When I started yoga, I was coming from the background of being a gym aficionado and martial arts teacher. I was, by most standards, strong and fit, but I was looking for some of those other benefits that yoga provides so richly.
I started with Vinyassa Flow and Ashtanga Yoga Classes, I was too impatient at that time for the slower classes that I’ve since learned an appreciation for. One of the first moves that impressed me and that I set a personal goal to “master” (to some degree or other) was Chataranga Dandasana, Four-Limbed Staff Pose. A yogic variation on a low plank that is used in a Vinyassa as we transition to a backbend. Either directly, gliding forward into Upward Facing Dog, or lowering to the floor for Cobra.
It was this whole transition that I was captured by, first stepping back into plank and lowering to the floor, progressing to a jump, and then looking to float directly into the Chataranga position. It’s a beautiful flowing movement that combines strength, stability and grace.
With my background I was fortunate enough that I wasn’t struggling with the strength and stability elements of this movement, I was just trying to make it graceful! Thoughtlessly at the time, I made the mistake of assuming that my experience was everybody’s experience, and that everybody in a yoga class had the strength and stability to perform this movement.
Over time however, and especially when I began to teach, I realised that this wasn’t the case. That holding and flowing Chataranga is not something every yoga practitioner can automatically do. Of course it isn’t. Much as not every person who I start personal training with can perform a press-up; which is fundamentally an almost identical movement.
On Press-Ups and Gender
An aside on press-ups here.
The ability to perform, or indeed not to be able to perform, a press/push-up has a certain controversy surrounding it. Especially as an indicator of health and fitness, and especially in relation to gender.
The New York Times published an article on the use of press-ups as a measure of fitness beginning with the statement: “As a symbol of health and wellness, nothing surpasses the simple push (press)-up”.and stating “research” that suggests an average a woman of 40 should be able to perform 16 of them.
Websites such as Jezebel.com pointed out a patriarchal bias in such a statement and the dangers of using those measurements in testing. I came across this “controversy” on the UK website thefword.com which looked at the wider consideration of why many adult women can’t perform a set of standard press-ups.
Without wishing to weigh in too heavily (mansplain?) on the gender elements of this; I can confirm that I come across many people around the age of 40 who can’t perform a set of, or even a single, press-up. But these people are not necessarily “unfit”, certainly by measures of cardiovascular health. What they don’t have is the strength and stability to perform a press-up.
While it might be true that the proportion of women who cannot “press-up” is higher than that of men, and there are some muscle distribution differences which give men a head start in this area, my perception and experience, is that the difference is less about gender and more about actively performing activities that strengthen and stabilise, the muscles that are needed to perform this exercise. That’s the Pectorals and other supporting chest muscles, the triceps - muscles that control the flexion of the arm, and a stable core to control the body on its descent.
This is something that many forms of fitness activity (running or cycling for example) doesn’t help with.
On To Chataranga
The ability to perform the Chataranga in yoga relies on exactly these same muscles, with even more emphasis on stability and motor control as we move and flow these positions.
We know that the ability to perform Chataranga is certainly not gendered, there are countless beautiful YouTube videos of teachers of all genders performing this move, but if you are coming in to yoga without a background in the gym, dance or another activity that has built strength and stability in these areas, then practising yoga alone is going to take a long time to build the strength and stability needed to perform it.
This is because with the exception of Chataranga itself, there aren’t a great deal of yoga poses that build strength and stability in the chest and triceps, which means if you can’t perform Chataranga to start with, you’re not building up the strength and stability you need to perform it. A chicken and the egg situation!
Many yoga purists are keen on the idea that you do not need to do any other activity to “supplement yoga”, and of course it’s true that it is a wonderful holistic system.
But I started going to the gym to support my martial arts practice, I started doing yoga (among other reasons) to improve the flexibility that I was losing by going to the gym. In the wider fitness world cross-training is incredibly common, indeed completely normal. For example, sprinters of all forms spend as much time in the gym building strength as they do on the track or the pool practising their event. Wise football and rugby players incorporate yoga into their training regimes to gain stability, flexibility, and proprioception benefits.
If we want to “improve” our yoga by adding Chataranga into our practice, it makes sense to spend some time on some supplemental exercises that will facilitate this goal, and that’s what I’m presenting below:
Here then are three exercises that look to build the strength and stability in the core and upper body that will allow you to flow into, hold, and glide out, of your Chataranga.
Exercise 1: Child’s Pose > High Plank > Slow Lower Down
I “invented” this exercise specifically for yoga people wanting to practice this movement. (I’m sure many other teachers have also used the same idea).
In this exercise we are combining the traditional yoga poses, Child’s Pose (Balasana) and Plank (Uttihita Chaturanga Dandasana - if you really insist), with a principle that we use when building strength to lift heavier weights in the gym, called “forced negatives”.
Briefly, the idea of a “forced-negative” is to perform the concentric (closing of the joint) part of a lift on your own, and be assisted in the eccentric (opening of the joint) part. So, for example on a chest press you would lower the weight down yourself, but lift it back up with the help of a partner. This gets the body used to working with the weight, and increases strength.
The idea of this yogic version is that we flow from a Child Pose into a Plank, then lower our body to the ground in a straight line, as slowly as we can. Take a breath, flow back into child’s pose, take a breath and when you’re ready repeat.
Initially “as slowly as you can” might not be very slowly at all, and you might not be able to perform the exercise more than two or three times, but work towards six repetitions of the exercise nice and slowly.
Exercise 2: Bench/Chair Tricep Dip
With Chataranga, our arms are tucked neatly into the side of her body, which means that our Triceps take as much of the weight as the chest does when we lower.
Fortunately, there are lots of exercises that we can do to strengthen our triceps, I’ve chosen this one because although I’m practising it in the video on a gym bench, you can absolutely use a chair, sofa or even a low table (just make sure it is strong and stable!) for the exercise.
As shown in the video, to perform you place your hands behind you on the supporting surface, and walk your feet out, before lowering down and raising up by bending the elbows.
Note that the closer you have your feet the easier the exercise will be, so you can progress this exercise by walking your feet further away, as I show in the video.
Exercise 3: Press-Up (With Progression)
Finally, since I made the point that Chataranga is so like a Press-up, we can use that exercise to train for it.
In this video I provide three progressions. Starting with my knees directly underneath my hips, my knees walked further back but still on the floor, and finally with my knees raised. This process is extending the length of the exercise, the length of the lever, and therefore increasing its difficulty.
Through all the variations I ensure that I engage core and my glutes, as I extend out. I don’t let my belly sag down towards the ground. If that happens, come back a stage.
By the time you can perform two or three of the full press-ups, you will have the strength to hold and glide into and out of Chataranga.
PS - Why no low plank?
A short note on this since I’ve been asked the question. "Why did I not include the traditional “Low Plank” exercise in this routine?"
Well don’t get me wrong, I love me a low plank. As pretty much every one of my PT students can attest. If you want to add the isometric hold of a Low Plank as a fourth exercise in this routine please be my guest!
The reason I didn’t include it however, was because I wanted to keep this short routine to 3 exercises, easy to remember and slip into home yoga practice, or other fitness session.
The exercises that I have chosen all involve movement, because although Chataranga is a static-hold, in a yoga class it’s almost always incorporated as part of a Vinyassa movement. We move in and out of Chataranga, we flow through it. We don’t hold it for xx seconds, the way we would the “Low Plank”. Therefore, I’m concentrating on exercises that give us this feeling of strength and stability while moving.