Using the Hyoid Bone to Improve Chaturanga Dandasana. ~ Charlotte Bell

Via on Jun 18, 2013

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Use your wishbone to transform your posture and change chaturanga dandasana.

What’s an eight-syllable name that, when spoken by a yoga teacher, elicits fear (or at least a groan) in roughly half the population that practices yoga? It is the same phrase that evokes a feeling of invincible awesomeness in many others.

The answer: Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose).

Chaturanga looks like a push-up, but it’s not. It is primarily practiced as a transition pose in sun salutations; often between downward facing dog and upward facing dog or cobra. Chaturanga requires a great deal of upper body strength, and therefore, it builds the upper body. In addition, it builds core strength if you engage a funny little structure called the hyoid bone while you practice it.

Your wishbone and how it affects your practice.

The hyoid bone is the human version of the wishbone. It’s a small, u-shaped bone in the front of your neck that sits just below your chin and above your thyroid cartilage. Place your right thumb on the right side of your neck just below your chin and your index finger on the left side. You can feel the ridges on its surface if you palpate the area.

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The hyoid bone is quite mobile because it is the only bone in the body that is not attached to another bone. If you press on it from the right, you will feel the left side pushing out against your index finger and vice versa. Its primary functions are to help move the tongue and facilitate swallowing.

The position of this little bone powerfully affects your posture. If your chin and hyoid bone are jutting forward or your head is tilting back, your entire core—internal structures such as your organs—will push forward into your abdominal wall. When you draw your hyoid back, lengthening the back of your neck and lifting the base of your skull, your organs and abdominal wall draw back giving frontal support to your spine.

What does this have to do with chaturanga?

If you are jutting your chin out and throwing your head back in chaturanga, your organs and abdomen will sag toward the ground. This makes the pose even more difficult as your arms fight the weight of your core. Drawing your hyoid back allows your core to lift up into your back body, stabilizing your pose.

How to practice chaturanga.

There are many ways to approach chaturanga.

Here’s one: Start in downward facing dog on a non-skid mat.

Draw your hyoid bone back so that the back of your neck lengthens. Maintain this position throughout. Shift your whole body forward and keep your pelvis higher than your shoulders. Roll your shoulders back so that your shoulder blades slide down your back. With your pelvis still high, bend your elbows and keep them close to your sides. Only when your chest is a few inches from the floor should you bring your pelvis level with the rest of your body, at least when you’re first starting to practice chaturanga.

Here’s why: If you lower your pelvis too fast it will come to the floor first.

Once it’s on the floor, it may be difficult to lift it back up to level. If you find your pelvis reaching the floor before your elbows are fully bent, return to downward facing dog and start over keeping your pelvis high in the air.

Once you’re in the pose, turn your toes under and lengthen back through your heels to actively lift your legs upward. Simultaneously lengthen through the top of your head in the opposite direction. Take a few breaths before coming to rest on the ground or moving into down dog or cobra.

Opinions on hand placement abound.

The most popular alignment “rule” is that your forearms should be vertical in this pose but if your humerus bones are extra long—like mine are—this alignment is inefficient. I encourage students to experiment with their hand placement—anywhere from underneath the chest to under the lower ribs.

If chaturanga just isn’t happening.

If chaturanga is just not happening for you—and in the interest of full disclosure, I confess that it took me a year to be able to hold myself up in the pose.

Here’s another approach: Place a yoga block flat on the floor underneath your pelvis. Start with your chest high and bend your elbows into chaturanga position.

Press your hands into the floor and activate your legs. Remember your hyoid bone. You may find your pelvis lifting a millimeter or two off the block. This variation helps train your upper body and allows you to understand what an aligned pose feels like even if your upper body is not ready to hold you up.

The most helpful skill in learning chaturanga is patience.

It can take a long time to build the upper body strength and alignment to practice efficiently. If you regularly practice chaturanga in a fast-paced vinyasa class, take care not to overdo it.

More is not always better.

Practice with care and remember that the freedom available to you in any pose depends on the quality of your attention, not what your pose looks like.

 

Charlotte BellCharlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She’s a fierce proponent of old-school yoga, and cites teachers such as Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater as her main inspirations. Charlotte has also practiced Insight meditation since 1986. She’s written two books:  Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn with the Salt Lake Symphony and the Emmy Award-winning group, Red Rock Rondo.

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6 Responses to “Using the Hyoid Bone to Improve Chaturanga Dandasana. ~ Charlotte Bell”

  1. Bev says:

    Great article! I think I must accidentally engage my hyoid bone…because chaturanga is sometimes easier for me than other times. I love that there is ALWAYS more tweaking and refining we can do with yoga. It makes me smile thinking that I have a 'wishbone'……thanks for sharing…..

  2. Julia says:

    Dear Charlotte, thanks for this insight! Can you tell me where the connection between hyoid and abdominom is? Anatomywise?

    Love, Julia

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Julia,

      Sorry for the late reply. I was in Telluride at the bluegrass festival last week!

      Anatomically, I'm not completely sure what if any connection there is between the abdomen and hyoid. Because the hyoid is involved in the swallowing and the sucking reflex, it is part of the process that kick starts our digestive systems soon after we are born. The hyoid draws back when a baby suckles, which in turn, draws the whole digestive system and abdomen inward. Donna Farhi once said in a workshop I attended that bottle-fed babies often end up with less frontal tone than breast-fed ones because it is less work for them to extract nutrition from a bottle than from a breast. I see the hyoid-abdomen as more of a reflex than an actual muscular connection, although there may be an anatomical connection I don't know about. love, Charlotte

  3. poiseinparma says:

    This is excellent, thank you for sharing. Your quote – "The most helpful skill in learning chaturanga is patience." – is EXACTLY what I'm learning as I rehab a shoulder injury.

  4. I don't disagree with your point, but I'm just a little perplexed on how this has become so complicated – and that in your response above, you don't understand the physiological effect you are encouraging!

    In vinyasa-based yoga (where caturanga is most prevalen), there should be no vinyasa without proper pranayama, which includes using the Bandhas. while there is arguably an 'energetic' element to the use of the three Bandhas (and their associated diaphragms), their primary use is to stabilize the overly mobile areas of our torso.

    thus, all of the physiological alignments you suggest are simply and easily created through proper Ujjayi and the light use of Jalandhara Bandha. This valves the throat, engages the hyoid, lengthens the cervical spine and creates a solid connection of the Anterior Longitudinal Ligament (that's why it engages the core).

    I guess what I'm saying is that if Teachers understood the Bandhas and the proper instruction of Pranayama, the majority of pelvic/sacral issues, as well as core engagement, would be easily and adaptively solved.

    I appreciate what you are offering, and your intention – just don't complicate it! Teach the basics to the bodies in front of you… and, if needed, isn't it just a little more student-friendly to cue "'draw your chin slightly back and slightly upward"? Much more accessible than explaining in class that "you have a wishbone and its name is the hyoid and I'd like you to find it and now draw it back – yes, like your chin is going back!'?

    Thanks again, your physical cues beyond the use of hyoid are spot on and very well outlined.

  5. hey hi,
    very nice post. I have been facing problem of bad posture since many years and I am just 25. Due to forward bending head I am nt able to breath also properly. I cannot take deep breaths while sitting standing. It creates a lot of problems to me as Due to bad posture I feel breathless and can breath with correct posture but cannot hold it for long. While eating too I feel out of breath. I have tired many asanas and exercises to correct my posture but nothing has worked till now. I hope chaturanga works for me.

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