Sun Salutation Anatomy Part 2
4) CHATARUNGA DANDASANA - FOUR LIMBED STAFF POSE
What follows after the equestrian pose (low lunge) is the most difficult part of the sequence. The pose involves very little flexibility and is more about balance, strength and most important of all, technique.
Step back from the lunge and assume a four point press-up plank position. The muscles required to maintain this position are too many to mention. So I will only mention the large more spoken about muscles in the body. Starting with the upper body; the triceps of your arms contract to straighten the arms. The front deltoid and pectoral muscles contract as the hands push into the ground. The serratus anterior (above in red) contracts to stabilise the shoulder blades and to stops the shoulders blades coming too close together (adduction). The upper trapezius lengthens to keep the shoulders away from the ears.
The inner and outer abdominals (above in orange) and the obliques all contract (isometrically contracting - that is contraction without movment) to stabilise the mid section of the body to prevent it from dropping to the ground. The erector spinae and especially the multifidus (the deeper back muscles) of the spine also contract (isometrically) to stabilise the spine and maintain the neutral curve of the spine. The glute muscles contract to stop the hips from bending and then finally the psoas contract (isometrically) and the quadriceps contract to straighten the legs.
Once the practitioner is comfortable in this posture, the elbows bend to lower the body down towards the ground. The elbows are bent so that the upper arm is parallel to the floor. This is the optimum position to not stress the shoulder joint. The image below is borrowed from Ray Long's website and shows the chest, middle trapezius, serratus anterior and the triceps all working to maintain the pose.
The chest, shoulders and triceps all contract (eccentrically - this is they contract in a lengthened position) to stabilise the shoulders and arm and the serratus anterior contracts to expand the chest and stabilise the shoulder blades. The middle trapezius and rhomboids contract to draw the shoulder blades together. The upper trapezius lengthens to keep the shoulders away from the ears.
The "core" must contract in sync to stabilise the middle section of the body. The core is defined as the lumbar-pelvic-hip complex. So the rectus abdominis (deep abdominals), the muscles of the spine, the glutes and the muscles around the hip (psoas and rectus femoris) must all contract (isometrically) together. The hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles all co-contract to keep the legs straight and up and away from the ground.
As you can see from the above listed muscles, chatarunga involves multiple muscles to create and sustain the pose. Lack of awareness and sufficient strength in any one of these muscles can compromise the integrity of the final pose. If you struggle with this pose, then persevere. The muscles need to develop a muscle memory in order to awaken, contract and stay contracted during the pose. This can take time. So breathe deeply and persevere. There is no substitute for effort and hard work.
I have included two videos below. The first is a conversation between Stu Girling and David Kiel. They discuss the shoulder/elbow mechanics of chatarunga. The second video is a short 'how to chatarunga' from the Yoga Journal. This video is helpful, very short and straight to the point.
When performing chatarunga, I ensure my basic press up plank feels right before I bend the elbows and drop.
In the press up plank (feet about a foot apart), I reach forward with the crown of my head and reach back with my heels. I want to feel like I am being pulled from both sides. My intention is to keep my spine long. I try to create the feeling that my body is balanced 50/50. Not only between the front and back side of the body, but also the left and the right. Once I am happy with the correct weight distribution of the pose, I bend the elbows (keeping them close to the sides of my body) and lower down as far as is comfortable, all the while squeezing my quadriceps to keep my legs straight. I feel a firmness into my abdominals and I keep my neck long.
B.K.S Iyengar in Light on Yoga tells us to keep the body as "stiff as a staff". Hence the name Danda (to mean staff). He goes on to say that the entire body should be parallel to the floor from head to heel and the knees taut. The body will eventually be a few inches off the floor, balancing only on the hands and toes.
The video below shows two examples of incorrect chatarunga's. In the first example I initiate the movement using my shoulder blades. This draws my shoulders too far together and actually starts to feel uncomfortable in my neck. The remedy for this is to keep you shoulders stable using conscious awareness and bend the elbows only. You should bend as far as you are comfortable.
In the second movement I initiate using my hips and not me elbows. This in my experience is the most common mistake. Use the gluteals and quadriceps to keep the legs and hips straight and only initiate using the elbow joint as you lower the entire body (as if it was one muscle) down towards the ground.
In the third attempt I assume a full chatarunga. My focus on keeping my body in a straight line. There is equal balance and energy in the pose. After my chatarunga I assume ashtang-namaskar.
RESTRICTIONS - Poor technique.
A common error in chatarunga is to create this movement using the shoulders and shoulder blades as I demonstrated in my first attempt in the video above. The only movement should be from the elbows. Below are images of what happens to the shoulder blades when a press up is performed incorrectly. A press up is a very different exercise (the elbow positioning is different), but the mistake made is the same. Here you see the movement being initiated from the shoulder blades as they slide across the thorax (adduction). In the correct technique, the movement is initiated by the elbow joint. The position of the shoulder blades is more or less the same.
I believe the pose has more to do with technique than it has to do with strength. If you always drop to the ground you are simply dropping down too far. You should only bend the elbows as far as is comfortable.
Once you start to engage and feel the various muscles of your body, it will get easier to lower yourself down. Without awareness of these muscles you just sink and drop. Take time to feel and engage the muscles of your body.
Most importantly.....be patient. If it doesn't happen overnight then don't stress. It takes time but will all be worth it in the long run.
5) ASHTANG NAMASKAR - EIGHT LIMBED SALUTATION
From chatarunga, we go into an awkward pose to say the least. The eight limbed salutation. From chatarunga, the knees both drop to the ground keeping the toes curled under. As the chest lowers down to the ground, the hips go into flexion. The bending of the hips is initiated by the rectus femoris and psoas (hip flexors). This creates length into the gluteals and hamstrings.
The elbows reaching behind lengthens the upper trapezius. The shoulder blades draw together, a movement initiated by the middle trapezius and rhomboids. The chest and front shoulder lengthens.
The spine is in extension so the erector spinae contract and the abdominals lengthen. The quadratus lumborum also contracts to stabilise the spine.
In the part 3 we look at upward dog, downward dog and the finishing half moon (back bend).
Zahir Akram has a number of qualifications in Human Biomechanics (the understanding of human movement) and Anatomy & Physiology. Zahir will be teaching various modules of our yoga teacher training programme beginning in May 2018 and is available for 121 bookings. For more information contact Zahir on 07577 422132.