Modern Yoga Asana is changing around the world. Yogis are starting to look critically at cues and poses and ask questions about alignment & function. This inquiry and scientific reason are giving us a lens to view yoga & see how the movement & mindfulness affects & transforms our physical body & mind.

 

Welcome to the Yoga Renaissance! Where all movement is good movement, inquiry thrives, dogma diminishes, and really anything can be Yoga Asana so long as you’re mindful of the movement you are performing.

This infusion of science through the studies of kinesiology, neurology, biomechanics, etc. has led us to think critically about a few ways we have all traditionally practiced Yoga Asana. Here are two concepts that underlie the intention of this article:

Repetition breeds injury. Regardless of good or bad alignment doing the same pose or the same sequence every class, every week, etc. sets us up to be strong in one particular way. It also neglects all the other forces & vectors that create Resilience: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. A lot of yoga injuries occur because we move our body in a particular direction, stress it in a particular way, and never introduce other movements that create strength in a multitude of directions, speeds, & other variables. In a few styles of yoga Chaturanga is something we do very often, in almost every class, with a lot of repetitions.

Variability is truly the spice of life. Your brain thrives off new stimuli, and movement is one of the best ways. Novel movement is like candy for your nervous system. It lights up your brain and almost forces you to be present because you’re connecting to new sensations and forming new neural pathways. Variability also introduces other vectors and forces which ensure that we are strong from every angle & area in our body rather than one way, one pose, or one sequence of movement. When we eliminate something we do commonly, like Chaturanga, it presents an opportunity to introduce a new challenge & new stimuli.

My intention in this article: I’m not here to demonize the pose/transition, I’m here to offer you a variety of alternatives. I’d also like to share a bit of my personal journey with Chaturanga and how I began my inquiry and sought out these alternatives.

To clarify, there are two primary forms of reference for Chaturanga:

  1. The actual pose: “Low/Middle” Plank
  2. The Vinyasa Flow transition: High Plank – Chaturanga – Upward Dog – Downward Dog

For most of the article, I’ll be referring to the 2nd definition, as I’m assuming that’s what most of us are exposed to in our yoga classes.

My Personal Journey with Chaturanga

I’ve been practicing Yoga Asana for about 12 years now. Through that time, it was mainly Vinyasa & Power Yoga, and so I’ve done perhaps thousands of Chaturangas. About 4 years ago I began to experience constant shoulder pain from my yoga practice.

I had a prior history of a shoulder injury from my days as a competitive swimmer. All that overhead activity jacked my shoulders to a point where I looked like a drowning T-Rex. It was Pilates, and then Yoga that ultimately spared me from shoulder surgery and helped me cross train to perform well in the pool. When my shoulder started hurting again, I assumed this was my old injury coming back to haunt me as old injuries so often do.

I was wrong. I started eliminating certain things from my practice in an attempt to understand why my shoulders hurt after Yoga. I started with eliminating jumping forward and back, nothing. I then did without arm balances, still nothing. I finally withdrew Chaturanga and my shoulders started feeling great again. I could even add in jumps & arm balances with no pain after my practice!

That’s where scientific inquiry started. How was this pose creating so much pain in my body? It didn’t seem like it would. My form was pretty good in both Chaturanga & Upward Dog, and I could do most of the advanced stuff (like adding in push-ups or Reverse Chaturanga) with ease.

My inquiry boiled down to:

  • Repetition: I was one of those ego-centered students who prided themselves on doing every single chaturanga in every class (which was like 20-30 Chatas in 3-4 classes a week at the time)
  • Compression: Chaturanga & Upward Dog together can create a lot of compression in both shoulder & wrist joints

Combine those two, and you get a nasty mixture that breeds inflammation. Bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage hit each other many times in class, multiple classes a week, aggravate and inflame until eventually your nervous system throws in the towel and sends up the pain flag.

I was at first concerned for my own body, but then I realized that I was teaching this transition and potentially harming students in my class. I asked around, and sure enough at least a 1/3-2/3rds of my classes admitted to having shoulder pain that could be from yoga. I eliminated the pose from my teaching and BOOM that number dropped right away.

In the beginning of my now Chaturanga-less Intermediate Power Vinyasa class a new problem emerged, what do I teach instead of Chaturanga? Despite me not teaching the transition, people would still take it. I concluded that I could not just skip it, despite my belief and explanation to my students that it was potentially injurious.

My students still wanted a challenge. I think that many of us look at the transition as a challenging one, perhaps even an objective to build up to. That’s why I started to hybridize & weave in exercises from kinesiology and other forms of movement. When it comes to truly challenging our bodies, novelty & variety are some of the best ways to do that.

Nowadays nobody takes Chaturanga in my class, and most importantly: they don’t feel like they are missing out on anything. I still teach at a major Power Vinyasa studio, and not a week goes by where a student or fellow teacher comes to me with shoulder pain. My usual advice: skip the Chaturangas. Sure enough within a week most people already feel better.

It’s time to move past this outdated transition and into the future of sustainable Asana practice. I hope that you will also see the value in the variety and alternatives I’ll offer in the next section.

It is time for us to watch as Chaturanga crawls into a tar pit and gives off its dying moans

Chaturanga Alternatives

Let’s start by looking at the feeling of strength & challenge the transition offers us.

It’s a false sense of strength!

Ask anyone who performs Chaturangas religiously throughout class how many push-ups they can do. You’ll find the answer quite abysmal (for lack of a better word). If Chaturanga was indeed making you stronger, you should be able to perform at least 10(ish) pushups, no problem. Right?

Trina Altman described it perfectly in her Yoga Journal article. (Give that article a read, it’s an eye opener)

Here’s my favourite excerpt:

“You need to be able to bench-press 56 percent of your body weight to do a push-up with good form. For Chaturanga, because the narrower position of the arms shifts the load, you need that strength specifically in the smaller muscles, like the triceps and anterior deltoids, instead of the larger and stronger pectoralis major muscle.”

In my words: if you can’t do a wide-armed push up well, you will not be able to perform Chaturanga well, especially not in the average of 30 featured in almost every class. We want those big movement generator muscles (Pecs) active and strong first and foremost before we start imposing our weight into the smaller – coordinator muscles.

Moment of Satya (Truth): Chaturanga is a bit more advanced for our bodies than how it’s commonly treated. Doing 30 Chaturanga transitions in a class is a lot for your poor deltoid and triceps. Do a proper shoulder/wrist warm up, cut down that number to like 3, and you’re already setting people up for success & sustainable practice.

Alternative #1: Wide Armed Push-Up

It goes without saying, the best precursor, prep, and alternative is a Wide Armed Pushup. If you can perform these well, then you’re cleared for Chaturangas (if you choose to continue to do them after all the sweet new stuff you’ll learn in this article)

Instructions:

  1. Start in Plank, with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width distance
  2. Plant each fingertip into the ground
  3. Inhale – Lower about half way, bend your elbows out to your side (like a letter V)
  4. Exhale – Push the ground away through your fingers

Alignment Notes:

  • Make sure your shoulders and hips stay in a straight line to avoid dumping your chest. A block on the Sacrum or the middle back is a great way to help cultivate awareness of this alignment
  • You should feel this in your Pec muscles and behind your shoulders.
  • To make it harder, lower all the way to the ground!
  • If it hurts your wrists, lift up the base of your palm by folding up your mat or using a blanket.
  • Speed Training: Go slow as you lower, go fast as you lift back to plank

Alternative #2: High Plank – Cobra – Childs – Table – Downward Dog

This is a great and highly accessible regression that emulates the same motions as the Chaturanga transition. You get the eccentric strengthening from lowering down, a less shoulder compressive backbend in cobra, and some pushing strength from pressing back to Child’s Pose.

Instructions:

Assuming you know the alignment of each of these poses, here’s the breath-to-movement breakdown:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Lower your stomach to the ground
  3. Inhale – Cobra Pose
  4. Exhale – Lower back to the ground
  5. Inhale – Lift to Table Top
  6. Exhale – Push back to Child’s Pose
  7. Inhale – Table Top
  8. Exhale – Downward Dog

Alternative #3: [Hybrid Pose] Cobra-ranga

This is the only way I’ll ever teach anything near a Chaturanga – Upward Dog transition now. It’s a simple & engaging way to go through the same motion.

Disclaimer: It’s not as elegant or as pretty as the “regular” flow.

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Slightly bend your elbows and lower down approx ¼ of the way
  3. Inhale – Cobra Pose your chest (your elbows will stay mostly bent)
  4. Exhale – Downward Dog

Alignment Notes:

  • When learning this pose, it’s much easier to perform if you’ve done a Cobra Pose right before, it’s essentially a Cobra Pose in High Plank
  • Your elbows will stay slightly bent
  • Sensation: Back of the arms (triceps) & your muscles behind your shoulders (Traps, Lats, & Rhomboids).

The above three offer variety and challenge while remaining true to the motions (lowering, backbending, and pushing back) of Chaturanga.

The next few poses will be for those of us that want a little novelty and strength training.

Fancy Alternative #1: Anti-Rotation Arm & Leg Lifts

These movements are my favorite to sequence in because they’re highly accessible and offer an opportunity to get some great reflexive core strength while you’re flowing through class.

Anti-rotation Refers to avoiding twisting or collapsing your body.  When one segment moves, everything else remains strong & still.

1 Leg Plank Lift

1 Arm Plank Lift

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Easy: Lift 1 Leg – Hold, & Alternate with the other
  3. Hard: Lift 1 Arm – Reach forward, Hold, & Alternate with the other

Alignment:

  • Avoid moving the rest of your body when you move your arm/leg. A block on your Sacrum is a great way to help cultivate this awareness
  • When Lifting with your arm – lift skyward through your thumb to activate the back of your shoulder
  • When lifting with your leg – lift skyward with your heel to activate your Glutes & Hamstrings

1 Arm Plank Shoulder Tap Variation

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Tap 1 Hand to opposite shoulder
  3. Inhale – High Plank
  4. Repeat

Alignment: Avoid swaying your pelvis, try to stay in High Plank the whole time.

Opposite Arm & Leg Plank Lift

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale- Lift your Right Leg
  3. Inhale – Lift your Left Arm (opposite arm)
  4. Hold & try to stay stable
  5. Switch & Repeat

Alignment:

  • This has the same alignment as a single leg/arm lift from above.
  • A Birddog Exercise is a great way to prepare for this kind of movement.

Fancy Alternative #2: Side Plank Spin

Another great transition is to spin from High Plank to Side Plank.  Instead of challenging the front and back of the body, this offers an opportunity to impose some challenge to the Lateral Line of muscles (or Sidebody)

High Plank -> Side Plank

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Inhale – Spin open to Side Plank
  3. Exhale – High Plank
  4. Inhale – Spin Open to Side Plank (other side)

Alignment:

  • Spin onto your pinky toes as your arm begins to reach upward.
  • You can make it harder by trying to lift your top leg up as you reach up.

High Plank Twist Variation

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank (widen your feet to hip or mat width distance)
  2. Inhale – Lift your arm up, keep your hips leveled & avoid moving them
  3. Exhale – High Plank
  4. Inhale – Twist to the other side

Alignment:

  • This transition is quite simply adding a twist to the Thoracic Spine in a High Plank. To do this it’s essential the hips stay level and avoid moving.

Advanced: High Plank -> Bottom Leg Up Side Plank

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Inhale – Lift your Right Leg & bend your Right Knee
  3. Exhale – Spin to your Left into Side Plank
  4. Hold & Hover your bottom leg by lifting the inside of your knee (adductor side) skyward.

Alignment:

  • This is very challenging! (And the reason why it’s one of my absolute favorites)
  • When you spin to the side you’ll rotate onto the inside edge (big toe side) of your top leg & foot.
  • Sensation: Inner thighs on both the top (supporting) leg & on the bottom (floating) leg.

Fancy Alternative #3: High Plank –> Forearm Plank

This is a simple one I’m sure many of us have done, but I wanted it in here to show you that it’s equally as challenging and a suitable alternative. Plus, you can spice it up with a little Forearm Side Plank or repeat lifting and lowering a few times.

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Forearm Plank
  3. Inhale – High Plank
  4. Repeat Breath to Movement

Alignment:

  • Start with using the Right arm to initiate the transition to lower down and lift up, then switch to your left initiating after a few reps so you’re even on both sides!
  • Avoid collapsing in your chest & lifting your hips too high

Fancy Alternative #4: High Plank -> Crouching Tiger & Animal Flow

This comes from our movement brothers & sisters in Animal Flow.  You can hover your knees down out of High Plank or Downward Dog (Hovering Knee Table Top = Crouching Tiger Pose) and introduce a beautiful variety of movement.  I’ll show you reaching into Beast & Side Spin.

High Plank -> Crouching Tiger

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Bend Your Knees to hover (you may need to walk your feet slightly forward)

Alignment:

  • Crouching Tiger is a Hovering Knee Table Top, you can enter the pose by simply tucking your toes and pressing off the ground to hover your knees
  • Your hips should stack directly over your knees, and your knees should align with your ankles
  • Keep your shoulders & hips in the same line

Crouching Tiger -> Beast Pose

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Crouching Tiger (You may need to walk your hands back, or your feet forward)
  3. Inhale – Hold & Align
  4. Exhale – Knees Hovering Child’s Pose
  5. Inhale – Step your Right foot forward & reach your Right hand forward
  6. Exhale – Knees Hovering Child’s Pose
  7. Inhale – Switch, step your Left foot forward & reach your Left hand forward.

Alignment:

  • Knees Hovering Child’s Pose is exactly Child’s Pose with your knees hovering (I know that’s redundant). Keep your knees more in vs wide.
  • You will reach and step forward with the same side
  • The other hand will stay firm on the ground
  • Both knees hover the entire time through this sequence.

Crouching Tiger -> Side Spin

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Crouching Tiger (You may need to walk your hands back, or your feet forward)
  3. Inhale – Lift your Right Foot & Slowly spin to your Left.  Pull your top elbow into your side
  4. Exhale – Crouching Tiger
  5. Inhale – Switch

Alignment:

  • This is similar to the bottom leg lift Side Plank.
  • You’ll get a lot of activation of your inner thigh (hip adductor) muscles.
  • Pivot onto the big toe side of the supporting leg when you spin, & keep your knee bent throughout the movement!

 

The final few are for the advanced folk that need that little extra spice (or something that looks and feels cool to add to their social media account 😉)

Ultra-Fancy Alternative #1: High Plank -> 2 Legged Dog

I LOVE this particular transition.  2 Legged Dog is such an underrated arm balance.  It’s a great challenge for your core, focus, breathing, & it can be more accessible than a Crow Pose for some people.  Plus, there are some beautiful variations you can add in to play with.

High Plank – 2 Legged Dog

Instructions:

  1. Start in High Plank
  2. Exhale – Push back to Downward Dog & Lift Your Right Leg up
  3. Inhale – Walk your Left hand towards your Left Foot
    1. Layer 1: Your hand will stop ½, flip your fingers to point to your toes
    2. Layer 2: Reach your hand to your ankle/calf/thigh
    3. Layer 3: Compass, reach your arm toward the sky
  4. Exhale – Downward Dog, switch sides or do your Vinyasa until you get to the next side.

2 Legged Dog Variations

Instructions:

  1. Lift your Foot & Press back to Downward Dog
  2. Lift your Hand & Press back to Downward Dog
  3. Lift your Opposite Foot & Hand then press back to Downward Dog

Ultra-Fancy Alternative #2: High Plank –> Scorpion & Flipped Dog

This one isn’t for everyone and should be practiced after a suitable warm up.  I like to keep things a little more engaged, and I also try to hover the foot that flips.  You may also want to pivot your grounded foot so you don’t strain your hip or back.

Instructions:

  • Start in High Plank
  • Exhale – Downward Dog (Keep your Right Leg Lifted)
  • Inhale – Slowly bend your Right Knee to the Left, rotate onto the side of your bottom foot
  • Hold & repeat on the other side

Alignment:

  • This is more of a Side Plank Variation than a true Flipped Downward Dog, treat it like bringing your top leg and hovering your foot behind you in a Side Plank

 

And there you have it!  You just learned over 9 main transitions with tons of variety to spice it up!

Like Chaturanga, Upward Dog, and Downward Dog they all use High Plank as a start to the transition!

What I love about all of these is how present you have to be to perform them. Recall from the beginning that novel movement creates mindfulness. Any time you can get your mind to focus on what you’re doing you’ll be so much safer, engaged, & the movement you make will be graceful & efficient.

One of my favorite things to bring to my yoga classes is a movement that actually strengthens our bodies on and off the mat! That anti-rotation stuff alone is fantastic for cultivating reflexive core strength. Plus, your shoulders are going to get so strong from the variations of High Plank, Side Plank, & Push Ups.

I’ve taught all of these transitions throughout the last 2 years and many have been crowd favorites. All I ask is that you practice safely, listen to your body (don’t do anything that hurts), and don’t teach anything you haven’t tried or understand in your own body. You can always reach out if you have questions!

Get out there and have some fun, my friends. Practice Yoga Asana through the lens of sustainability & stop going through the repetitive robotic forward and backwards bullshit that has proliferated into Asana. Your brain is going to eat the novelty of this stuff up like candy 😉

-Dr. Yogi Gare

Illustration by Ksenia Sapunkova.


Enjoyed reading this article? Consider supporting us on Patreon. $2 donation will allow us to publish many more amazing articles about yoga and mindfulness.