Chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose) is a posture that is common in yoga classes. Though, the posture can be intimidating or inaccessible for new practitioners as well as seasoned yogis. In order to prioritize safety, practicing chaturanga alternatives are important.
There are different situations where substituting chaturangas makes sense. For example, a student could be practicing an intense vinyasa class that includes 25+ chaturangas. Let’s say the student is practicing chaturanga with impeccable form for the first 10 chaturangas, and then begins to lose form. When a student begins to lose the integrity of alignment in chaturanga, it’s a perfect opportunity to make a swap — or just skip it altogether.
Additionally, the fact is, chaturangas are tough. Practicing chaturangas with correct alignment takes a lot of muscular engagement and concentration. It can take time to develop this awareness and strength in the body to practice chaturanga safely. Practicing alternatives to chaturanga can help students build strength and progress in their practice.
For my personal practice, I don’t practice chaturangas. They’ve never felt intuitive to me. I’ve played with using straps, shifting forward/not shifting forward, and engaging various parts of my body. While I wouldn’t say that chaturangas will never be in my practice, I love practicing these chaturanga alternatives when I step on my mat.
You are never under any obligation to practice postures in a class. If you’re feeling fatigued or just want to catch up on a few breaths in down dog, feel free to skip a chaturanga. Typically, after most chaturangas, classes meet in down dog, though if your class is meeting in another pose, the same idea applies.
Skipping a chaturanga can feel like a “cheat” or like you haven’t fully completed a class. I would argue, however, that listening to your body and taking care of yourself (hello, ahimsa or non-violence) does really embody a yoga practice. And, while down dog often gets called a resting pose, I know from experience that it can take a lot of muscular activation and awareness.
Power Up in Plank
High plank is a badass pose. It requires a tremendous amount of focus and can help build strength throughout your core, arms, and mind. For this chaturanga alternative, spend a few breaths in high plank.
Be really intentional about sending energy through your heels, pressing the mat away from you, and balancing imaginary glasses of water on your neck and low back. When you’re ready, on an exhale press into down dog (or wherever your class is meeting).
Cow pose is a backbend, just like upward facing dog, which commonly comes after chaturanga. Cow pose gives you the opportunity to activate through your core, press into your mat with your hands, and broaden through your collarbones — all of which share similarities to chaturanga.
In my gentle vinyasa class, I use cow pose as a chaturanga alternative to transition into downward facing dog.
Belly Backbend of Your Choice
Lower down to your mat (I find that it’s most accessible to lower from table top). When you lower, supercharge through your core. On an inhale, open to take any belly backbend of your choice. This could be sphinx, cobra, or locust. On your exhale, press into downward facing dog.
Like cow pose, doing a belly backbend provides similar activation to upward facing dog. I also like that there are so many options to explore, as there are many belly backbends.
When should I do what?
It can be easy to want a prescriptive solution for when to practice each of these alternatives to chaturangas. There isn’t a clear-cut answer; it depends on how you feel in each moment. Know that what you practice can change (or stay the same!) for each flow.
While one definition of vinyasa describes the movement from low plank to up dog, I really dig this translation: “to place in a special way.” Your vinyasa, your transition between poses, is all yours. It’s an opportunity to tune inward and treat your body and mind with kindness — whether that means chaturanga or a chaturanga alternative.
Know that this is something that you can experiment and play with; there isn’t a holy grail answer. Feel free to incorporate these alternatives to chaturanga in any class you’re in, and be open to each moment with a good-natured curiosity.