The Anatomy of Chaturanga. ~ David Keil

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I hear it in so many workshops.

Chaturanga hurt my shoulder!

As if chaturanga is a living breathing entity that has the ability to raise up and hurt people.

Actually, I hear this about many things, whether they are postures or methods. In other words. as an Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga teacher, I hear that Ashtanga injures people. What can I say: it’s human nature to blame something or someone else. As if a posture or method actually does something to us.

The truth is, the pose doesn’t even exist until we actually do it. Key word is we, that is, we, are doing the pose. Sometimes we don’t do it correctly, or we have no focus while doing it, or we’re instructed poorly, it’s even possible that its just karma. Who knows exactly why, but I feel like I do know that it’s never the posture (or method), it’s us doing it that causes problems. I often say that the pose doesn’t even exist until we are performing it.

Let’s talk chaturanga for a bit, the posture that is most often blamed for creating shoulder pain.


The shoulder girdle is complex, even sometimes referred to as the shoulder complex. It is a very versatile and mobile structure and made up of more than one joint. Most of the time we simply say shoulder and this is sufficient for most conversations but of course, it’s me, DK, A.K.A “the bone man” on this end trying to elevate the conversation and reminding everyone to see a little bit more of the bigger picture.

When we say shoulder we’re being vague about what we’re talking about. On the technical side we’re talking about the shoulder joint and when we say shoulder we mean the relationship between the scapula and the humerus (glenohumeral joint). But, this is just one of the relationships in the shoulder girdle.

We also have the clavicle or collarbone that attaches to the sternum on one end and the scapula on the other. The end that attaches to the sternum is the single place where the upper extremity (arm) attaches onto the axial skeleton (spine, skull and ribs). That joint is a whole other conversation to have in a different article. Let’s just say, it’s also complex and has forces created in it from the rest of the shoulder girdle.

The end that attaches onto the scapula is called the AC joint, which is short for AcromioClavicular joint. This means that the clavicle is tied to the scapula via ligaments and any scapular movement includes clavicular movement and vice versa.

When the actual shoulder joint (glenohumeral) moves, it can do so independently of these other two bones and joints. However, when we reach the end of range of motion at the shoulder joint basically bringing the humerus parallel to the floor in a forward (flexion) or sideways (abduction) direction it then always includes movements of these other two bones. There could be a small percentage of people who are an exception to this, but they’re hard to find.


So when we look at a movement like chaturanga, we are not moving out of the normal range of motion of the shoulder joint. However, in order for the shoulder joint to function optimally, the rest of the girdle must be stabilized for efficient movement of the humerus.

By efficient I mean movement that doesn’t over burden or stress the muscles that move this joint. The great debate on chaturanga is where to put those pesky scapulae (plural form). Perhaps more important of a question to ask before you try to make someone hold their scapulae in a particular position is, do they actually have the strength to do so in the muscles that stabilize the scapula? If they don’t, what does this mean for how the shoulder joint itself is going to have to function? What kind of stresses will it have to take on?

Here are some of the main players in controlling or stabilizing the scapulae:

  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Pectoralis minor
  • Serratus anterior

When you see a shoulder not in the “right” position in a chaturanga, it’s not because of the shoulder, it’s because the scapulae are not, or cannot be held in the appropriate place. Why not? Because the muscles that create the stability of the scapulae are either not strong enough or not patterned correctly to make this possible.

This can potentially lead to a strain of various muscles at the actual shoulder joint such as:

  • Rotator cuff muscles
  • Deltoids
  • Bicep tendons

There are other issues at play here as well, including where the shoulders line up with the hands. The further forward the shoulders are from the hands, the more strain ends up in the shoulders. This happens because bulk of the upper body weight is too far out in front to be supported by the hands under it. Imagine holding a twenty pound weight directly over your shoulder, shouldn’t be a problem, but now move it forward just a few inches and gravity starts to work on your shoulder in a very different way.

As far as general alignment rules for stacking joints is concerned, don’t apply it to the wrist and the elbow for chaturanga. OK, there may be a few people who are an exception to this last statement, but most people putting their elbows over their wrists in chaturanga will be putting way too much strain on the shoulder. Not to mention it also increases the wrist angle and can cause problems there too. Most people should have their elbow slightly behind their wrist, which brings the center of their chest and their weight closer to the line between their two hands.

All of this is assuming that somehow chaturanga lives in a vacuum of practice, it doesn’t. If you’re working with someone with shoulder pain, you should also look at the posture that follows it most commonly which is upward facing dog. I often see a pattern of chaturanga that has people forward on their toes and in their shoulders and the up dog that follows tends to put the shoulders way out in front of the hands underneath it. This has a series of effects that play themselves out. One is, it puts a lot of stress on the wrist, second is it has a tendency to put stress in the back by trying to make the back bending aspect of up dog happen, this also tends to lead to a buttocks that is over tightened for the wrong reasons. Third is it puts a load of stress on the shoulders once again.

Another common problem I see is people taking on too much practice too quickly. This by itself can be enough to inflame a number of areas in the body, especially the shoulders. This is especially true if you’re practicing one of the myriad styles of vinyasa yoga.

If you’re experiencing shoulder pain or have students who are, take a moment and observe them. Don’t just try to make them do it differently because it doesn’t look right, look at the bigger picture. Look at the line they’re creating between the front of their shoulder and their hands beneath it. Also take into consideration their general strengths and weaknesses in the practice and whether or not they’re simply doing too much at the moment.


David Keil is an Ashtanga practitioner and Authorized to teach by KPJAYI in Mysore. David has traveled around the world teaching yoga workshops as well as anatomy to yoga teachers and practitioners since 2001. David is known for his simplicity in such a complex subject. He has a straight forward and no frills delivery that makes the anatomy come alive in a way you’ve never experienced. He leaves space for you to make your own connections to your practice.

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25 Responses to “The Anatomy of Chaturanga. ~ David Keil”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Welcome David!!

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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  3. Thaddeus1 says:

    "Who knows exactly why, but I feel like I do know that it’s never the posture (or method), it’s us doing it that causes problems. I often say that the pose doesn’t even exist until we are performing it."

    So well said David, but so not a popular idea in the world of yoga, especially amongst those love to vilify any style of yoga as "dangerous." Although, and perhaps this is just because I'm a little bias, it does seem that Ashtanga takes on more of the blame than others. I'm so glad to have such an experienced and knowledgeable voice such as yours here on EJ.

    Posting to Elephant Ashtanga on Facebook.!/elephantashtangafanpa

  4. jenna says:

    amazing article! and it points out a common problem with vinyasa classes– it takes strength and a LOT of practice to do chatturanga 10 + times in a practice, and I think often times chatturanga is performed too fast—because it is difficult, we want to get it out of the way, a push up, there done, on to up dog. But if we slow down through this, use the core (instead of all arms and will), keep the shoulders back, the hands strong, the kidneys lifted, the jaw relaxed, the ankles reaching back— chaturanga can be like any other pose instead of a burn and churn workout.
    keeping practice mindful….

  5. […] The Anatomy of Chaturanga. ~ David Keil […]

  6. Jenifer says:

    great article, i love this posture.

    i tend to want to keep the wrist and elbows at 90 degree angles, because typically changing that angle means that the shoulders collapse forward into the neck, as opposed to staying in a neutral, slightly externally rotated position, which eventually leads to an issue of the last three fingers going numb.

    of course, your statement about too much practice is a HUGE component here, and I'll add to it "too much too fast" or learning chaturanga before the body has developed the strengths and balances (and mind-body awareness) to safely move into chaturanga.

    for my average student, from raw beginner to chaturanga can be 10-12 weeks of practice, and from there, I invite them to use it about 2-3 times in a given class, rather than several vinyasas over and over wherein they may drop proper alignment. Once the body's muscle memory is there, then I would encourage them to use it more.

    I find this method is much more effective than "drop the knees to the floor," "belly flopping," or "lifting from the floor" versions, as it is teaching the alignment and technique for it from day one. It prevents injuries over time, and also heals the shoulder and protects the rotator cuff in the process.

    Great article. I'm sending to to my teachers in training so that we can discuss it at our next meeting! Thank you!

  7. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  8. Esther says:

    Great article. It's so insightful to isolate the transition between chaturanga and upward dog as a delicate moment. We are often so eager to get out of chaturanga that all sorts of strange things can happen during that one breath. I also really appreciate the combination of detail and comprehensive or holistic perspective in David's article: rather than blaming a single, static moment in our practice for pain or injury, we need to look at the surrounding factors, instances of movement, and, of course, our practice and attitude as a whole.

  9. Chanti says:

    Whoo! Love how this article make us take responsibility as a teacher and a student! Thanks David

  10. tensirk says:

    This is the part of yoga I love knowing. Our body works so orchestrated and with yoga we can tune it up so to say.

  11. […] The Anatomy of Chaturanga. ~ Ellen David Keil | elephant journal. […]

  12. […] articles: The Anatomy of Chaturanga. David Keil is an Ashtanga practitioner and Authorized to teach by KPJAYI in Mysore. David has […]

  13. Anonymous says:

    Can Chaturanga in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga cause repetitive strain injury?

  14. Jim says:

    According to William Broad, “Yoga has produced waves of injuries." Read the NYTimes article:

  15. drbinder says:

    This is a great review by David. If you liked this post check our my Response to David Keil's Anatomy of chaturanga<?a>

  16. julie says:

    i am curious about a wrist injury i gave myself from what i believe was chaturanga dandasana. this is a middle and inner wrist injury (not the smaller outer "little pea" bone). i constantly lift my outer wrist and even my pinky finger side of my hand to ensure that i remain firmly planted on the inner triad of my hand, but, often, still find my wrist hurting to the point of inability to hold any weight. anyone have any pointers as to heal, protect, and rehab my pesky wrist joint?

  17. David Keil says:

    I often say that no pose can hurt anyone as it doesn't exist until WE actually do it. It is the WE doing it in bad form/alignment, before we're ready, or even because of postural patterns we already have that interacts with the pattern of the postures and causes trouble. You won't always be aware of these things until you do or try. So the answer to your question about chaturanga and ashtanga yoga is no, and yes.

    There's not nearly enough information to give you a full honest answer… especially without being able to see you actually move. I'm going to go out on a limb though… try something… see if it feels better and if it doesn't let it go. Turn your hands so that the index finger is pointing forward, not the middle finger. This is specific to you giving it a try… not that everyone should do this.

  18. phil says:

    good article, don't forget the importance of lats in stabilizing the shoulder.

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  22. […] movements which tension or lengthen nerves coming out of the brachial-plexus around the neck—help prepare the wrists to do movements like the push-up positions. They also prepare the neck to move a little bit more […]

  23. […] Everyday seemed like a blur, but somehow out of sheer guilt, I rolled out my mat and practiced the day my son turned seven weeks. I cried when I first practiced, I could not believe how weak I had gotten; I could not even do a single chaturanga! […]

  24. Jessica H Stephens says:

    thank you David…excellent article. It's soo important to understand the anatomy of the poses. Are you able to direct me to a video that demonstrates the correct alignment of chaturanga into upward dog? I often see this performed at speed..or part of a flow practice. I'd like to visually see what you are describing. Thank you in advance, love and light, Jessica x

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