What’s an eight-syllable name that, when spoken by a yoga teacher, elicits fear (or at least, a groan) in roughly half the population that practices yoga? The same phrase evokes a feeling of invincible awesomeness in many others. The answer: Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose).
Chaturanga looks like a push-up, but it’s not a push-up. It is primarily practiced as a transition pose in Sun Salutations, often between Downward Facing Dog and Upward Facing Dog or Cobra. Chaturanga requires a great deal of upper body strength, and therefore, it also builds the upper body. In addition, it builds core strength, especially if you engage a funny little structure called the hyoid bone while you practice it.
Your Hyoid Bone and How it Affects Your Posture
The hyoid bone is a small, u-shaped bone in the front of your neck that sits just below your chinand above your thyroid cartilage. Place your right thumb on the right side of your neck just below your chin and your index finger on the left side. You can feel the ridges on its surface if you palpate the area. Because it is the only bone in the body that is not attached to another bone it is quite mobile. If you press on it from the right, you will feel the left side pushing out against your index finger and vice versa. Its primary functions are to help move the tongue and to facilitate swallowing.
The position of this little bone powerfully affects your posture. If your chin and hyoid bone are jutting forward or your head is tilting back, your entire core—internal structures such as your organs—will push forward into your abdominal wall. When you draw your hyoid back, lengthening the back of your neck and lifting the base of your skull, your organs and abdominal wall draw back giving frontal support to your spine.
So what does this have to do with Chaturanga? If you are jutting your chin out and throwing your head back in Chaturanga, your organs and abdomen will sag toward the ground, making the pose even more difficult as your arms fight the weight of your core. Drawing your hyoid back allows your core to lift up into your back body, stabilizing your pose.
How to Practice Chaturanga
There are many ways to approach Chaturanga. Here’s one:
- Start in Downward Facing Dog on a nonskid mat. Draw your hyoid bone back so that the back of your neck lengthens. Maintain this position throughout.
- Now shift your whole body forward into a plank (Phalankasana),, keeping your pelvis higher than your shoulders for now. Roll your shoulders back so that your shoulderblades slide down and flatten onto your back.
- With your pelvis still high, bend your elbows, keeping them close to your sides. Keep your shoulderblades on your back. Only when your chest is a few inches from the floor should you bring your pelvis to level with the rest of your body, at least when you’re first starting to practice Chaturanga.
- Here’s why: If you lower your pelvis too fast it will come to the floor first. Once it’s on the floor it’s really difficult to lift it back up to level. So if you find your pelvis reaching the floor before your elbows are fully bent, return to Dog Pose and start over, keeping your pelvis high in the air.
- Once you’re in the pose, turn your toes under and lengthen back through your heels, actively lifting your legs upward. Simultaneously lengthen through the top of your head in the opposite direction.
- Take a few breaths before coming to rest on the ground or moving into Downward Facing Dog or Cobra.
Opinions on hand placement abound. The most popular alignment “rule” is that your forearms should be vertical in this pose, but if your humerus bones are extra long—like mine are—this alignment is inefficient. I encourage students to experiment with their hand placement—anywhere from underneath the chest to under the lower ribs.
Where you choose to place your hands depends on whether you are able to flatten your shoulderblades into your back. If you are unable to draw your shoulderblades onto your back in any hand position, I’d recommend not practicing Chaturanga at all.
If Chaturanga Just Isn’t Happening
If Chaturanga is just not happening for you—and in the interest of full disclosure, I confess that it took me a year to be able to hold myself up in the pose—here’s another approach:
- Place a yoga block flat on the floor underneath your pelvis. Starting with your chest high, bend your elbows into Chaturanga position, press your hands into the floor and activate your legs. Remember your hyoid bone.
- You may find your pelvis lifting a millimeter or two off the block. This variation helps train your upper body and allows you to understand what an aligned pose feels like even if your upper body is not ready to hold you up.
Caring for Your Hands and Wrists
Our hands and wrists are comprised of an intricate system of small bones, tendons, ligaments and nerves. They are designed for fine work. They aren’t actually designed to bear a lot of weight. As a result, Vinyasa practices that move through 20 to 30 Chaturangas can result in hand and wrist injuries over time. Practicing Chaturanga Dandasana on your forearms—while staying mindful of flattening your shoulderblades onto your back—can prevent hand and wrist problems. A couple well-aligned Chaturangas on your hands during your Vinyasa practice will probably be fine. But if your practice demands multiple Chaturangas, it’s advisable to practice at least some of them on your forearms.
The most helpful skill in learning Chaturanga is patience. It can take a long time to build the upper body strength and alignment to practice efficiently. If you regularly practice Chaturanga in a fast-paced vinyasa class, take care not to overdo it. More is not always better. Rather, practice with care and practice the pose only if you can keep your shoulderblades snug on your back. The freedom available to you in any pose depends on the quality of your attention, not what your pose looks like.
Updated article from June 2014.
I recently read an article about Chaturanga Dandasana for rounder people whose bellies might never come off the mat.
If I understood it correctly it mentioned that it is the back, humerous, legs and heels that should be aligned and off the floor. The weight comes off the belly but the belly is not necessarily in the air.
Before reading this I tried desperately to lift my front high and was very discouraged. There is still a feeling of lightness in lifting the back side and letting the front release.
Hi Ann, Thanks for this. I feel that you can still be practicing and benefiting from Chaturanga even if your belly is supported, whether on the floor or on a block. What you describe makes total sense. Drawing your hyoid bone back may not lift the belly off the floor, but it will encourage your core to move back into your back. This can also increase the feeling of lightness.
I always enjoy reading your posts Charlotte, they’re very insightful. I just have a question about the alignment in chaturanga dandasana: how would you know if someone has long humerus bones? I struggle with this pose sometimes and wonder if perhaps this is the case with me.
Hi Brigid, Thanks for your comment. If you stand with your arms at your sides, check where your elbows hit your side body. My humerus bones are so long that elbows actually hit my pelvic rim. I see guys in my classes whose elbows hit way up above their diaphragm. For them, it’s very easy to have their forearms vertical because their hands are at chest level. For someone with long arms, it’s really hard to do the pose with your forearms vertical because when your hands are down at hip level, that leaves the whole upper torso unsupported. Does this make sense?
Great article! As a yoga teacher that is one of the most common questions asked of me. Interesting, never thought of the hyoid bone, but wow, it really makes a lot sense. Thank you!!
Hi Whitney, Thanks for your comment. The hyoid position is really subtle but powerful. It affects every single pose you do. I originally learned about the hyoid from Donna Farhi, and this info has changed my practice and my posture in general. Have fun exploring!
Really interesting article, thank you. Would you elaborate, perhaps in another article, on the physical relationship that accounts for the hyoid’s position effecting core engagement, specifically? What cues have other teachers used to direct students to move the hyoid back? “Lengthen the back of your neck.” “Draw your chin in.” are two that come to mind. We’re really talking abou the head forward position that comes with increased computer usage, driving and living “forward,” so perhaps Jalandara bandha practiced at the beginning of class with brief discussion and palpation of the hyoid would be helpful.
Thanks for clear, incisive read!
Hi Christine, Thanks for your comment and for the idea of writing a bit more about the hyoid and its relationship to the core. The way I’ve taught hyoid awareness is to first have each student find their own hyoid bone. Sometimes I have to find it for them because it’s not always obvious, depending on the person. Once they know where their hyoid bones are I can give the cue of drawing the bone back. Drawing the chin in is not quite the same. When you draw the chin back, often it causes compression in the throat. Drawing the hyoid back is more specific and more subtle. Suggesting that students lift the occiput can be helpful too.
Hi Charlotte, thanks for your answer. That makes complete sense! As I suspected I have long humerus bones too, or just a very short torso but the end result is the same. My elbows hit my hip points and I’ve long struggled with shoulder tightness that I suspect is caused by struggling to maintain the strength required for me to do chaturanga. I’ve been experimenting in my past couple of practices with having my hands under my shoulders and it’s a revelation! It’s so much more supported and less strained and doesn’t feel like I’m going to wrench my elbows, wrists or shoulders! Plus my hands are in the right place for a seamless rise into upward facing dog. Thank you!
Hi Brigid, I’m glad this helped. I heard the instruction about keeping my forearms vertical for years and could never even come close to that. Over the years I’ve found that so many of the alignment rules I grew up with just don’t apply to everyone. It would make teaching a heck of a lot easier if everyone’s body was the same, but that’s just not how it is. The infinite variations in people’s proportions, joint structures, etc., makes teaching and practicing endlessly interesting!
Hello, another suggestion of going into the pose is, lying flat toes flexed, hands in proper place depending on abilities, press toes into floor, lift thighs knees off floor, press hands into floor, shoulders up, buttocks to heels…at this point the pelvis belly are still on the floor, then inhale exhale sharply, this will lift the abdomen and pelvis up…. hold to capacity, keep breathing…
I like the hyoid action will try tomorrow…
Hi Rogello, Thanks for your suggestions. I will try this and I hope others will too!
oh my goodness. I just tried Chaturanga with your tips and I didn’t immediately faceplant into the floor from plank pose like I usually do. That is a HUGE improvement for me. This pose really felt like the bane of my yoga existence. Hopefully thanks to you I can regain some confidence in the strength of my arms, because I always thought they were at fault since I once shattered my elbow and that usually is the culprit of my issues. Turns out my arms are not weak, just insanely long! I’m not fully grasping the information about the hyoid yet, but I’m sure that will come when my comfort increases and my focus will go to my body instead instead of ‘Oh dear, chaturanga’s next…’. Thank you so much for your thorough explanation.
Yay! I’m so glad this helped. I’ve found over many years of teaching that a whole lot of the alignment instructions I once took as gospel just don’t apply to everyone. We’re not all made from the same cookie cutters!
The hyoid is a pretty subtle adjustment. Sometimes it takes people a while to understand where it is and how to move it forward and back. It’s much easier to describe in a class where I can demonstrate. Sometimes in class I physically find people’s hyoid bones for them because they can be hard to find.
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Hello Charlotte, I found your post after searching how to adjust doing chaturanga when you have long arms. I’m going to try your tips, the info about the hyoid is so interesting.
If you’re still responding, can you help with more information about the adjustment for long arms? I’m currently in teacher training and really trying to understand the mechanics of this pose for my body. I have good strength and can hold plank for a long time, but it’s the upward motion of this pose that feels impossible for me. Should I bring my hands closer to the line of my shoulders or chin, then? Rather than at my ribs? Thank you! -Dreena