Why Are Yoga Pushups (Chaturanga) So Difficult?
You start off your yoga flow with a wonderful period of calm centering following 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 breath 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 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 to be such a challenge?
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 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 (humorous) 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 are engaged 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 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 the arm. As the elbows flow outwards from the ribs, this pulls on the lower arm bone that transmits all the way into the wrist and hand. We often see an excessive ‘doming’ of the 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 and even more so during the pushup descent. For some, the gravitational load of the organs during this lordotic position can cause spinal compression. The other concern with this core collapse is the next yoga pose. Often Chaturanga 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 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 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?
- Before setting up Chaturanga and descending, set your hands wider (slightly broader than shoulder width). This will enable your chest muscles to engage without causing shoulder girdle destabilization.
- Always visualize your shoulder blades hugging into and down the ribs, thus retaining the integrity of the stabilization muscles.
- Maintain a continuous reaching motion down the index fingers, keeping the index finger pads grounded.
- Look slightly forward a few inches forward of your finger tips and visualize your head floating away from the ground. Keep a neutral neck line to support the upper spine.
- Contain your belly by maintaining mild abdominal contraction. Use your exhale to help promote contraction of the core musculature.
- 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.
Yoga for Bridging Balance and Strength
5 Ways to Overcome a Yoga Rut
Do you have to struggle to get yourself on your mat these days? Has your yoga practice become a chore? Do you find yourself thinking about dinner, the latest movie you want to catch, or just about anything else but yoga during your yoga practice? Are you demotivated, frustrated or plain bored of doing yoga? If you answered “yes” to any of these, it is highly likely that you are stuck in a yoga rut.
Okay, so that’s the bad news. The good news is that it is totally possible to lift yourself out of this slump–I know this as I have personally been there. I succeeded in re-energizing my practice and so can you. Here are my suggestions for getting through this challenging time.
How to Overcome Your Yoga Rut
1. Pause and reflect.
The first and foremost step is to go within and get in touch with your feelings without being judgmental. What are you experiencing? Is it fatigue, boredom, frustration, depression, anger, annoyance, hopelessness or a combination? Next, ask yourself why you could be feeling this way, and listen to whatever comes up. The answer could be revealing and could instantly give you the insight you need.
2. Take a short break.
If you are feeling drained, are lacking in energy or feel physically exhausted, it is possible that you are going through a stressful time in other areas of your life. You might also be driving yourself too hard in your yoga practice without taking an occasional break. If so, the answer lies in acknowledging and honoring your need for some time out.
Our bodies need rest to rejuvenate and thrive, so give yourself permission to press the pause button on your practice while you indulge in other self-care rituals–like massage. You will know when you are ready to resume your practice because you will feel a sense of renewal when you hit the mat again.
3. Try something different in your practice.
We are humans and human beings get bored. It’s a fact of life. If you are feeling bored with your yoga routine and find yourself simply going through the motions, you have probably outgrown your present practice. You need to add more stimulation and challenge to your routine–this will keep your mind engaged and interested as there will be something new to observe, experience and master. Trying a new asana, a new variation of your favorite asana, or altering the pace of your practice by experimenting with a dynamic flow versus static holds could reengage you.
Something that always works for me is to focus my attention on an unexplored dimension during a posture. This could be with a physical aspect (for instance, taking my attention to the way my hips and knees are feeling during cobra pose rather than focusing only on the bend in the back), or it could be through an observation of the pattern of my breath and the emotions, feelings and thoughts that arise during the posture. Try it yourself.
4. Learn or study a new aspect of yoga.
Yoga teachings have multiple dimensions and are richly layered. I find that studying an unexplored realm, such as functional anatomy; yogic anatomy and physiology; or yoga philosophy, provides me with a fresh perspective on yoga. Subsequently, applying this new information takes my practice to a new high. For instance, reading about the Yamas and Niyamas and reflecting on their application made a huge difference in the way I approached my asana practice.
Delving into the anatomy of individual postures keeps me motivated to scientifically examine myself whenever I am on the mat–this process also provides valuable insight into necessary alignment corrections, and creates an awareness of specific muscle groups that need to be worked on.
5. Stop striving for perfection.
If you are feeling annoyed frustrated, hopeless or depressed, it is very likely that you are trying too hard to attain the final posture. Perhaps you saw a relative newbie execute a flawless Pigeon pose at a yoga class recently and felt defeated since your Pigeon is nowhere close. If this strikes a chord, it is a good time to remind yourself what yoga is all about.
Yoga is a journey of self-discovery and transformation. The asanas are just a means to this end. To reap the benefits of yoga, it is not essential that you achieve a perfect posture. As in any other journey, it is rewarding to enjoy the ride and have fun along the way. So lighten up, accept your present levels of flexibility and strength and aim to enjoy your practice. This attitude shift may be all that you need to reconnect with yoga.
I hope these tips help navigate you through the temporary turbulence you are experiencing along your path. Remember, clear and bright skies are just around the bend.