You start off your yoga flow with a wonderful period of calm centering followed by an invigorating series of breath work. Your yoga teacher guides you into a light series of cat poses and eases you into mountain pose. Then, your teacher sets your stance for a vinyasa flow. You feel ready, full of confidence and awareness. You breathe in, arms rise with grace. Then you exhale and fold mindfully into standing forward bend. You then inhale to extend the spine and prepare for your step back. Then, IT comes, the yoga pushup!
Chaturanga Dandasana is a highly delicate pose to perform. Without proper strength and alignment, chronic injuries can easily develop. The sense of struggle with inadequate form also generates a negative energy feedback causing your overall practice to be lacking in benefits.
So what causes Chaturanga Dandasana to be such a challenge? Here are 5 key reasons why yoga pushups feel so difficult and some of the common alignment issues:
1) Yoga Pushups are triceps muscle dominant
The hand position from downward facing dog to Chaturanga Dandasana is a narrow arm stance. Due to the close (shoulder width) position of the arms, the chest muscles (which are the largest and strongest anterior upper body muscle group) are not able to effectively engage and support this pose. Therefore, the muscle loading is shifted to the much smaller and often much weaker (particularly for women) triceps and front shoulder muscles.
2) Yoga pushups can cause shoulder girdle destabilization
If the triceps and front shoulder muscles do not have sufficient strength to perform the pose and the transition to the floor, the body instinctively tries to incorporate the chest muscles. One of the actions of chest muscle contraction is internal rotation of the upper arm (humerus) bone. In a proper yoga pushup descent, we want the elbows and upper arms to be flush to the ribs. However, when the chest muscles engage (to compensate for weak arms and shoulders), this internal rotation action from the chest muscles pulls the upper arms and elbows outwards. This often leads to the shoulder blades pulling forward (a ‘winging’ of the shoulder blades) and into a cascading destabilization; all of which can lead to injury in the musculature supporting the shoulder girdle.
3) Yoga pushups can cause wrist compression injuries
The same internal rotation of the upper arm by the chest muscles carries down to the forearm. As the elbows flow outwards from the ribs, this pulls outwards on the lower arm bone that transmits all the way into the wrist and hand. We often see an excessive ‘doming’ of the inner hands so much so that the index finger pads and thumb pads lift from the mat. This generates an imbalanced shift of weight to the outer wrist. With repeated improper wrist loading, chronic compression issues often surface.
4) Yoga pushups can promote spinal compression
As the shoulder girdle goes through destabilization, the musculature of the core is often neglected. This is presented as unwanted lordotic curvature of the spine as we hold Chaturanga Dandasana and even more so during the pushup descent. For some, the gravitational load of the organs during this lordotic position can cause spinal compression (hyperflexion). The other concern with this core collapse is the next yoga pose. Often Chaturanga Dandasana is followed by upward facing dog pose or cobra pose. Without proper core and bandha engagement, the earlier collapse of the lower spine is readily taken into these back arches.
5) Let’s not forget about your head and neck
Most people already suffer from chronic neck tension issues. When we lose shoulder stability in Chaturanga Dandasana and feel a flood of struggle, the immediate reaction is for the head to drop towards the floor. We watch the floor coming and instinctively want it to come faster. Our visual sense of the floor pulls our skull closer to the ground resulting in the loss of the neutral neck curvature. The neck, over repeated improper yoga pushups, develops body memory of this posture. When we are then in upright positions like basic sitting, the head chronically shifts forward. The neck musculature struggles to hold the head in this improper line with the spine and consequently develops more and more muscle tension.
So how do we modify yoga pushups to prevent these alignment issues?
1) Before setting up Chaturanga Dandasana and descending, set your hands wider (slightly broader than shoulder width). This will enable your chest muscles to engage without causing shoulder girdle destabilization.
2) Always visualize your shoulder blades hugging into and down the ribs, thus retaining the integrity of the stabilizer muscles.
3) Maintain a continuous reaching motion down the index fingers, keeping the index finger pads grounded.
4) Look slightly forward a few inches forward of your finger tips and visualize your fore-head floating away from the ground. Keep a neutral neck line to support the upper spine.
5) Contain your belly by maintaining mild abdominal contraction. Use your exhale to help promote contraction of the core musculature.
6) Place your knees on the floor. Reduce the load on the upper body by placing some of your lower body weight on the ground. This is ideal especially when you decide to try the traditional closed hand variation and developing strength in the triceps muscles.