Two variations of the same pose, plank (with straight arms) doesn’t have a commonly used Sanskrit equivalent and chaturanga (with elbows bent) doesn’t have an English one. Chaturanga Dandasana means four-limbed staff pose and the implication that your body should be straight and strong applies to both variations. Though plank and chaturanga are currently two of my favorite poses, we didn’t always get along so well. I grew up one of those reedy slouching girls who looked as though a strong wind might knock them over (yes, I probably had a scowl to match). My upper arms were the bane of my existence. With zero awareness that a rather large sub-sect of the population would trade arms in a minute, I always lamented my lack of biceps and complained that my upper arms were barely larger than my forearms. This body type is often associated with a total lack of awareness of the abdominal muscles and I was no exception.
My first introduction to push ups (yes, basically these two poses together become a glorified push up) was when I started doing martial arts in college. I couldn’t do a single one. Not even on my knees. Yet we did them every day in karate class, so I had to cheat by not going all the way down to the ground. But with all that practice, I got stronger and stronger to the point that I can now do about 20 all the way down to the ground. Over the course of the last decade and then some, I have learned to love push ups or at least their effects on my arms and my core.
These poses are strong medicine – respect them and they will make you strong. Do them half-heartedly and you can cause permanent damage. In some yoga classes you will do many many many planks and chaturangas, which can be great for your upper body strength. Or murder on your shoulders and low back if you get sloppy with your form.
The most common misalignment is a sagging back due to low core strength and/or awareness. A plank is supposed to be one strong line from your head to your toes. To begin building strength, start on your forearms instead of your hands. Lift your hips in the air until your butt is higher than your shoulders, then tilt your pelvis like you are trying to round your low back towards the ceiling until your hips are once again about the same height as your shoulders. It will feel like you are trying to push your sitting bones towards your knees and will force you to engage your core. When you feel strong holding a plank on your forearms, then work from your hands with your wrists under your shoulders.
In many yoga classes, we use plank as a transition pose to get to the ground by lowering to chaturanga, and then to the belly. Even some people who are solid in plank start to do the “wet noodle” as they lower to chaturanga. To remedy this, do the push ups from your knees instead of your toes. You will get more benefit out of a solid knee push up than a noodley standard push up.
Another common misalignment during the plank-chaturanga transition is shoulders dipping forward as you lower. This is hard on a set of four muscles designed mostly to rotate your arm in and out – the rotator cuffs. To protect your rotator cuffs, keep your elbows in towards your ribs (rather than out in line with your shoulders like a military push up) and keep your shoulders lifting towards the ceiling as you lower to the ground.
Once you can do a strong and well aligned push-up from your knees, start lowering from your toes and keep your knees down for the way back up. The final step is to stay on your toes for the entire movement, but there is no rush to get there because you will get more benefits from steady work at a level where your body is capable of holding good alignment than pushing yourself to get to a particular form.
Here’s a little video tutorial on plank and chaturanga.
Hope that was helpful. If so, please let me know in the comments below. If you have any questions, please leave those in the comments as well.