One of the pillar sequences in many Vinyasa style yoga classes is a "vinyasa" - high plank to low pushup (chaturanga), upward facing dog to downward facing dog. Often this sequence is breezed over and rushed through, taught as sort of a set of transition poses, and frequently performed incorrectly.
This post is going to focus on the chaturanga (high plank to low pushup) specifically. The chaturanga is one of the poses that most commonly leads to shoulder discomfort, pain, or injury.
A chaturanga should begin with a perfect high plank: palms on the mat shoulder width apart, first fingers parallel to each other and the rest of the fingers spread wide, weight through each fingerprint (taking some weight out of the wrists), rhomboids and lats engaged (causing a slight protraction of the scapulae), transverse abdominis turned on, quads lifted, and a straight line formed from the heels to the hips to the shoulders.
From there, the student shifts the weight forward 2-3 inches, bringing the shoulders in front of the wrists and rising to the tips of the toes. This is important for alignment of the shoulders and elbows as they lower the body as well as preparing the feet for transition to upward facing dog.
Once shifted forward, the student maintains the plank alignment as they lower no more than halfway, continuing to hug the elbows next to the ribcage (not underneath, not bowed to the sides). Shoulder heads continue to to plug into the sockets and and integrity of the scapulae remains, preventing the shoulders from rounding forward and the upper back from collapsing towards the floor.
The most common misalignments you will see with this posture are: collapsed upper back towards the floor, arch in the low back (causing a sagging of the hips), not shifting forward before lowering, inability to maintain a plank while lowering, dipping the shoulders too far forward/towards the ground, and lowering beyond halfway.
These misalignments place a large stress on the anterior (front) aspect of the shoulder joint, the shoulder capsule (connective tissue), and the rotator cuff. Repetitive chaturangas with poor alignment can lead to shoulder instability and rotator cuff impingement or tears.
Interested in what comes next? Check the blog post The Forgotten Pose: Upward Facing Dog.