Why It's Ok to Skip the Chaturangas Sometimes
Last month I went to a yoga class which annoyed the heck out of me. The second posture of the sequence was full wheel (a deep backbend) followed by an optional handstand, which was just for starters, followed by a Taylor Swift dance break midway. These things were all terrifying in and of themselves, but the worst of it was when the teacher said that "chaturangas in a yoga class are like clowns in a clown car-the more you can fit in, the better." I don't always do (or teach) multiple chaturangas in a yoga class, which can leave some students perplexed. Why? Let's start with what chaturanga, as a yoga asana, is.
It's basically a half lowered down push up, but with a fancy sanskrit name. It occurs in the traditional Sun Salutation sequence, and can either be followed by upward facing dog, cobra, etc. As a strengthening pose, it focuses on pecs, anterior deltoid, and triceps, an area that is usually overly short (and often weak) in most people to begin with. Because of a combination of different factors, repeating this posture without strengthening the opposing muscles can create an imbalance in the shoulders, especially if the shoulder blades are not stabilized by the serrates anterior in the lowering phase. In addition, the transition to upward dog can be extremely challenging in and of itself. By emphasizing the front of the body, which is already restricted, most yoga asana ignores the posterior shoulder muscles, such as the posterior deltoids, the rhomboids, and the external rotators of your shoulder (infraspinatus, teres minor). Musicians in particular, tend to be weak in these areas from repetitive practice and lack of cross training. There are also consequences for wrists unused to bearing full weight in full extension (read my thoughts on that), as well as exarcerbating restriction in the front of the chest.
What can you do instead? If you are someone who practices a style of yoga which might feature 25-50 chaturangas in each class, consider laying off of a few here and there, especially if you have past or current shoulder issues. Sometimes the movement gets accelerated to a point that quality of movement is compromised, which is not ideal either. I've restricted my chaturangas to 10 or less in a class, and added strengthening poses for the back of the shoulders and lats, as well as some weight training and hanging from a bar. (Also, look at what is happening in the your shoulder blades as you lower- if there is a lot of retraction happening, your serratus is not helping you to stabilize and create some external rotation.) Here's a quote from yoga teacher Jenni Rawlings, which summarizes my feelings completely.
Before you throw it all out though, ask: am I doing pulling motions outside of yoga? In addition to lowering myself towards the floor, can I push myself up? How many chaturangas am I doing in comparison to other shoulder strengthening work? How many times a week do I practice a chaturanga heavy practice? As with all movements, the question is not whether the movement is "bad." It's whether or not your body is prepared to handle the load, magnitude, and frequency of the action. It's also about whether your shoulder is strong in many ranges of motion to support your work on and OFF the mat!