This is one of those "oh brother" poses for many, many people. So many people have a hard time with Chaturanga Dandasana that there are full workshops dedicated to just this one pose. To me, that puts it right up there with the ever humbling Handstand.
Because of this, Chaturanga deserves our fullest respect. However, just like all the other postures, we need to remember that it is achievable if we break it down and prepare our bodies.
A Few Things to Know Beforehand
1. Mindset matters. "I can't" doesn't work here. You can. It might take time, effort, and dedication, but you can. You just need the right guidance. So perhaps print this out, study a few videos, or ask your teacher for a few pointers next time you are in class.
2. Yoga is about stacking joints for support. In the Warriors we stack the knee over the ankle, in standing postures we stack the hip over the ankle… and in all the plank variations we stack the shoulder over the wrist. In Chaturanga we stack the elbows over the wrists, and the ankles over the toes.
3. The more you ignite your muscles (tighten/tense), the lighter you are. Think or hum "Oooh I think I found myself a cheerleeeeader!"
Building Up to the Pose
To build into Chaturanga we should practice postures that require joint stacking and core strength. Chaturanga is just as much about whole body strength as it is about the upper body, so work in some holds that teach you how to strengthen your leg muscles and rotate them inwards.
I recommended Plank, Side Plank, Boat, and Up Dog.
You can also start work with some of these movements:
1. Sphinx Lifts
These are great for shoulder alignment and for stacking your arm joints. It will remind you of how 90 degrees feels at your elbow joint. Start in Sphinx Pose, making sure your elbows are directly under your shoulders. Lift your hips off the floor and hold for 3 breaths -- then relax your hips back to the mat for 3 breaths.
Repeat this for 5 reps at a time. This mimics the Chaturanga hold, and strengthens your spine.
2. Swimming Dolphins
This is basically stepping your arms from Down Dog into Dolphin Pose and back several time in a row. It teaches you how to stabilize your shoulders and builds upper body strength quickly.
3. Mountain Non-Climbers
These are mountain climber reps without the leg bends. Basically you are in Plank and keep your arms straight, but lean forward until your chest is over your fingertips. Then lean back again.
Repeat five times in a row to stretch out your wrists and get familiar with that leaning forward motion that you will need for a strong, and aligned, Chaturanga.
Some Specific Things to Think About When Setting Up
1. Knees Down. Start with your knees on the mat so your spine is fully supported. Later you could try lifting the knees half way through your practice when you are warm and your muscles are ready.
2. Lean Forward. Chaturanga Dandasana requires that you lean forward in Plank before you bend your arms.
3. Stack. Your elbows should line up over your wrists, so that your arms are close to a 90-degree bend.
4. Squeeze. Always squeeze your elbows into your ribs. It supports you and activates your triceps for more control.
5. Core. Your belly must stay pulled in to keep you lighter in your wrists and to stop your spine from curving. Your abdominals support your spine.
6. Line it Up. There should be a straight line from your shoulders to the point of contact with the floor (knees or toes). Pull your belly in and practice in front of a mirror to see if you have a sway back going on.
Once you are practicing on your feet instead of on your knees, you want your hips and chest to meet the floor at the same time as you lower down. If your hips meet the mat first, you have a sway back going on and should drop your knees. Eventually you will know just by how it feels, and then you can concentrate on keeping your neck long by tucking your chin to your chest.
Alright, you're ready to Chaturanga 'til the cows come home, and make sure to let us know how it goes in the comments below!