What is Chaturanga, Why Should You Care and How to Get There (someday)

📸 credit  @ginahouse

📸 credit @ginahouse

What is Chaturanga? 🤔

I realized recently in class that some of you have been wondering what this mysterious Sanskrit word means for some time!

Chaturanga translates to four limbed staff pose and is the posture you see pictured here. You’ll often find this posture in the sequence of poses called “a vinyasa” that goes - down dog, plank, chaturanga, up dog, down dog.

Why should you care about this pose?

This pose gets a lot of attention in the yoga world because it can be so difficult to perform well. The high number of repetitions you’ll find of this pose in a typical vinyasa yoga class and the fast speed at which they’re performed can also can invite sloppiness and therefore repetitive stress injury over time. However, if done well this posture can be very beneficial for modern bodies in many ways.

This posture and the strength you’ve gained when you’re able to do it well are also a prerequisite for postures such as arm balances and some inversions. Find confidence here and you’re more likely to have confidence in those poses as well.

As with any yoga posture (or with anything worth doing really), attention to the technical details allow for greater understanding and discernment in their execution. That translates to more safety, more ease, more knowing of yourself and your body… in short, more yoga (i.e. union). And isn’t that what we’re all looking for anyway?

How do you get there?

One way you can get yourself ready for doing a good healthy Chaturanga is by doing some fairly simple mini pushups with the knees down.

I know. I should put a trigger warning on the word pushup.

But it really isn’t that bad. As with any yoga movement, YOU get to decide how intense (or not) this one is.

The key things to remember are that you want to make sure your elbows HUG IN toward your ribs strongly (very different from the way most of us were taught to do pushups in the past) and that your elbows point BACK toward your hips as you bend them.

Some other important details - don’t let the head drop forward and don’t let the low ribs flare out. In other words, make sure your core is working to support your spine so you don’t get overly curved in your low back.

Here’s a video to help you visualize this strengthening movement:

Careful repetition with attention to the details, like so many things, is key to building the strength you’ll need for a good Chaturanga.

I hope that helps start to make this pose more accessible for you. Stay tuned for a workshop all about this pose next month and in the meantime, feel free to leave me a comment with any questions you have!

P.S. Check out our YouTube channel! We’re starting to add more content over there about yoga, meditation, mantra and more each week!

Essential Differences in 3 Common Backbends

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You've probably heard Up Dog, Cobra and Sphinx pose called out in many a yoga class. But do you know the essential differences between the three poses? Here's a quick introduction or review of what makes each of these poses unique, whether you've taken 1 class or hundreds!

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I see it frequently in the course of my public classes, especially with beginners but also with more experienced practitioners. The difference between these three popular backbends can be a bit confusing. So let’s go through them one by one so you can have a visual example of their differences and be more comfortable knowing which to choose in your next class.

Cobra

Low Cobra

Low Cobra

This might be your “lowest” backbend in that you can keep it pretty close to the floor. You might be lifting just your head up.

High Cobra

High Cobra

Or you may go higher as shown in the picture above. Your pelvis can stay on the floor here but as you start to come up higher the top of your pelvis may lift until just your pubic bone is still touching the floor. How much the pelvis comes up depends greatly on your specific anatomy and flexibility.

A primary difference between cobra and up dog: Cobra maintains slightly bent elbows, even at it’s fullest height. Thighs and parts of the pelvis remain on the ground.

A primary difference between cobra and sphinx: Only the hands are on the ground in Cobra, not the forearms.

Up Dog

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I’m skipping to Up Dog for a moment as it has the most in common with Cobra, but has some key differences. Here the arms are straightening while maintaining a micro bend in the elbows and relaxed shoulders. The tops of the feet are pressing strongly, just like in Cobra, but here they are the only part of the legs touching the floor. The thighs are lifted as well as the shins. So basically the only points of contact with the earth are through the hands and the tops of the feet.

A primary difference between Cobra and Up Dog: Only the feet and the hands are touching the ground for most bodies.

A primary difference between Up Dog and Sphinx: There is much LESS connection to the earth in Up Dog than Sphinx.

Sphinx

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Sphinx pose in many ways is the odd pose out in these three poses. While the legs in this pose are similar to Cobra in that there is full connection and the engagement comes from the press of the tops of the feet, the upper body is quite different. Here you’ll find the palms of the hands all the way through to the elbows are on the earth. The elbows are ideally aligned underneath the shoulders from front to back AND from side to side. I often offer that if you find that alignment too deep for your back because you are still developing you ability to support the pose, you can walk the elbows farther forward of the shoulders to reduce the depth of the backbend. As the shoulders relax away from the ears and the spine lifts off the earth the forearms help with the “lift” of the pose by pressing down. There can also be a slight draw back on the forearms towards the hips (without actually moving them) that helps engage the shoulder blades and opens the front of the chest.

When might you choose one of these poses over another?

In a vinyasa yoga class, you’ll typically find Cobra or Up Dog offered in the actual vinyasa sequence (that combination of poses that shows up regularly of Down Dog, Plank, Cobra or Up Dog and back to Down Dog). Often you might do several repetitions of this sequence with Cobra first to help prepare for the greater spinal demand of Up Dog (you might also use Locust as part of this preparation for deeper backbending as I often do in my classes, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). Once the body is warm and ready, you might then choose to move into Up Dog in this sequence.

Typically, you won’t find Sphinx offered during the vinyasa sequence, as it can be a bit clunky to move into from Plank or even Chaturanga (but all rules are meant to be broken!) and may disrupt the flow of the sequence and the breath. It may show up at other times during the practice. However, if you are experiencing challenges in the wrists, hands or even the elbows, Sphinx can be a great substitution to still get in a juicy backbend while giving these joints a little more ease. Some people may also find it a little easier on the back as well.

Remember that this is just a basic guide. There are many nuances that you may develop over the course of your practice, but I hope this guide helps you figure out the differences between these three often called for poses.

Is there something that still isn’t clear for you? Leave me a comment and I’ll try to clarify!

Why you might want to let go of that next Vinyasa...

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If you’ve been to any vinyasa yoga class at our studio you have probably been reminded in one way or another that you can skip the vinyasa (that series of linked together poses that goes down dog, plank, chaturanga, up dog & down dog) at any time. Even though we often say it, you may wonder, what should you do instead? Child’s pose is often offered as an option, but have you ever thought about some of the many other options or why they might be more appropriate for you? In this post I’ll attempt to give you a verbal and visual guide to some options you may not have thought of when it comes to modifying this often found sequence of postures beyond just taking a break.

When thinking about how you might want to modify this sequence of postures, it’s good to think about your specific goals for your practice. It’s easy to get stuck on autopilot in anything that we do repetitively, and this sequence definitely shows up in so many public classes! When we can let go of our preconceived notions of what our practice “should be” and do what’s best for ourselves in a given moment in time, we are much more aligned with what it truly means to “do yoga”. One of my favorite definitions of yoga is that “yoga is skill in action”. By taking a small amount of time to know why we’re doing something, we’ll be all that much more skillful in our outcomes.

In a public class setting, this is even more important. Your teacher is doing their best to make the practice accessible to the whole group, but only you know what is best for you. Today could be a very different day in your body than yesterday was. The particular sequence the teacher is working with could present a very different set of challenges to your body than it does for the person next to you. You always have agency over your practice, so (within reason and with guidance) these decisions are up to you in a given moment.

So what are some reasons you might want to skip or modify the vinyasa sequence?

  • You have a specific area of your body that you need to work with in a certain way (think strength vs. flexibility)

  • You have pain or an injury that requires modification

  • You want to challenge yourself

  • You want to change things up a bit to stay more mindful

  • You need more time to feel a certain pose in your body and make sure you’re doing it in a pain free way

  • You’re focused on controlling your breathing and you find this series of movements too taxing at this point in your practice (whether that point is this month or this moment) to maintain your breath through them

  • You want to maintain the integrity of your practice and the pace set by the class is not one you can follow at this moment

  • You just need a break for a moment after a particularly challenging last sequence

I’m sure you may think of many more reasons, but any of these reasons show that you are practicing “skill in action”. It is skillful to choose protection over blind following. It is skillful to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and to act to find balance.

So what can you actually do to practice in this way? Here are a few ideas for modifications of the sequence and some reasons behind them.

To avoid the vinyasa all together

Child’s pose - This is commonly offered as I mentioned above as a modification when you need a break. While that is certainly true there are some other reasons you might consider this option:

  • Your breath isn’t under your control

  • Your spine needs a forward fold after the previous sequence

  • Your shoulders need a break from habitual tension

  • It’s just a happy place for you. Nothing wrong with taking a moment to just feel good!

You can also tuck the arms alongside the legs here for an even more shoulder releasing option.

You can also tuck the arms alongside the legs here for an even more shoulder releasing option.

Stay in Down Dog - This is another option I’ll often offer as a modification because it can have strengthening effects, especially for the newer practitioner. Some other reasons to consider staying here are:

  • It’s not a restful pose for you yet and you need more time there (beginners often look at me like I have 3 heads when I mention this might become a resting pose someday! LOL)

  • You have wrist pain or injury that prevents you from bearing weight like you would in plank

  • You need to strengthen your wrists or forearms (gripping the mat with finger tips and even lifting the back of the hands alternately can be great ways to get this benefit here)

  • You want to strengthen instead of rest

  • This is a more active resting pose for you compared to child’s pose, so you still get some rest here but you don’t quite need child’s pose

  • Your calves and hamstrings could use a stretch

  • You need some time to find length in your spine after a previous sequence that included back-bending or forward-bending

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Come Into and Stay In Plank - I only recently thought of this one myself! You may want to give this a go if:

  • You’re working on building upper body strength and core strength

  • Backbending isn’t feeling good due to injury (staying here can help strengthen your core to support your back if done with good alignment and engagement)

  • You aren’t yet warm enough to perform a backbend

  • You’d like to challenge yourself

  • You’re working on understanding the details of the pose (we tend to blow by this one rather quickly, this can be true for many postures in the vinyasa sequence in fact)

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To modify the vinyasa itself

Skip the chaturanga - This is one of the most popular modifications for the vinyasa sequence. Chaturanga takes an incredible amount of strength, skill and awareness to perform well. Better to build strength and do one chaturanga well in a class than a bunch of sloppy ones that could cause injury over time. This is skill in action again.

  • To do this, drop your knees and roll down, maintaining core engagement and keeping the elbows hugging into the ribs while the shoulders relax. This will help build upper body strength over time, especially if you go slowly.

Choose a different back bend - Who says you have to do up dog?! There are a lot of great reasons to choose something else to work with in the sequence that will fit just as well (note that I didn’t say flip over and do bridge!). Here are some ideas:

  • Cobra is not as deep and doesn’t require as much upper body strength as up dog 

  • Locust is a great back body strengthener and will also keep weight out of your wrists and shoulders if you have injury or pain there

  • You could also lift the hands in cobra to practice keeping the legs pressing and the spinal muscles working instead of using the hands to push up. This is a great modification to work with especially if you experience any back pain in the pose. It may help you figure out where you need to engage more for support or if up dog is just too deep for you at the moment.

  • You want to get more comfortable with a certain backbend. Repetition is the key to learning.


We do need to maintain the group class environment and this isn’t license to do anything you want at any time. But being able to skillfully modify your practice for YOU is key to a lifelong practice. And we want this to be a life long practice, don’t we??

Do you have other ways you modify this sequence? Or are there other reasons to modify that I may have missed? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you!

3 Big Ideas for Improving Your Utkatasana

Utkatasana or chair pose can be a challenge because it asks us for strength throughout our legs and, by extension, our core. Given that most people that come to yoga are interested in (and if we’re being honest, better at) flexibility this can be a challenge and doesn’t exactly put this pose in the category of favorites. But if you’re interested in balance in all things, you’ll want to include this posture. How can we become better friends with this pose? Here are some thoughts.

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Check your stance and position but don’t make it a habit to do so! An important aspect of this posture is moving our hips behind our ankles. Doing so keeps strain from happening in our knees because we are keeping the knees from going past the toes. You may notice in class I often don’t even call out the pose name, but rather ask you to move the sit bones back to call attention to this important aspect of the posture. As beginners (and even beyond), once we enter the pose we’re often told to take a look down and make sure we can see the toes beyond the knees. This is a good way to start to develop our understanding of the posture. However, once you know the pose, check in now and then, but don’t do it every time you do the posture! Really being able to feel our bodies in space is an important aspect of developing our practice. You’ll also be breaking the line of your spine and effectively taking your weight forward rather than back when you look down (and possibly creating other issues. The human heads weight a lot!). And in our modern world, we want to focus on strengthening that back body line rather than continuing to over stretch it as we so often do.

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Work the legs independently and create less strain in the outer hips by taking a wider stance. If you’ve been practicing yoga for a fair length of time and depending on the tradition you studied in, tadasana and utkasana were often taught with the big toes touching or even the inner line of the feet totally together like so.

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The next time you come into the pose like that, take a moment to really feel what’s happening in the legs and hips. Perhaps you’ll feel fine and strong and that’s great! Every body is different. For me and my frame and the majority of the people I work with, it’s just too narrow. As I like to joke, this practice was invented by skinny little Indian men. I am not that! So what I find is that a wider stance (sit bones distance apart, not hip width which I think would be taking it too far) creates less strain in my outer hips and makes me use the muscles of my legs more, which is in keeping with the strengthening aspect of the pose.

Now if the dang shutter would just snap me AND my hips would be even happier!.png

With my feet closer my knees can fall into each other so I end up squeezing them together rather than creating an isometric contraction in the totality of my leg muscles (that feeling of hugging the muscles to the bones). That feeling of the knees falling in toward each other creates strain in my outer hips, because the muscles there are trying to hold my spine up, rather than the legs helping the engagement through the core. Essentially, the strengthening benefit from the posture is gone.

But again, your milage may vary.

Finally, when moving through a common twisting sequence in this pose, pay attention to actually coming back to where you were in between each twist. We can find a great combination of flexibility and strength by bringing a twist into our utkatasana. The twisting action can help relieve tension in the spinal muscles that may have accumulated throughout our busy days. Where we get into trouble here is when we don’t fully engage between twists, letting the torso stay in a forward position rather than coming back to the full spinal height of the pose. Hopefully this image makes this a little more clear:

Didn’t mean for this one to get so psychedelic but hopefully you get the idea!

Didn’t mean for this one to get so psychedelic but hopefully you get the idea!

As you can see from the layering of these two images, the “lazy utkasana” brings the torso in front of where it might be if I’d been coming into the pose from Tadasana. My belly is practically resting on my thighs which probably means I’m not using my core to support my spine and missing out on the strengthening aspect of the pose again.

To make this more clear, here’s a short video of this twisting sequence. You’ll see me move into the twist and the first time I’ll lift the torso back to where it was when I first came into utkatasana, the second time I won’t so you can see the difference.

Now it’s your turn! Let me know which of these ideas you found most valuable for improving your Utkatasana. And while you may never love this pose, the next time you have to use a public toilet or pee in the woods, you might just thank me! ;-)

Shoulder shredder no more!!

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There's this old joke in the yoga world that Chaturanga is Sanskrit for shoulder shredder. Yikes! As is true with many things like that, the joke probably sprang from some bit of truth. In so many vinyasa yoga classes this is a posture that is often rushed through, misunderstood and therefore misaligned, and doesn't often get much slow precise attention because of being rushed and misunderstood. I know that certainly was the case for me for a long time.

Today I'd like to bring a bit of clarity to the basics of this pose so whether you can do it or not, you have a better understanding of what it is and how to work towards gaining enough strength to do it well.

First off, the actual translation of the Sanskrit name Chaturanga is Four Limbed Staff pose. This already tells us a great deal about the actual posture! Our four limbs are involved, and it's a pose that emulates a staff. When you think of a staff, it might draw to mind something like this:

This was as close to Gandalf as I could get without copyright infringement! ;-)

This was as close to Gandalf as I could get without copyright infringement! ;-)

Ignoring any magical connotations (although it can be pretty magical when you can finally do Chaturanga well!) notice that the staff pictured here is long, straight and strong looking. If we leave out our arms for a moment, we can translate that into the pose and our body by thinking of it as long and straight like a staff. Remind you of anything?

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Yep. Plank pose. Plank pose is mostly commonly the pose we're in before we attempt Chaturanga. Our plank pose needs to be strong and well aligned first. Notice in the picture above that there is a very distinctive straight line from the heels right up through the crown of the head.

Sometimes we refer to plank as a high pushup and Chaturanga as a low pushup. But here's the catch - your belly/hips should not touch the floor in Chaturanga. By all appearances, to move from plank to Chaturanga you simply bend your arms and lower part way to the floor. (That isn't actually true by the way. The transition between plank and Chaturanga is another topic which I'm happy to write about if there's interest. Let me know in the comments!) The four limbs (or really your hands and the balls of your feet) should be the only things touching the floor.

And if you're really lucky, your photographer is quick with the shutter!

And if you're really lucky, your photographer is quick with the shutter!

Easier said than done! If you've ever tried it you probably know that stopping before you hit the ground is incredibly difficult. At least until you've gained the strength needed to do so. It's also really important for the shoulders that they don't fall below the elbows. You can see that pretty clearly in the image above. The muscles of the shoulder girdle need to be strong enough to keep the shoulder joint stable while it holds the weight of the body off the floor. That's probably how that old joke got started. So how can we build the strength we need to do this posture well?

You may have noticed in my classes this past couple of weeks we've been working quite a bit with back body strengthening postures. The muscles of the back of the body are often overstretched and weak due to our modern lifestyle (raise your hand if your slumping over a computer keyboard or hand held device right now! Made you straighten up, didn't I?! ;-)). Some of these postures other than plank, as mentioned above, include:

- Locust pose: With the belly down on the mat the back body muscles MUST fire in order to lift the limbs. We've also been including some breast strokes to increase the challenge of this back body strengthening posture.

- Mini push ups with the knees down: Without the strength to do the posture well, the shoulders can be put under undue strain and stress. Here we take the weight of the body out of the equation to focus on alignment of the shoulders and arms and to build upper body strength to sustain the pose.

- Forearm plank: To me, this pose can feel like an all-over workout! Your core is supporting the spine, the legs are strongly helping to activate the core and the shoulder girdle and upper body are sustaining the weight of your body. This is also nice if you have any pain in your wrists; you can take them right out of service and still gain strength. 

If you find you struggle with poor posture throughout the day, strengthening the core and the back body line will allow your posture to improve as well. 

There are many other aspects of this posture that are important to understand but beyond the scope of this blog post. If you'd like even more clarity around this pose, be sure to sign up or join the waiting list for my Yoga Fundamentals: Shoulders & Chaturanga workshop coming up this month or schedule a private lesson with me for even more individual attention! If you have specific questions, I'd love to hear them! Leave a comment below.

I wish you strong stable shoulders!

Spring Awakening with Priscilla Gale!

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Wonderful evening of #soundhealing and #chakrabalancing with Priscilla Gale Friday night! Always love having her and her collection of #himalayan #singingbowls and #crystalbowls! #foreveryoganh #yogastudio #yogastudios #yoga #chakras #yinyoga #vinyasayoga via

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