In Vinyasa Flow Yoga three of the most common poses we practice together are Chaturanga Dandasana (Low Plank), Upward Facing Dog and Downward Facing Dog. You’ll see these sequenced together in Sun Salutations and in Vinyasas between poses.
Jumping back into Chaturanga Dandasana
One of the ways to arrive in Chaturanga Dandasana is via a "jump back" - or what I prefer to say: "FLOAT back" - from Ardha Uttanasana (half lift from a Standing Forward Fold) into the Low Plank posture. When taught and practiced correctly with proper alignment, Drishti (focus), breath and Bandha control, and physical core and upper body strength, this way to flow into Chaturanga Dandasana can be safe, satisfying and empowering.
However if practiced incorrectly (probably unknowingly) the jump back from Ardha Uttanasana (or from Bakasana/ Crow pose) can potentially cause injuries. Damage to bursas, tendons and ligaments can often occur if proper alignment, Drishti, breath and Bandha control, and physical strength are not present.
The two most common injurious errors we see in this transition are:
1) Jumping back to High Plank instead of Low Plank / Chaturanga Dandasana
2) Jumping back to Chaturanga Dandasana with the shoulders dipping below the elbows and/or the ribs dipping below the upper arms.
I’ve talked about the second issue in my articles and videos on the muscles needed for a Perfect Chaturanga, so let’s focus on the first point:
What is so wrong with jumping back to High Plank?
1. Force, momentum and your sticky mat
Jumping back to High Plank is all about backward force and momentum – compare this to floating back to Chaturanga Dandasana, which has both forward AND backward force and momentum. (I teach this at the end of the article.)
The great thing about our sticky yoga mats is that they mostly do what they claim to do – they keep us from slipping in our yoga poses. Where you plant your hands and feet for supportive foundation is generally where they stay put.
The problem is that in the case of jumping back to High Plank (with all the backward force and momentum) the sticky mat prevents the hands from moving towards the back of your mat– but not the carpal bones (wrist), the bones at the elbow joint (humerus above the ulna and radius) and the three bones of the shoulder joint (humerus, scapula and clavicle). The abrupt shifting of these bones backwards away from the rooted hand can lead to bursitis, tendonitis, and worse, the over-stretching of the ligaments.
2. Ligaments are NOT elastic!
All connective tissue in the human body is made up of a matrix of collagen, elastin and a ground substance. Depending on the specific job of the connective tissue, the ratio of these three ingredients will differ. Tendons connect muscles to bones and have more elastin. Tendons have collagen fibres that are parallel and have the ability to contract after being stretched. Ligaments connect bone to bone and keep our bones from dislocating (tearing away from each other). They have less elastin and collagen fibres that criss-cross each other, creating more strength and stability. Due to their make-up and shape, unlike tendons, ligaments are unable to contract back after stretching.
So for some yoga practitioners, jumping back to High Plank on a sticky mat could result in a traumatic ligament injury in the wrists, elbows and/or shoulders - especially if there is a previous tear or chronic weakness/injury in one of those joints. For most yoga practitioners, the ligament damage experienced is due to repetitive motion injury... practice after practice of jumping back to High Plank. Clicking, instability and pain will be the result. We always have to remember: ligaments are NOT elastic...they will not go back to their original shape after being stretched.
3. Appreciating the brilliance of our bursas
The design of the human body is so brilliant. Wherever there is friction between two different connective tissues (two bones, bones and muscles, muscle and muscles, tendons and ligaments, etc.) there is a fluid-filled sac called a bursa, which offers protection from the damage of wear and tear. There are over 150 bursae in the human body. In the shoulder, underneath the acromion process (roof of the shoulder blade / scapula) and on top of the head of the humerus there is a bursa that continuously gets compressed when we jump back to High Plank - think banging the roof of the scapula on top the head of the humerus when the upper arm, elbow, wrist and hand are fixed.
Bursitis is the inflammation of these fluid-filled sacs. With bursitis, the movements that the bursae are supporting with friction-protection become painful and difficult to perform. Bursitis is treated with rest, ice and elevation (RICE). Sometimes physical therapy is needed to retrain the patterning of the movements so unnecessary friction does not occur. If a bursa gets infected, surgery is needed.
4. Lower back love: How strong is your core?
Unfortunately, many adults have weak core muscles. When I say 'core' I am not referring to simply our abs, but more specifically, I am referring to the “apple core” theory of the core: the spine and the muscles that support the spine in the movements of axial extension, forward flexion, backward extension, lateral flexion and rotation.
Due to this chronic weakness, the lower back (5 lumbar vertebrae and the discs between them) will take much of the backward force and momentum in jumping back to High Plank as the belly, hips and thighs collapse towards the floor (usually rebounding back up after the landing). Even in a float back to Chaturanga Dandasana, this could possibly occur if the core is not strengthened and engaged.
5. OUCH: Protecting the long bones of the toes
When jumping back to High Plank (again, with only backward force and momentum) the long bones of the toes will absorb most of the shock resulting in the abrupt landing of such an action. Phalanges (long bones of fingers and toes) are levering bones, not bones with the primary function of weight bearing such as short/irregular bones. Research shows an increase of both broken toes and ligament laxity from both traumatic and repetitive motion injuries occurring in transitions such as jumping back to High Plank.
So we know what not to do and why, but how can we make sure we are jumping back in a way that will keep us practicing into old age?
The answer is to balance the action with some forward force and momentum by landing in Chaturanga Dandasana (Low Plank) instead of High Plank. Here's my teaching method for putting that into action:
Safely FLOATING into Chaturanga Dandasana
In a Sun Salutations, after folding into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) there is a very practical half-lift of the torso into Ardha Uttanasana. In my opinion one of the most important reasons for this half lift is the finding of a Drishti - a focal point in front of the toes...usually your humerus bone length away. You softly stare at this point and send your energy and the base of your sternum towards it as you float back to Chaturanga Dandasana, landing with elbows bent, shoulders not lower than elbows or ribs lower than upper arms.
The half lift is practiced on an in-breath, find your focal point and engage Mula Bandha. Maintaining your Drishti, begin your exhale with all these steps:
- engage the abdominals to support spine,
- activate Uddiyana Bandha to support an upward floating action,
- slightly bend your knees in preparation for a slight upwards as well as a backwards motion,
- plant hands (spread fingers with Hasta Bandha activated),
- externally rotate the humerus bone in the shoulder girdle,
- broaden the collarbones and scapula and send the shoulder blades down the back,
- and finally, send your sternum forward towards the Drishti chosen to counter the momentum and force going back.
Hugging your muscles to your bones on this exhale (isometrically contracting) will support your whole body as you basically send your head and shoulders forward a split second before you send your hips and legs back. There will even be a sweet moment of an arm balance before the flexed toes land GENTLY behind you (think of a minor see-saw action).
As with all postures, transitions and practices, each individual practitioner needs to navigate his or her own body safely, listening to and for their individual weaknesses and strengths, capabilities and possibilities. To aid in your quest remember my 5-step process for longevity on and off the mat: breath, bandhas, bone alignment, muscle activation and joint integration.
Float, Fly and Land Safely,
- Read Jennilee's series on preventing yoga injuries, starting with Part 1 - Breath, Prana and the Vayus
- Our complicated shoulders and Chaturanga Dandasana