Just yesterday, I watched online an Ashtanga Primary Series class with full vinyasas between poses and half vinyasas between right and left sides of a pose. A full vinyasa in the context of Ashtanga yoga is Sun Salutation A. A half vinyasa, a.k.a THE vinyasa in popular yoga jargon, is the transition as such: (plank)-chaturanga-urdva mukha savanasana-adho mukha savanasana.
This class lasted for two hours and everybody was really really tired at the end. In the normal practice, when we are not as ambitious, we do half vinyasas between poses and between sides of each pose.
Regardless of the real meaning of vinyasa as a sequence of asanas/movement for transition between sets of other asanas to reset the spine, entire body, mind and/or the breath, THE standard vinyasa, now, is from (plank)-chaturanga to upwards facing dog/cobra, then downward facing dog – legacy of Ashtanga yoga due to its popularity amongst the early silverbacks of modern yoga. It is almost given that in a vinyasa flow class, there will be many of these vinyasas.
As a result, many people discuss these poses, especially chaturanga is torn into pieces. A few months ago, I watched a video on YouTube, arguing that a tiny muscle in the shoulder carries most of the weight of the upper body and it is asking too much of that poor, tiny, little muscle. Now, come on! Chaturanga Dandasana means a 4-limbed stick. As the name suggests it is a whole body pose and therefore there are many other muscles involved in it to carry and allow one to hover in the full expression of the pose. That said, so much can go wrong in chaturanga that it was given the nickname of ‘the shoulder shredder’.
I think the main problem with chaturanga dandasana (and upward facing dog, for that matter) originates not from the difficult natures of these poses but how and when they are practiced. Although, they, in effect, are amongst the most frequently practiced poses -only second to downward facing dog- we barely mean to practice these poses. They are a given and almost unseen part of a vinyasa flow or an ashtanga class. They are very rarely consciously and mindfully practiced. During the fast transition in a vinyasa flow or an ashtanga class, both chaturanga and urdva mukha svanasana are usually just slurred over. I observe in my classes that many yoga students can hardly be asked to go through vinyasas and when they do they just do some movements resembling these poses: hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and the feet are usually all over the place. However, they are an important part of the practice and should be seen as such. In my own practice, I pay particular attention to these poses and vinyasas because I know that it is easy to lose focus, dristhi and breath and in turn the meditative state of my practice during the transition.
This is a very informative article by Jason Crandell, whom I think is a very skilled yoga teacher. In this article Jason gives examples of modifications to Chaturanga Dandasana. In the article Jason rightly calls “knees-chest, and chin” as the worst modification or alternative to chaturanga. He explains why he thinks this is the case and I completely agree with this:
Lord have mercy, I know that I’m going to catch flack for this, but I don’t think “Knees, Chest, and Chin,” is a good Chaturanga alternative. Here’s the deal: I don’t have any problem with “Knees, Chest, Chin,” except for when it’s used as a preparation or alternative for Chaturanga. Here’s why: The most common and dangerous mistake made in Chaturanga is lowering the shoulders too far and lifting the bottom too high. This is exactly what happens in “Knees, Chest, Chin.” When the knees are on the floor, this isn’t a problem. Which, again, is why I don’t have any problem with “Knees, Chest, Chin.” But, when “Knees, Chest, Chin” is associated too closely with Chaturanga, it teaches the exact opposite neuro-muscular pattern that one should develop for a healthy Chaturanga. Think about it — and, don’t hate me.
The only addition that I considered to make* to this is that “knees, chest, chin” is a very nice and not-so-easy but easier way of lowering the body all the way down the floor. If you are planing to come all the way down, roll the shoulders back, elongate the neck and lift the chest/shoulders up to a little cobra, then it is not too bad to do it. However, as is the case for most of the time, if your next intended pose is upward facing dog/full cobra or you don’t/won’t take the time to roll the shoulders back then you should always follow Jason’s advice in the article. It is easier to learn a healthy habit than to replace an unhealthy habit with a new healthier one.
Take your time to understand and learn and all is coming**.
* I say this in most humble way possible.
** Practice and all is coming – K. Patthabi Jois