How to Build An Ashtanga Practice

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Session 6 - Mechanics of Sun A - Plank Vs Chaturanga and Upward Facing Dog

In this part of this series, we are examining Sun Salutation A or in Sanskrit Surya Namaskar A.  Surya = Sun and Namaskar = Salutation/Salute.  You may recognize it being similar to ‘Namaste’ - which is a recognition - the light in me, recognizes the light in you and we are all one.  Traditionally, the movements of Sun Salutations were done in the beginning of the day to wake up the body. They were performed facing the sun. So when you step onto your mat to do a sun salutation, let the sun shine in!


The sun salutation is a vinyasa.  The word Vinyasa means to place in a special way. Vinyasa is about arising, abiding and dissolving. It is life in flow and the ability to navigate moment by moment.  Because we are being mindful and placing in a special way, we learn the poses separately and then put them together.


We have learned the initial poses of Sun Salutation A:

Tadasana - Standing Mountain

Urdhva Hastasana - Reaching Arms Overhead

Uttanasana - Standing Forward Fold

Ardha Uttanasana - Standing Half Fold


We have also learned Downward Facing Dog.


In this lesson we will learn two connector poses - Plank/Chaturanga and Upward Facing Dog.


 The move to Plank or Chaturanga is a transitional move with a moment in pose before moving to Upward Facing Dog. It’s a tough transition if you are not strong and sturdy in your shoulders - especially if you are jumping from Ardha Uttanasana back into Plank or Chaturanga.  For the purposes of building a sustainable practice, we will learn to place ourselves in Plank or Chaturanga by stepping back and finding the template of Tadasana.  I will not be teaching  jump back or jump forward transitions in this series. I think it is imperative to learn sound structure before you decorate it and turn up the heat in your practice.  There will be future trainings in more advanced techniques.


Plank is Tadasana tipped forward!  Gravity makes it feel different by making you engage to maintain the integrity of Tadasana and the blue print of alignment. If you are not strong enough to maintain that integrity, you will likely be hammocked in your front body (looking more like a weary Up Dog) or you may be too tense and rounded/humped up to avoid engaging all the abdominals and back muscles (looking more like a weary Down Dog.)


Plank is the body as a lever. The longer the lever, the more strength it takes to support it. If you are challenged to form and hold Plank, you can bring your knees to the ground to lessen the length of the lever of your body so you can stay in the flow of Surya Namaskar A & B.


If you are working on form, it is a good investment of your time to work with plank modifications:

    • Put your hands on a solid counter or table and step back into the blueprint of Tadasana. Holding the form, breathe deeply and evenly and feel the gather and lift of your energy from your feet to the top of your skull, and shoulders not climbing up into your ears.  Start with maintaining as many breaths as can be full and smooth. When the breath gets choppy, press back up to standing. Increase the number of breaths as you increase your strength.

    • Practice with your knees down, ankles crossed and feet lifted (your knees are your feet in this “shorter” tadasana). 


When you are learning plank, I think it is good to practice ‘Planking’ or holding a plank for several breaths/minutes.  Even though we don’t hold Plank (or Chaturanga) for more than an exhale, we must be vigilant with form and the integrity of the blueprint of good alignment.  Take inspiration from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg and build up to holding planks for overall fitness for a minute and eventually maybe more. I believe she did 3 minute planks up until her last fight with cancer.


To make the most of your energy, visualize your energy extending through your plank beyond the soles of your feet and the top of your head. When you visualize it like this, your muscles will engage strongly to spread out your energy and you will feel more equanimity. And…you will get stronger.  


What about Chaturanga?

When you feel solid in Plank, and if you have no current injuries in your shoulders, you can start to learn and practice Chaturanga. The energetics of Plank are transferrable to Chaturanga - long and strong.  Because we are bending the elbows in Chaturanga, it requires strong muscular support to support the shoulders, elbows and wrists.  Please note the diagram below.  The elbows are stacked over the wrists and the shoulders don’t dip down below the height of the elbows.  When the shoulders dip below the elbows, all the weight goes into the connective tissues holding the fronts of the shoulders. That overstretches those ligaments, tendons and muscles and they may or may not go back without a lot of diligent work.  That laxity leads to injuries. Dipping the shoulders also leads to ‘scooping’ in the transition between Chaturanga and Upward Facing Dog. Scooping adds force to the front of the shoulders. Many people like the look and may enjoy the feel of scooping until it doesn’t feel good in their shoulders. Scooping is not sustainable and diverts energy to an outward ‘performance’ rather than the inward, mindful flow of body and breath.  


What is the difference between Plank and Chaturanga?

Please see the diagram below. Plank is rooted in the balls of the feet and the arms are fully extended.  Chaturanga is rooted in the backs of the toes and the arms are bent.  You should be aiming for one form or the other and not some bastard mix of both. Mixing them both is unsafe and disengages your energy.


The Mechanics of Chaturanga

From Plank, roll up to the tops of your toes, bringing your heart and gaze forward. Bend the elbows lowering your shoulders no lower than the height of your elbows.  This action is done on an exhale.  When you are learning Chaturanga, you will want to practice holding the form for a breath or two or three. This will help you imprint the form into your muscle memory and it will make you stronger.


As you are developing strength, when you lower toward Chaturanga, try lowering to a place above the height of your elbows and gradually take it to the height of your elbows as your strength increases.


A great visual marker is to put a block on it’s highest setting at the top of your mat. Don’t let your shoulders go lower than that block. It is easier to see the block than your elbows while keeping your energy long and strong.


Another modification is to practice with your knees of the ground/feet lifted - remember shorter lever lengths take some of the pressure off.


What if I can’t do Plank? What are my options?

Wrist, shoulder and acute back injuries can make Plank too challenging.  My recommendation would be to practice plank at a wall or a table so you can practice finding the form and function of Tadasana and then find an angle that allows you to work on bearing weight with just enough weight - not too much; not too little. 


Plank at the Wall:  Stand in Tadasana about 2 feet away from a wall. Place your arms on the wall directly in front of your shoulders and lean into the support of your arms. Find the elements of Plank at this angle. If this isn’t enough, move to a counter or table to find more gravity.  Be patience and compassionate with yourself.  Yoga is meeting us here too.


If you are practicing Sun Salutations and skipping Plank/Chaturanga, you can step back to Downward Facing Dog.


Leaving Plank/Chaturanga To Go To Upward Facing Dog


Upward Facing Dog is a counter balance to stretch out the arms and core muscles from the challenge of Plank/Chaturanga.  


From Plank or Chaturanga, soften your lower legs to the mat and draw your heart open by taking your shoulders back and fully extending your arms - Down Informs Up!


Do NOT lower your Plank or Chaturanga to the belly before going to Upward Facing Dog -  you are making it more difficult and adding unnecessary wear and tear on your shoulders. Plus you are dropping your energy.


David Williams teaches Upward Facing Dog with soft legs and natural gravity in the pelvis as a way of not adding tension to the low back.  In many Ashtanga practices you will see Upward Facing Dog practiced with a lift of the knees off the mat, placing weight on the front metatarsals of the feet.  I have tried it both ways and I find that I am more relaxed and open in my body with relaxed legs.  The legs are the roots of the back. When the legs are tense, the back is tense.  So, for the purposes of this training, I ask you to practice Upward Facing Dog with relaxed legs and feet. If that doesn't work for your body, let's talk and find what does.


To leave Upward Facing Dog, tuck your toes and hinge your body back to Downward Facing Dog. Use your thighs and core and not just your arms - your shoulders will thank you and you will develop strength.


Do NOT roll over your toes. It will take you out of the blueprint of Downward Facing Dog and you will end up ‘walking your dog’ to get into position which will probably not be correct anyway. David Williams is pretty adamant about not rolling over the toes. Besides taking you out of the flow, he claims it was added by yogis who would rather perform than practice.  Embellishments are unnecessary.


Do NOT walk your Dog. Learn to stay in the template so you don’t waste energy and get out of cadence of flow.


Modifications for Upward Facing Dog

If Up Dog is too much for you, instead of fully extending your arms, bend the elbows (like a cobra) to find a longer arch of the back which will release some compression in the low back. Remember that there is still the gathering and lengthening going on. Tadasana is in every pose.


Putting It All Together

If you are challenged by particular poses in the flow, keep working on them separately.  Stick with a half flow to get the movement of breath and body.  Remember the Sun Salutation is a sum of its parts.  In each pose we Arise, Abide and Dissolve to the next.


Half Flow

Inhale/Exhale - Tadasana

Inhale - Urdhva Hastasana

Exhale - Uttanasana

Inhale - Ardha Uttanasana

Exhale - Uttanasana

Inhale - Urdhva Hastasana

Exhale - Tadasana


Surya Namaskar A - Sun Salutation A

Inhale/Exhale - Tadasana

Inhale - Urdhva Hastasana

Exhale - Uttanasana

Inhale - Ardha Uttanasana

Exhale - Plank/Chaturanga

Inhale - Upward Facing Dog

Exhale - Downward Facing Dog - Five Breaths

Inhale - Ardha Uttanasana

Exhale - Uttanasana

Inhale - Urdhva Hastasana

Exhale - Tadasana 


Repetition is magic. It builds heat and strength. It opens the muscles into flexibility and it helps us find balance again and again and again.


After each round of the Sun Salutation A, pause and feel your body, energy, breath, mood and notice where your mind is - notice gaps between thoughts.  Repeat as much as it feels good.


When it doesn’t feel good, seek to understand what and why. Be patient and compassionate. If you need to skip the flow, you can focus on meeting yourself in the poses as stand alone places of practice.

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