Monday night’s yoga class included one of those “ah-ha” moments every yogi has from time to time. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing yoga – your body still has things to show you about how to use it best. Two, twelve or twenty years later, it doesn’t matter.
My wee lightning strike was to do with one of my least favourite poses – chaturanga.
Of course, I can’t be sure whether or not I received this instruction once upon a time. Perhaps one of my teachers gave me this tip but if they did, I was too busy focusing on something else to take it in. Or maybe not. I don’t think I’ve noticed too many teachers giving this particular piece of advice.
Who knows? But this insight was an internal moment of oh-my-goddess how come I didn’t get that until now?
Let’s talk about chaturanga a little. It’s a polarising pose, isn’t it?
People can either do it or they can’t. It requires upper body and core strength, and a truckload of patience for those who don’t find it easy.
Men do chaturanga with pride because it’s often a pose they can do well, having spent their teenage years doing push ups and generally having more upper body strength than women.
We gals on the other hand often find it to be one of the most challenging and frustrating poses ever. The upper body and head are heavy parts of the body and I think women have quite a bit of fear attached to hovering their body over the floor.
I suspect the fear is part of the problem. When I took my first beginner’s yoga course, I aced all the poses requiring flexibility but I was “no good” at the ones that needed upper body strength. It’s an attitude I’ve carried with me for years!
Then in some Iyengar classes I did once upon a time, the teacher was obsessed with helping us improve our chaturanga. Which meant that a small section of every class was dedicated to trying and failing. Or trying and falling. More anti-chaturanga attitude!
I blamed my busty-ness. How was I ever supposed to hold my body off the floor with massive… yeah, you know what I mean. I blamed my arms – despite years of kick boxing and swimming and generally being taller and stronger than most women, they were still too weak! I also blamed my (many) left-shoulder injuries.
Whatever. The upshot is that I’ve never been very good at this pose or had a teacher successfully explain how to do it. Yep, I’ve had the cues about making sure your shoulders/head are in front of your arms, not parallel with them. And keeping your elbows tucked into your sides.
But at most, I’ve been able to hold it for a few seconds only. Until now.
The yoga classes I currently attend include a lot of vinyasa-style movement through chaturanga/down-dog and all that jazz. So I’ve been determined to improve my access to this pose, and have been paying particular attention to how I use my body parts.
Which is why I noticed that I’ve been putting too much pressure on my shoulders and not spreading my body weight through my wrists, hands and feet properly. That’s not the insight, but it did help me get there.
Putting too much pressure on your shoulders when one of them is still weak… forces a yogi to look harder. Consider alternatives. Dig deeper. So I did.
Suddenly I’m thinking to myself:
Wait a minute! That opposite forces thing. Heh. Like, how to gain balance in tree pose it isn’t just about standing on one leg, but pressing back up away from the ground. That! Yep, it applies here too. Shazam!!
Okay, that mightn’t make sense if you don’t do a lot of yoga. To translate – in yoga, we work with opposites. So, if there’s force in one direction, then there’s also force in the other. For some poses this comes naturally.
But balancing is generally more challenging. Often, people are so busy trying not to fall over that technique goes out the window. And chaturanga IS a balance pose.
For many years I found tree (vrksasana) a little impossible. It wasn’t until I realised that I wasn’t *just* balancing all of my weight on one leg, that I was able to get it.
To get the wobble out of my tree, I had to use the ground to reach UP through my standing leg, and all the way up my spine. Every part of your body is involved in balancing, not just the appendage(s) you’re balancing on. Pressing my non-standing leg foot more firmly into my thigh, and reaching with my spine upwards (instead of collapsing downwards) was the answer. It blew my mind.
Monday night, it was blown again when I realised that DOH!, the same thing applies to chaturanga! It’s not just that your body is hovering above the ground. You’re using your body to push back AWAY from the ground, too. It’s a little something called resistance.
Specifically, using your fingers and toes to press down like you’re trying to dig them into the earth, and not just resting them against the ground like lumps of concrete. By pressing down we’re actually pushing back up, if that makes sense. Combine that with tucking your pelvis to engage your core and protect your lower back, and suddenly chaturanga is a VERY different pose.
When I explained this to my own students last night (it really helped them, too), I also asked them to think about how headstand or handstand works. Neither pose is held by simply letting your body weight collapse into the ground. You need to send force/energy in the other direction to maintain them, right?
RIGHT! So all this time I’ve been doing headstands, natarajasana, vrksasana, bakasana and other balances… perhaps it was my mental block/fear around chaturanga, but I hadn’t translated this learning across. Silly girly!
Or rather, “ah-ha”! 😀