Repeatedly loading the same aspect of a joint explicitly designed for mobility rather than stability is more than likely going to cause irritation and lead to repetitive strain. Coupled with the instability factor associated with the shoulder joint, loading specifically the anterior aspect of the joint capsule as we do in Chaturanga, repeatedly, makes it biomechanically contra intuitive to get the external rotation of the humeral head needed for stable shoulders in the long run.
Why is it so important to cinch and roll the shoulders back? Cinching down the humeral head before external rotation deepens the potential range of the glenohumeral joint and prevents what I now know to be a pinching of the supraspinatus tendon between the head of the humerus and the acromion process.
This pinching can result in ‘impingement’ and the pain/discomfort associated with it is a very common scenario.
The clinical assessment of this condition is known as “shoulder impingement,” and “rotator cuff tendonitis.” The entire movement (cinching down, externally rotating) is very subtle and is referred to as the scapulo-humeral rhythm. Without a healthy SHR, we are continuously subjecting the delicate shoulder joint to an unnatural oblique force in Chaturanga, and in conjunction with other stresses it is only a matter of time before the joint is destabilised.
Because any Ashtanga Yoga practitioner is performing between 20 – 50 Chaturangas in any one practice session, 4 – 6 days per week, year after year, we are especially prone to destabilising our shoulders. The aim of this post is to deconstruct Chaturanga and unpack the anatomy so that anyone, not just Ashtanga practitioners, can understand the factors and adapt their Chaturanga for a lifetime of smooth Vinyasa.
Starting in a high plank, there are 3 essential stages of a safe Chaturanga:
Smile Your Collarbones
Teres minor and then the infraspinatus contract to initiate the cinching and external rotation of the humerus, preventing the humeral head from colliding with the acromion. Once teres minor has cinched the humeral head down, and infraspinatus takes over to externally rotate the humerus, the soft tissues are tucked safely out of harm’s way so that the triceps can eccentrically work to control the lowering of the body from high plank as described in Stage 2. The effect is what Tiffany Cruikshank calls “smile your collarbones” and I haven’t found a nicer way of saying it.
Wings Down, Ribcage up; or, “Push-Up +”
Once the cinching and rolling has been achieved, focus on spreading wide the fingers and keeping the elbows extended, pushing the earth down away from your chest. Activating the Serratus anterior muscles, you will now push your ribcage up and wrap your scapulae around your ribcage from back towards the front. Dr Kate tells me this is called “Push Up Plus” and I have been using this in my rehab and giving it as sequencing in all my classes as it’s a powerful tool for building heat and getting these important core muscles working to protract the scaps in preparation for the last stage as we exhale into Chaturanga.
You can do Push-Up + repeatedly, hanging out there, lowering your ribcage and pushing it back up whilst keeping your elbows straight. It is delightfully exhausting and will wake up sections of your core with which you may not have been previously acquainted.
Descend Slowly, Keep Smiling
Now it is time to maintain the accomplishments of Stages One and Two while exhaling into a controlled range of elbow flexion, “forcing” the triceps to work eccentrically through the full exhalation. The hands should be placed on the floor relative to rib levels 8 – 10; or hands just slightly forward of elbows if not absolutely under the elbows. This exhalation is the essence of Chaturanga, and performing the smooth eccentric contraction of triceps to get the elbows to approximately 90 degrees while still smiling the collarbones will bring the shoulder girdle into the safest position, with forces distributed more evenly through the joint capsule. It is imperative to keep smiling the collarbones; the humeral head is still cinched down and externally rotated. The bandhas are harnessing the pelvis in posterior tilt and taking strain off the lower back so the Chaturanga results in a stable plank that begets the inhalation following through in Upward Dog.
If you are already experiencing shoulder pain, especially on the front aspect, then you should urgently STOP DOING CHATURANGA your old way and consider the pain as an important poke not to be ignored. If revising your Chaturanga and hanging out in Push-Up+ does not make the symptoms disappear, then I would urge any of my students to see a sports doctor or physiotherapist for a diagnosis. If your shoulder has become destabilized, you are setting the stage for further damage unless you take the rehab seriously.
Now that we have seen the importance of the cinching down and external rotation before loading the joint, it is interesting to note what can happen if we do not preserve the health of the rotator cuff. Impingement of the tendon can cause moderate to sever pain even at night, loss of motion and strength, and can result in the inability to abduct the arms, not to mention damage to the labrum, all of which are a fate worse than the inability to Chaturanga 45 times per day, which is need you may want to reconsider in the long run.
In summary, if you would like to practice Yoga for the rest of your life, then review your technique in the foundational asanas. These are the angles of hidden leverage that act endlessly upon your cartilages until one day you notice they ain’t what they used to be.