Building Chataranga Dandasana From the Ground Up
What is the correct height for Chataranga Dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose or Push up Position to you and me?) How high of the ground should our body be? What should we do with the shoulders or shoulder blades? How should the hands be positioned? Where do the elbows go?
It's pretty complex.
I prefer simple.
Rather than remembering where everything should go I prefer to practice feeling the parts in isolation and then adding them together one by one in such a way that each part added provides the foundation for the next part. Being able to feel my body I can then position it based on what I feel and what I am trying to do.
So how do we build a Chataranga Dandasana, one that feels good and is safe in the doing?
From the Ground Up
One way is to start with everything on the ground.
This could be like building a bridge or an elevated highway. The pylons are built first and then from there truss work can be built either side of each pylon to support the framework for the road bed. Once that's in place the road bed can be added section by section, working outwards from each pylon.
Once the framework is complete and self supporting (the cement poured,) then the truss work or temporary “scaffolding” can be removed … and used to help construct the next section of road way.
Instead of moving from plank pose down into Chataranga, we can work from the ground up. And instead of lifting everything up at once, we can practice lifting one element at a time, securing it and then using it to help lift the next element.
Measuring By Using Our Senses
Another aspect of building Chataranga or any pose for that matter is being able to feel the parts of our body and how they relate.
The same is true in any engineering work. Everything has to be measured in order to position it, so that it all fits together and works as required. In that way we have roads and bridges that don't fall down if a truck carrying too much weight uses it.
Rapid Gaining of Experience
One of the ways that structure, relationship and proportions of a construct are decided is from experience. Based on experience (whether from previously designed and built structures or from experiment,) engineers know what works and what doesn't. In some cases, they have massive safety factors so that they err on the side of safety, to much stuff, as opposed to on the side of failure.
So that we can measure while we build our pose, we can use our senses and feel each part of our body. So that we know where to place each part, we can gain experience by building the pose over and over again, each time noticing what our senses are telling us and then building on that experience. If we do this from the very beginning then each time we do the pose we can work at making it better, or at using less effort to do the same thing, or we can work at using our whole body to support what we are doing.
To build a pose and experience it, we can simply practice moving in and out of it repeatedly, perhaps with our breath, but more importantly while feeling our body so that we learn what feels good and is good and what isn't.
Focusing on the Arms
For Chataranga Dandaasana, our arms can be considered our main support. While on the floor we can practice positioning our arms and shoulders. We can widen the shoulder blades and then pull the elbows back. We can then use our arms to push our hands into the floor. So that this is easier, we can keep the pelvis on the floor.
At this stage we are only concerned with lifting the chest by using the arms, and even then lifting the chest so that the shoulders end up at the same height as the elbows.
The smoother we move and the slower we move the easiest it is to then learn to feel the parts of our body and how they relate.
For rapid onset of experience, we can lift up while inhaling and lower down while exhaling. So that we can continue to feel our body while doing this we can lift up slowly and smoothly and lower down in the same way.
If we practice lowering down smoothly we are practicing the same action as lowering into Chataranga but from a lower position. In both cases we practice feeling and controlling our body. If we can do both then we need not worry about what position the elbows, shoulder blades and arms should be in, we can choose a position and put them there and based on what we are feeling adjust this if necessary. See side box for soap box speech.
One position may very well be “ideal” but if all you practice is that one position then you're not being very flexible. nor are you exercising your body's full potential.
Rather than getting stuck on one ideal position, instead define a position you want to go to. It may be the ideal or a variation of the ideal. And then go there.
The “ideal” is one single definition. You might not even know if it is the ideal, you just have your teachers or many teachers word on it. so why not explore for yourself to find out what your ideal is.
How do you define an ideal pose? One that feels good and does not have any negative after affects after wards.
The thing is, the ideal may change as your body changes. (I heard one guy, resigned or dedicated to his marriage saying “I know I'll be married to five different women … I accept that and I accept them.” He was talking about the change his partner will go through even as he himself changes in the course of marriage.)
If you can feel your body then you can feel your ideal as well as define it on any given day no matter what mood you are in or how your body feels.
Lifting the Pelvis
Once used to lifting the chest and feeling the arms, we can then try lifting the chest and pelvis at the same time. Prior to this we might practice engage the abs once we have our chest lifted.
Like building a bridge, we don't just throw or drop components into place, we slowly lift and place so that we can make adjustments as we do so.
So even if we only lift our chest and pelvis a little bit, that's fine, at least we're getting off the ground. Better yet, we're feeling our body while we do so. And even better we're learning that we can do instead of worrying about what we can't do. (It's too difficult …)
Adding the Knees and Taking a Break
Once used to that we can lift our knees as well. They don't have to be straight, just lifted.
We can take a break if we need to and then get into it all again.
One way of taking a break is to move into downward dog. Before doing so we can lay on the ground and practice pressing our knees straight and the back of our thighs and shins up. Then we can carry this into down dog.
Each inhale we can press our legs back.
We can also practice using our spinal erectors to bend our spine back, again while inhaling and relaxing while exhaling.
Another way we can take a break from Chataranga is to practice Shalabhasana. We can do this in stages also. We can lift and lower our head, slowly, then we can add our upper ribcage, lower ribcage and to this we can add straightening knees and elbows and reaching arms and legs back together.
When lifting head and ribcage we can reach our back ribs forwards.
Learning to Hold and Making Changes
Once we've had a break, the next step we can do is to practice holding for a breath (an inhale and an exhale) and then lowering. We can practice this while lifting only the chest, and then chest and pelvis and then including the knees. With regular practice we can skip the intermediate steps and go straight to lifting all parts together.
Once we have experience and ability to do and hold we can then work at making changes. Can we go higher and lower, forwards and backwards. We can experiment with shoulder blades together and spread apart or somewhere in-between. ( Spread the shoulder blades first, keep the feeling and bring them together slightly. )
Generally, with the arms forward, the shoulder blades can be spread both for stability (using the serratus anterior) and for mobility of the arms with respect to the shoulder blades.
With the arms down or with the elbows beside the body and slightly behind it, we can retract or bring the shoulder blades towards each other.
If lifting up from the ground, since the arms will end up forwards relative to the body we can position the shoulder blades wide.
If lowering down from plank, we can bring the shoulder blades together.
These are suggestions only. I would suggest experimenting, feel the results and choose based on what you experience.
Now if we are really sensitive, we can feel the way our body weight presses through our arms. We can also feel the forces and the way they pass through our forearms. We can position our palms shoulder width and then position our elbows by feel so that they press straight down through the hands. Likewise we can feel any forces passing parallel our upper arm bone. We can feel our shoulder blade and how it relates to our ribcage.
Doing Chataranga Sensibly
Perhaps the main reason people get injured when doing poses like Chataranga Dandasana is that they do it over and over again without paying attention to what their arms are doing. The better we can feel our body and the more attention we pay to feeling it while moving it the more likely we are to make our movements safe. At the very least we can notice when things aren't right and not do what we are doing.
Prior to that, if we work at building a pose gradually and repeatedly so that we experience it and understand our body, we can then continue to do the pose and enjoy the pose with out hurting ourselves in the process.