularly injurious for the body.

 

Reason #3: Jumping Into Plank Could Actually Have Some Benefits

To be honest, even though I don't believe that jumping into plank pose is inherently dangerous, I don't tend to teach this movement very often in my yoga classes. But I do believe that jumping into plank (and chaturanga for that matter) could have some benefits for the body that we often overlook when we focus on fear and worry about this transition instead.

There is a type of fitness training called plyometrics which utilizes jumping exercises to increase a person's power, or the speed at which they can use their strength during a task. Plyometrics are also known to enhance one's endurance and agility, and several studies have actually shown that they can increase bone density (examples here, here, and here).

There is some debate about whether a burpee (a.k.a. the fitness world's version of "jumping into plank") can technically be considered a plyometric exercise. But I believe there is enough crossover between the two to suggest that they would offer some similar benefits.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

An example of a plyometric exercise.

Additionally, we know that movement variability is important for neural learning, tissue health, and overall graceful aging, so the argument could be made that learning how to jump back skillfully into both plank and chaturanga - and not just one or the other - could be beneficial.

 

Reason #4: There Are No Inherently Bad Movements

You might recall a controversial blog post I wrote earlier this year called Are Some Movements Inherently Bad? (also re-published in Yoga International with a far more angry comment thread here.) In this post, I argued that instead of looking at a movement as inherently bad and damaging for the body, we should reverse our reasoning and instead look at an individual body and ask if it is adapted and prepared to handle the loads of that particular movement.

For example, a beginning yoga student with an office-working, sedentary lifestyle who has never borne weight on her arms might be prone to injury if she tries jumping into plank (and even more so if she tries jumping into chaturanga - yikes!) But because the biological reality of our bodies is that they adapt to become stronger to the loads they experience on a regular basis, most practiced yogis who have a good sense of body control and core stabilization should be able to jump lightly into plank pose without causing injury.

 

CONCLUSION

To be clear, I'm certainly not suggesting that all yoga teachers run out and start teaching everyone to jump into plank during every vinyasa. I'm simply questioning the reasoning behind the ubiquitous "never jump into plank" warning that nearly every yoga teacher learns in their yoga teacher training. Is this transition necessarily dangerous for everyone, and is jumping into chaturanga somehow innately safer? Where do these beliefs stem from? I believe that questioning our biases about these transitions can help us to become more critically-thinking yoga teachers who can serve our individual students better.

Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

In my first blog post in this series, I discussed the importance of motor control as an important aspect of movement to consider alongside the more commonly-emphasized categories of flexibility and strength. I also introduced the concept of movement blind spots - non-optimal habitual movement patterns that are directly related to motor control.

The potent tool that we can utilize to change these unconscious movement habits (and our new vocabulary word that we learned last time!) is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is certainly a fancy-sounding term, but it simply means the process of forming new neural connections in the brain in response to novel stimulation; in other words, changing the brain! There are many ways we can encourage neuroplasticity, such as learning a new language or memorizing new information, but within the context of yoga, we use movement (and specifically new and novel movement) to re-wire how the brain perceives and moves the body. In my ideal world, all yoga teachers would understand the general concept of neuroplasticity and how it relates to what we do every day on the yoga mat.


COMMON MOVEMENT BLIND SPOT #2

If you missed the first post in this series, I encourage you to go back and read it before you delve further into this one. We want to make sure we’re clear on Common Movement Blind Spot #1 before we work with Blind Spot #2.

Today’s focus is the shoulder blade and spine movement blind spot. In this pattern, movement of the shoulder blades is unconsciously “glommed together” with movement of the spine. These are technically two separate parts of our body and we should ideally have the motor control to move each of them individually, but in most of us they tend to move them together like one big, undifferentiated body part without our realizing it.

Important note: there is nothing wrong with moving your shoulder blades and spine together at the same time, of course. What is non-optimal and worth working on, though, is the unconscious habit of always moving both of these spots together when we really mean to move them individually. If we lack the body awareness to differentiate between these two areas, we’ll be denied the benefits of movement options and variability that come with increased proprioception and motor control quality.

In this video, I fully address how to recognize and change this shoulder blade/spine movement blind spot. We cover a quick bit of anatomy followed by two potent strategies for changing this extremely common movement pattern. I really recommend watching the whole video - there are some great twists on a classic exercise at the end of the video that I think your body and mind will love exploring. This video is great for your own personal movement explorations, and it’s also a valuable tool to use when working with your yoga and movement students. I hope you enjoy!

Responding to the Critics of My Recent Article in Yoga International

I am very thankful to Yoga International for publishing my recent 2-part article “Does Traditional Yoga Lead to Muscular Imbalance?” The piece received enthusiastic support from much of the yoga community, but there was also a significant amount of disagreement and negative reaction to the article that was quite surprising. I’d like to highlight some of this negative feedback today because it reveals the degree to which many in our yoga community are attached to beliefs about the practice which are not necessarily science-based.

Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and hanging are perfectly-balancing shoulder pushing & pulling movements.

Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and hanging are perfectly-balancing shoulder pushing & pulling movements.

If you haven’t read the article in question (here are links to Part 1 and Part 2), I’ll give you a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed. The main idea is that while yoga is an amazing practice for us, it isn’t a “complete” one from an anatomical perspective. Yoga includes an abundance of shoulder-pushing movements with no complementary shoulder-pulling movements, and the result is a functional strength imbalance in our shoulders that can lead to injury. This situation is easily remedied, however, by incorporating “pulling” movements like hanging, pull-ups, and seated rowing into our movement repertoire.

I decided to write this article for Yoga International because although yoga’s strength imbalance is a simple anatomical fact rooted in movement science, the majority of the yoga community seems unaware of it. Misinformed claims like “yoga strengthens every muscle of the body” or “yoga is a completely balanced, perfect practice” abound in the yoga world, and these messages encourage people to choose yoga as their sole form of structured movement. I wanted to shed light on the fact that this common notion about yoga is untrue, and that we could all benefit from incorporating some different types of strengthening movements into our lives to balance out our yoga practice.

But my article was not well-received by all of the yogis who read it. The negative reaction came in the form of two main disagreements - one philosophical and the other anatomical. Let’s examine the philosophical issue first.

 

THAT’S NOT “TRADITIONAL YOGA”

This first complaint was not actually a critique of the content of my article, but of the fact that I used the term “traditional yoga” in the title. These readers took issue with my use of the term because their belief about what constitutes traditional yoga differed from the yoga I was discussing in the article. Here are just a few examples of comments on the article which exemplify this point of view:

“Well perhaps you should stop using the term ‘traditional yoga,’ since it is an incorrect usage. It brings into question whether you know anything at all about Yoga.” 
“Real, traditional yoga is a science of consciousness and meditation. Hatha Yoga, a branch of Yoga Science, is the science of preparing the body to sit comfortably for long periods of time, in a perfectly balanced satvic [sic] manner, so that it becomes ‘invisible’ to the mind.”
“Yoga was never meant to build your body. You go to the gym and do other exercises for that. Traditional yoga DOES NOT lead to muscular imbalance.”
“For me it seems that part of the problem is that recently (over the past 20 years especially) yoga classes have centred [sic] on vinyasa-style sun-salutation-based classes. I would prefer not to think of this as traditional (whatever that might mean) rather as a contemporary focus on rajasic asana practice. Asana practice, like any yoga practice, should lead to sattva, and for those that do, the question of ‘pushing' doesn't arise.”
“Totally agree with the other comments that ‘yoga’ is not the problem rather modern asana which is certainly not ‘traditional’.”

And this response came from a message that a reader emailed directly to me:

“Dear Jenni. How surprised I was to read yr part 1 article on shoulder imbalance… It is such a disgrace to the grand teachers of 2000 years ago that people are money making by creating fear around a practice that is pure and simple. Yoga is all to [sic] often nowadays taught as some fancy movement practice without the basic foundations.”

 

There is a type of logical fallacy called a straw man argument which involves “giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent” and another called a red herring which is defined as “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue”. These logical fallacies can be seen in the comments above. Instead of confronting the actual argument I made about yoga’s strength imbalance, these commenters brought in irrelevant information about a completely different topic, thereby distracting attention away from the important issue at hand.

Although I didn’t set out to have a debate about the true meaning of “traditional yoga” when I wrote my article, I’ll offer my perspective on that topic now that the issue has been raised.

Put simply, no one owns the definition of traditional yoga. A “tradition” is in fact always created and re-created as it is passed along from generation to generation. Additionally, it is highly doubtful that most of what we call “yoga” today closely resembles the practices of the distant past. For centuries, there has been a dialog between the East and the West and a mutual influencing of philosophies and practices in both science and spirituality.

The truth is that modern postural yoga dates back only about 100 years or so to the time that T. Krishnamacharya began teaching his blend of hatha yoga, Western gymnastics, and wrestling exercises in Mysore, India. For more on these topics, see Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White (whom I was lucky enough to study under for my Religious Studies degree from UC Santa Barbara!), and First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance by Elizabeth Kadetsky, who actually spoke on this topic at a reading that I hosted at my yoga store, Drishti, back in 2003.

In general, when people attempt to make claims to tradition, they are trying to assert their authority over others on the basis of their connection to what is “authentic”. But assertions of one yoga being more “traditional” than another are pointless and unhelpful because tradition will always be a matter of mere opinion.

For my part, the reason I used “traditional yoga” in the title of my article on strength imbalance was to differentiate the type of modern postural yoga I was discussing from other “hybrid” forms of yoga that are popular today like yoga with weights, etc.

 

PULLING MOVEMENTS IN YOGA?

The second disagreement with my article was more anatomical in nature. In the article, I explained that yoga consists of an abundance of movements in which we strengthen our shoulders by pushing our body away from the floor (think plank pose, chaturanga, handstand, crow pose, etc.) and no corresponding pulling movements which strengthen our shoulders in the opposite way. Therefore, if yoga is the only form of “exercise” that we do, we will naturally create a non-optimal strength imbalance in our shoulders.

It is tempting to believe that our yoga practice provides everything we need for perfect balance in our body. I understand that this, combined with a lack of a substantial anatomy education, is why so many people were quick to disagree with my article. Here are a few comments which encapsulated the defensive attitude that many held about their practice:

“It’s amazing how you invent this yoga ‘problem’ by ignoring all readily available fact.”
“Totally disagree. True Hatha Yoga, properly taught, is designed to perfectly balance the body, so that it can sit comfortably for meditation, without a hint of discomfort. A properly designed Hatha Yoga sequence given by a Master Teacher will correct all postural imbalance and create perfect alignment allowing the pranic energies to flow.”
If you are participating in classes in which you do not experience perfect balancing of the shoulder girdle, then you are most likely participating in classes with unqualified instructors who cannot possibly represent Hatha Yoga correctly.”

 

Other commenters expressed their disagreement by pointing out ways they believe we do “pull” in our yoga practice to counterbalance all of the pushing. Here is a list of the “pulling” yoga movements that were cited by various readers in an attempt to disprove my argument:

-uttanasana (standing forward fold) “when we pull up on the toes”
-prasarita padottanasana (standing straddle forward fold) “when we drag our hands back toward our feet to deepen the fold”
-binding the toe in trikonasana (triangle pose) and lifting up
-uttitha hasta padangusthasana (standing big toe pose) “drawing the toes back”
-paschimottanasana “drawing the toes back”
-any pose with reverse prayer
-binding the arms around the back
-upward facing dog
-cobra (bhujangasana)
-bow pose (dhanurasana)
-dancer pose (natarajasana)
-the transition from chaturanga to upward facing dog
-“forward folds with big toe holds in all its forms”
-sirsasana (headstand)
-forearm balance (pincha mayurasana)
-tadasana (mountain pose)
-happy baby pose
-pulling your knee in toward your chest
-plank pose
-“a half lotus bind can provide a pulling or lifting action in the arm”
-flowing from down dog to plank to chaturanga to up dog

    -**note: several of these examples do not involve any pulling at all

 

This list of movements put forth by readers demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the body is actually doing in yoga and the physical requirements to achieve a strength balance in the shoulders. Unfortunately, not a single movement in this long list contributes in a significant way to balancing out all of the pushing we do in yoga. Yoga’s pushing movements involve pushing the weight of the body away from the floor; in order to counterbalance that, we need to pull the weight of the body toward something - not simply tug on our big toe or pull our knee toward our chest. Although I do think it’s quite amusing to picture someone attempting to pull on their big toe with the same amount of force they use when pushing their whole body away from the floor in crow pose (a classic pushing movement). They might end up with a very unhappy big toe, but they won’t be counterbalancing yoga’s pushing asanas.

Movements which successfully strengthen our shoulders in a pulling way involve the use of an object that we can pull against like a weight, a bar, or a resistance band. This is why I suggested hanging, pull-ups, seated rowing, and rock climbing in Part 2 of my article as some ideal complementary activities to a yoga practice.


THE LIVING TRADITION OF YOGA

In summary, the strength imbalance inherent in yoga is not a threat or something yogis should feel they must defend against. It is a simple anatomical fact. If we resort to unfounded beliefs and “magical thinking” (to borrow a great phrase from my yoga teacher friend Ariana Rabinovitch) to defend the mistaken idea that yoga is perfectly-balanced, we pose more of a threat to the integrity of the practice than simply learning from the new ideas that anatomy has to offer. The truth is that there is no one single activity that could possibly offer everything that one needs on a spiritual, emotional, energetic, and physical level. In my own experience, the practice of yoga has led me away from the desire for easy answers and dogmatic thinking in favor of a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the human body. Let’s continue to evolve the living tradition that is yoga by embracing the wisdom that anatomy and movement science have to offer.

Does Traditional Yoga Lead to Muscular Imbalance? (Part 2)

Part 2 of my Yoga International article on yoga's strength imbalance was published today! I'm lucky to have been able to reference the work of several of my amazing teachers in this piece. I'm also more than grateful to Yoga International for embracing and sharing the positive message that while yoga is a fantastic practice for us, it isn't a "complete" one from an anatomical perspective, and there are a lot of other great movements out there that we can do to round things out. I hope you enjoy!

Does Traditional Yoga Lead to Muscular Imbalance? (Part 1)

I am MORE than excited about my new article in Yoga International that was just published today! Whoo-hoooo! It's Part 1 of a 2-part series and I really like how Yoga International summed it up:

"Yoga is often described as a balanced and complete long-term health and wellness practice. But does a consistent yoga practice really provide the body with everything it needs to function optimally? Yoga teacher Jenni Rawlings explains that although asana is a wonderful and transformative practice, when explored through the lens of anatomy, there is one aspect of this practice that is surprisingly unbalanced. But don't fear! In this article, she'll not only elucidate what this imbalance is but also how practitioners can undo it. Take what you learn and enhance the safety and overall function of your practice today!"

Is The Cue "Pull Your Shoulders Back" Helpful?

One of the most common instructions we tend to hear in yoga class is “pull your shoulders back”. This cue is often offered as a universal guideline for how we should position our shoulders throughout our entire practice, and it has its roots in a broader cultural idea that “shoulders back” is inherently good posture. In fact, this belief is so ubiquitous that we often don’t think to question the anatomical reasoning behind it. But as we now know, many of yoga’s traditional alignment rules could benefit from the insight of a more modern movement-science perspective. It turns out that as well-intentioned as the “shoulders back” cue is, on an anatomical level this instruction does not solve postural issues, nor does it help our body function better.

 

THE ANATOMY OF “SHOULDERS BACK”

For many of us, the extent of our anatomy knowledge is that our shoulders are the general, vague area located underneath the prominent shoulder pads of our mom’s awesome 80’s blazer. :)

This seemingly-simple part of the body is quite complex, however, consisting of three separate interlocking bones and four individual moving joints. At the bony level, our shoulder (often referred to anatomically as the “shoulder joint complex” or the “shoulder girdle”) actually looks something more like this under those eye-catching shoulder pads:

The shoulder girdle can move in a myriad of different ways. One pertinent pair of shoulder movements for our discussion today is protraction and retraction. When we protract our shoulders, our scapulae (shoulder blades) move away from one another on our back, and when we retract, they move toward each other. One of today’s postural realities is that many of our yoga students present with “rounded-forward shoulders” and the corresponding appearance of a caved-in chest. We interpret this overly-protracted position as non-optimal, and we therefore naturally conclude that in order to remedy it, our students should pull their shoulders back, or retract their scapulae, throughout their entire yoga practice.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

Here is my good friend Rachel exaggerating the appearance of rounded-forward shoulders.

But this well-intentioned notion is problematic for a few reasons. The first and possibly most fascinating has to do with a lack of awareness that many of us have about the way we move. Unless we’ve consciously worked to change this pattern, most of us aren’t actually able to pull our shoulders back without also moving our spine into a slight backbend. In anatomical language, we would say that most people aren’t able to retract their scapulae without also extending their spine.

Just to make sure we understand the clear difference between these two movements, let’s take a look at a simple visual aid. Scapular retraction is a horizontal motion performed by the muscles that lie between the shoulder blades and the spine:

Scapular retraction.

Scapular retraction.

Whereas spinal extension is a vertical movement performed by the muscles that run up and down along the spine, like this:

Spinal extension.

Spinal extension.

Although these are clearly two distinct anatomical actions, in most people they have become “lumped together” as one undiscriminated movement. Therefore, when we ask students to pull their shoulders back, they will more than likely also unconsciously extend their spine.

Now spinal extension is of course a fine movement in general, but if we’re asking our students to move their shoulders back, we’re really requesting pure scapular retraction - no unnecessary extra movements included. Aside from that, as I’ve discussed before, when many of us extend our spines, we end up unknowingly performing most of the movement at T12/L1, the very mobile vertebral segment at which the thoracic and lumbar spines meet. When this happens, our front lower ribs protrude forward, our chest lifts toward the sky, and we end up creating non-optimal compression in the lumbar spine region. This is not a favorable position for our spine, but it is the position that 95% of our students will assume if we ask them to pull their shoulders back.

Another reason that constantly pulling our shoulders back all day is undesirable is that it negatively impacts the quality of our breath. The “shoulders back, chest up” position which we so commonly equate with good posture in fact impedes our ability to take a full, nourishing breath. Give this experiment a quick try in your own body: for a moment, pretend that your yoga teacher just cued your class to pull their shoulders back, and be a dutiful student by retracting your scapulae and lifting your chest. Then place your hands on either side of your rib cage and take a full breath cycle of inhale and exhale, allowing your rib cage to swell laterally into your hands on the inhale. Notice how deeply you were able to inhale. Now stop squeezing your scapulae back - just allow your shoulders to relax forward - and find a neutral rib cage by dropping your front low ribs down until they are buried beneath your abdominal flesh. Try inhaling into your hands in this new position. Your breath capacity should be noticeably more expansive. This is a perfect example of how the way you choose to position your body in space can have a direct effect on how your body functions.

 

A third reason that chronic scapular retraction is problematic is that this action creates unnecessary tension in our upper- and mid-back. In fact, if you happen to be familiar with massage therapy, you might know that the rhomboids and middle trapezius - the muscles that lie in between the shoulder blades - are a classic place in which clients love to receive massage. One main reason that this area so commonly craves the therapeutic touch of massage is that many of us spend the majority of our day using muscular effort to pull our shoulders back. Massage helps to relieve the chronic tension created by this habit, but its effects are usually only temporary.

 

WHAT SHOULD WE DO WITH OUR SHOULDERS INSTEAD?

As radical as it might seem, instead of pulling your shoulders back, try simply allowing them to relax. Let go of any retracting effort and just let your shoulders naturally fall where they will. Although this might “feel” to you like your shoulders are too rounded forward, the truth for most people is that if they were look at themselves in a mirror, they would discover that their shoulders are not nearly as far forward as they thought they were (although some rounding is quite normal). Allow your default alignment to be a shoulder girdle that is relaxed and free from effort. And then in the longer term, begin to proactively target the tension that is pulling your shoulders forward in the first place with smart stretches and conscious movement exercises designed for the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles of the front of the chest.

 

In conclusion, the idea that we should pull our shoulders back throughout our whole yoga practice (and all day long in general) is a universal alignment cue that does not serve our body well. Let’s instead learn to only offer this cue during yoga asanas in which scapular retraction enhances the specific anatomical purpose of the pose. The more that we strive to teach intentional movement versus scripted alignment cues, the more our students will benefit from the insightful quality of our classes!
 

Related Post: Common Movement Blind Spot #2: The Shoulder Blade & Spine Connection

Related Online Class: Shoulders-Focused Practice

100,000 Chaturangas Later: Less Chaturanga is More

**Update, August 2015: Since writing this article, I have learned about research that suggests that strengthening a muscle does not cause it to physically become shorter, thereby pulling on our bones and altering our posture. So although the section of this piece titled "Computer/Sitting Posture" is well-intentioned and seemed like common sense when I wrote it, I now feel that it is a bit of an outdated perspective. I STILL strongly believe that there are many issues with how chaturanga is commonly taught and practiced, and I have two recently-created online workshops on this subject - The Complete Guide to the Vinyasa and Anatomy of the Shoulders for Healthy Chaturangas. So chaturanga is still far from off the hook, but the one argument I made in this article about "Computer/Sitting Posture" is a bit outdated. Just for the record! ///

chat-filtered-500.jpg

Have you ever calculated your chaturanga “number” - the total number of times you’ve ever done this pose?  (Chaturanga dandasana is yoga’s “push-up” pose, part of the ubiquitous vinyasa sequence found in flow styles like Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, and Ashtanga.)  I don’t know about you, but I have done a LOT of chaturanga in my life.  Earlier on in my yoga path I practiced Ashtanga dedicatedly for about 8 years.  (Ashtanga is a vigorous, traditional yoga style which dates back to the earlier part of last century and has strongly influenced all other flow yoga styles practiced today.)

There are more than 50 chaturangas included in a typical Ashtanga class, and I practiced about 5 times a week. 50 chaturangas x 5 times a week x 52 weeks in a year x 8 years = 104,000 chaturangas during those 8 years alone.  When I first did the math on this I was absolutely shocked.  Who does 100,000 of anything?  I’ve of course done many more chaturangas since that time to add to that already supremely high total, but at a more toned-down rate.  (A typical vinyasa flow class might include 20-30 chaturangas from start to finish.)

Are you excited to calculate your own chaturanga “number” now out of yoga curiosity? :)  If you do, let me know what it was!

 

Why do we practice chaturanga?


Chaturanga is a great way to build core and upper body strength.  It also tends to appear numerous times throughout a practice to help yogis sustain a feeling of “working” or “exerting” (or sthira in Sanskrit).  Chaturanga is also admittedly an integral part of yoga because that’s simply the way flow yoga is done.  It’s only natural to teach what we’ve learned from our own teachers without questioning the reasoning behind it.

 

Too Much of a Good Thing?


We are grateful to the teachers who helped bring the transformative practice of yoga to the West in the earlier part of the 20th century.  However, we know a lot more about movement, biomechanics, and health today than we did at that time.  Today’s research makes it increasingly clear that variety of movement is a key to whole body health.  Writes somatic movement educator Sue Hitzmann in her book The MELT Method (2013), “the primary cause of chronic and sudden chronic pain is repetitive movements and postures, not aging or muscle tension, as many people believe.”

As I mentioned in my intro to fascia blog post, keeping our body-wide web of fascia supple and hydrated is required for maintaining mobility and ease in our body as we age (and for overall optimal health in general). But repetitive movements have the unfortunate effect of dehydrating our fascia due to friction and compression, resulting in dry, brittle tissue which leaves us vulnerable to injury in our muscles and joints.

 

Biomechanically Cool or Not?

shoulder.jpg

If done in alignment, chaturanga is a perfectly fine way to build core and upper body strength. (As a surprising side note, though, most yogis aren’t actually strong enough to do this pose “in alignment”. Chaturanga places a huge load on the shoulders and spine and most people’s bodies are simply not yet ready to handle that load. Instead, many people will destabilize their joints in an effort to lower down, losing muscular control and transferring the load to their vulnerable fascia instead. Most people would be better served staying in plank pose and maaaybe lowering one inch (and that’s it!) toward chaturanga. If you’re one of my students and would like a little assessment on this for your own body, just ask me and I would love to help!)

But messy chaturangas aside, even if we all did this pose in perfect alignment, the 20-30 (or 50+!) times we are asked to move into this shape in every practice just isn’t biomechanically cool.  Aside from the problem that any repetitive activity poses to our fascia, chaturanga actually reinforces a muscular imbalance that most of us already have as a result of life in our modern era.

 

Computer/Sitting Posture

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When we computer/text/drive/bike/run/sit a lot, our arms are out in front us, which shortens and tightens the front of our chests and shoulders.  This seemingly no-big-deal shift in alignment results in rounded-forward shoulders, a condition that almost all of us share, but most people hide without realizing it by “pulling their shoulders back” all day long.  This front chest tightness has all sorts of uncool effects like compressing our heart and lungs which reduces our breath capacity, forward head posture (think turtle head :) ), and ultimately that majorly rounded upper back curve that you often see in older people that is sometimes referred to as dowager’s hump, but is more technically called hyperkyphosis of the thoracic spine.  And to re-emphasize, as products of our sitting and computering ways, we all already have this structural imbalance before we even step onto a yoga mat for the first time.

What does this have to do with chaturanga?  Chaturanga strengthens these exact chest and shoulder muscles which are already short and pulling us out of alignment (specifically our pectoralis major and front deltoids), further contributing to a structural problem that we already have.  On top of that, there are very few poses in yoga which strengthen the opposite muscles that chaturanga targets (which would include the rhomboids and rear deltoids), so we don’t even have a path toward some sense of balance within the asanas themselves.

 

So Why, Really, Do We Practice Chaturanga in Yoga?


If I had to make an informed guess, I would postulate that the main reason most people practice and teach lots of chaturangas is to feel like they’re “working” in their yoga practice - to keep their heart rate up, their sweat flowing, and their body feeling exerted. I was absolutely one of those people too, before I learned more about anatomy and biomechanics and the direct affect that movement has on our health.

In fact, I can remember being in yoga class and feeling disappointed when the teacher would skip a perfectly good moment to offer us a vinyasa.  I was really married to the idea of the vinyasa as a core part of my practice, and if I wasn’t offered as many as I wanted, I would feel kind of unsatisfied and grumbly inside - like I had “missed out” on something.  I’m sure that lots of yogis can relate to this feeling.  It’s not uncommon to see people taking extra chaturangas in class or even doing a round of several plank-to-chaturanga reps on their own, and I believe this is largely related to our cultural bias toward push-ups and what we think they offer us.

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But based on what I understand now, in addition to the nagging shoulder pain that I used to have in my left shoulder and my unquestionably tight pecs which I now work to stretch daily, I do very few chaturangas in my practice.  I do include a small amount of them, but I also do many other movements which strengthen the opposite muscles that chaturanga targets.

And my teaching style has shifted as well.  It has taken serious effort, but I have whittled down the number of vinyasas that I offer in my class from between 20-30 to around 10-12, and I also include a fair amount of movements which do work the opposite muscles that chaturanga does (they’re not always traditional yoga movements, but I love them and think they’re cool!)  I feel like my class is still quite strong and challenging - and feel free to let me know if you agree if you’re a student of mine! :) - but I also feel that it’s more biomechanically sound.

 

The Goal of Yoga


One of the main reasons people practice yoga is to create more balance in the body.  Chaturanga is a pose, however, that when done repetitively, actually moves us away from balance and toward imbalance.  I hope that with the biomechanical perspective I’ve shared in this post, you now have eyes to see that.  It’s important that we respect and honor the tradition of yoga.  But a tradition that doesn’t update with the new insights and knowledge of today is not a living tradition.  My goal as a progressive yoga teacher is to incorporate the best of our current biomechanical knowledge with the existing powerful tradition of yoga.  I hope you stand by me in that goal!

 

 

P.S. For further reading, check out this excellent article by my anatomy teacher Jason Ray Brown! I first learned about the chaturanga imbalance issue by studying with him, and then learned even more through my biomechanics studies with Katy Bowman. I feel so thankful to have such wise teachers!

 

Related Online Workshop: The Complete Guide to the Vinyasa

Related Online Workshop: Anatomy of the Shoulders for Healthy Chaturangas