Chaturanga: The 3 Muscle Actions for Strength and Lightness
Chaturanga is one of the most repeated poses in the modern yoga practice, and it happens to be one of the most challenging on the shoulders. It is highly beneficial to take a look at the mechanics of the posture. I have been studying this posture for over a decade, and I have to say chaturanga seems to be one of the most mysterious postures out there. So many teachers are offering "correct alignment" and throwing around "should's" and "Shouldn't's" without taking a deep look at what is really happening.
Part of why there are so many contrasting opinions is the simple mis understanding that bones and muscles are not the same - or better put, alignment and muscle engagement don't necessarily go hand in hand. When we say that the elbows are bent in chaturanga we are referring specifically to the structure or alignment of the pose, NOT the action of the muscles. If we are to pause in chaturanga and hold it as a posture, what are the muscles that stop the elbows from bending? You may have figured it out - the triceps. What do the triceps do? they straighten the elbows. So we can say pretty confidently that in chaturanga the elbows are bent, but we are trying to straighten them in order to stop or slow down movement. The same is true in the shoulder blades but because the shoulder blades aren't as straight forward as bend and straighten most people have a cloudy understanding of what is happening there.
The Shoulder Blades
What is happening at the shoulder blades in chaturanga? as for the structure I would argue that they are retracted (closer together) and most likely in what is called upward tilt (Video Time Mark - 3:30) - shoulder blades climb up and over the top of the rib cage. These joint relationships are quite normal when you do a "seated row" with your elbows close in. If the hands are wider in chaturanga the shoulder blades are less likely to be in upward tilt and more likely to just be retracted. If you don't follow this don't worry, just know that the shoulder blades tend to move in specific ways when the arms move, and the video above will give you the visual of these actions.
Lets keep it simple, the shoulder blades are retracted when in the bent elbow position. in order to slow down the movement you would have to try to protract your shoulder blades - move them a part - as if you were trying to push back up to plank pose. In the video above there is a great visual of my shoulder blades moving from retraction to protraction at the 4 minute marker. Just like the elbow joint, we can look at the shoulder blades and say the structural alignment is retraction, but the muscle action is the opposite - we are trying to protract the shoulder blades - this is what slows down or stops the movement at the scapula.
In the video I use a term that I created for my Mentorship Mastery students, and have now integrated into my new yoga system called Chromatic Yoga. This term is called a Balancing Action - an engagement of the muscular system that apposes the structural alignment. When we engage the triceps while the elbow is bent, this is a "Balancing Action".
The primary muscles that create protraction are the Seratus Anterior. If the shoulder blades are retracted and we activate these muscles then again this would be called a Balancing Action.
3 Essential Muscle Actions at The Shoulders
- External Rotation of the Humerus - This action will stabilize the Glenohumeral Joint A.K.A your shoulder. I go over this action in depth in this video but just to add to your understanding of why this is important, when you allow your arms to internally rotate in chaturanga, the elbows will wing out to the sides. When the elbows do this you will be putting more pressure in the outer wrists which could cause pain and discomfort. In addition when your elbows fall outward your shoulder blades will tend toward retraction and elevation causing unwanted movement and bringing the body down to the ground rapidly. One thing I want to mention is that if you take your hands wider your elbows will also go wider, simply track the elbow directly over the center of your wrist regardless of the width of your hands. The wider your hands go the more you will recruit your pectoral muscles to help with stability.
- Depression of the Scapula - this will provide more stability/less movement at the scapula and help to avoid over activation of the pectoral minor which tends to be cranky in many yogis. in addition it will help prevent the collision between the clavicle and the humerus that can happen when too much upward tilt occurs.
- Protraction of the Scapula - this is the number one action that will slow down the decent or allow for a halt in chaturanga. Again I will stress that when I mean here is that you are engaging the muscles of protraction (serious anterior) to try to create the action, even though the shoulder blades are retracted.
It is one thing to try these actions out, and another to work on them over time, and build strength accordingly. Have patience with yourself when working on new things, with repetition and practice you will develop the body awareness, and you will build the appropriate strength.
The next video set to be released in January and it will provide you with specific exercises to help you get these actions into your body, so stay tuned.
If you are wanting to to the next step in personal development as a yogi and/or yoga instructor, the Mentorship Mastery Program is the perfect way to strengthen your knowledge, build your confidence and move forward along your path. The mentorship is like life coaching but with the added element of education for yogis and teachers. Depending on your desires we will cover anything from anatomy, to sequencing, injury recovery, emotional freedom, to financial grounding and ease. Set up a consultation with me personally by emailing Matt@TheYogiMatt.com. We will jump on a call and see if taking a journey together will support your growth and overall potential.
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