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Anatomy & Kinesiology, Asana Practice, Modern Postural Yoga, Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Student Tips, Yoga Teaching Tips

Shoulder load jumping back to Chaturanga: Prescriptions that Ail Ya

Originally posted Sep 23, 2013 on AskYogaNerd blog…

Recently fellow Yoga Nerd, Adrienne, and I were talking about jumping back to plank in a modified sun salutation and she mentioned that instructors at a nearby yoga business say you should always step back to plank and only jump back to chaturanga dandasana.

As I teach beginners and rarely practice a true, traditional Ashtanga-style sun salutation, I had to think through the process. When I asked why, she said she wasn’t entirely certain– the instructors always said it, but rarely explained why. She has heard one say because having the arms locked won’t provide as much shock absorption and it could hurt the lower back. Another said the same thing about shock absorption, but that it would overload the shoulder joint. When I asked which of the two shoulder joints, she stated the instructor hadn’t specified.

In honesty, I am not deeply invested in jumping back to plank. I do it on occasion as I find the action light-hearted and playful. Yet suddenly I found myself embroiled in this debate because I have very serious problems with prescriptive yoga teaching that states Always and Never, but does not provide an explanation for such absolutism. It causes all sorts of questions to arise, not the least of which is, “What is the support for the claim and to what extent is it true?” Are there exceptions? Limitations? Also, why are you locking your arms in plank? Or any pose for that matter? And how is landing on an bent elbow, hopefully at a consistently perfect 90 degrees but more likely to be a series of varying and potentially dangerous angles, considered necessarily safer in any and all outcomes? Is there some sort of data to show that the elbow is superior as a shock absorber and in no danger of being strained under a load? Is there a greater or lesser risk of hitting the toes on jump back form one or the other? Wouldn’t jumping to plank be safer since you wouldn’t be bending the arms while simultaneously putting your full weight on them to jump? And how is the lower back affected?While the Yoga Sutra-s suggest that first hand experience is right knowledge, as someone who leans in the direction of Iyengar influence, I don’t do as much jumping as the average vinyasa or Ashtanga practitioner who is at greater risk for repetitive stress injuries. As such I haven’t experienced the issues in the same way, and the majority of my “go-to” resources fell sort of the question. Most of what I could find that dealt with anatomy discussed chaturanga as an (incredibly challenging and injury prone) unlinked pose,  something you push up into or drop down into:

Even one of my favorite anatomic and critical reasoning-oriented vinyasa teachers, Jason Crandell, was no help. In fact, rather than prescribe never jumping into plank, he mentions all of the challenges that come with jumping into chaturanga, many being the exact same concerns that cause plank to be supposedly contraindicated in the first place:

The phrase ‘”jumping back” is an apt description of moving from Uttanasana toChaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), but when you take these words too literally, it creates problems. If you throw all your body weight back, you’ll arrive in Chaturanga with your hands too far forward. This misaligns the upper body, overloads the shoulders, and compresses the lower back.

This is not to say he ignores plank in the article, and in fact gives instructions on modifications to free the shoulders and neck.

Chaturanga Dandasana from Kelly McGonigal’s YJ article: http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/2746

As I continued on, I found one article by Leila Easa in Yoga Journal suggesting that you step or “lightly hop” to plank, while another by Kelly McGonigal specifies jumping back to plank and then lowering down. It began to seem as though this prescription was not so universal.

After a while though I was able to head into vinyasa/Ashtanga country and found some gold.One undated article by Maty Ezraty stated:

Please note that from the pick-up you should jump directly back into Chaturanga. Never jump into Plank: When the arms are straight you do not have the natural shock absorption that is present when the elbows are bent, so the lower back may suffer.

Later I found other instructors repeating some of these ideas with different conclusions. One blogger wrote, “The shock of jumping back with locked out arms, is hard on your shoulders, elbows, wrists, and even the spine.” Another agrees with Ezraty’s assertion that it can harm the back:

Jump back to Chaturanga and not plank. It is eons better for your back. As you are jumping back you have to bend your elbows and land in Chaturanga. Yes, it’s scary because your face is very close to the ground when you land but just breathe and try it. Don’t over think. When you jump back to plank there is no shock absorption and the lower back tends to dip and that can create back pain and injuries.

Is the issue shock absorption in the arms or in the back? And what is the source for this? Why are the wrists not an issue even though there is risk of extending them past appropriate range of motion ? And if it is an issue of the lower back, does the supposed absorption at the stationary part of the machine really influence the lower back that much? Or is chaturanga dandasana perhaps equally dangerous in this regard and the arms are a red herring of sorts?To begin with the idea of locking the elbow, I should clarify use of language. While “locking” the elbow is a clinical term that often refers to an inability to bend the elbow for a moment, a mechanical locking or clicking, yoga students often mean something else. Locking the elbows or knees refers to bringing them to maximum extension or straightening, a 0 degree joint, which “allows” students to use the rigidity of the skeleton for support rather than their musculature. Since I have hypermobility at both of these joints, as well as in the shoulders, I’m familiar with how “locking” can potentially cause harm. As a result, even in “straight arm” poses like plank or down dog, I have to maintain a micro-bend for safety, particularly since my joints will extend well past “straight.” As a result, jumping into plank will always have a micro-bend in the elbow for me, which could explain why my mileage varied so much from Adrienne’s.I began to attack the problem first from a biomechanical perspective. How would one determine shock absorption and forces on the affected joints of the elbow and shoulder? Firstly, one would have to identify the joints of the shoulder and elbow (ignoring the wrists for now) that may be impacted by this need for or lack of shock absorption: humeroulnar, humeroradial, radioulnar, glenohumeral, acromioclavicular, sternoclavicular, and scapulothoracic. While other joints may be impacted, this seems like a good place to start.

Secondly, one would have to have a good sense of the muscles used to create the shape of chaturanga versus plank. This increases the complexity as all muscles are not created equally– a variety of agonists, antagonists, and synergists will combine in varying degrees and percentages to produce stabilization at all of these joints. A single muscle could well be a significant part of elbow stability, but also be recruited to a greater or lesser extent to stabilize another joint, such as the glenohumeral. In the case of the elbow joint, we are also determining the difference in load caused by the elbow being in 90 degree flexion (hopefully) in chaturanga versus “full extension” in plank, of course assuming that everyone has the same “full extension.”

Example Free-body Image from http://mysite.verizon.net/fvozzo/genphys/stat.html

Just to quantifiably determine at what point one overloads the shoulder would require extensive free-body diagrams of the affected joints and far more physics equations than a literature major should attempt publicly. As this article shows, biomechanical analysis of merely the elbow is not a simple task. Most free-body equations of the elbow involve the upward palm holding a weight, rather than accounting for body weight. In fact, how joints handle even a static push-up is still cause for extensive study.

Even assuming I had the ability to generate the sheer amount of physics calculations to verify the claim of superior shock absorption, there is the additional question of whether or not the degree of force being absorbed is necessarily harmful or could even be beneficial. In the case of muscle weakness or imbalance, providing resistance to create increased force is desirable; the trick is in the velocity. For instance, the act of bending the arms in the first place in a push-up increases force by resisting gravity. The speed at which one sinks down and comes back up can dictate injury, but the load itself is not the problem. For instance, one study showed that supporting the legs during a push-up would increase force and torque “and thus produce more effect on joint impact and muscle strengthening than standard push-up.” Weight-bearing exercise is also key in strengthening bones and preventing osteoporosis. While it is important to address potential injury in loading a joint, we should not be prescribing always and never actions to simply avoid the potential for load or force at all.

There is also the question of how much shock really needs absorbing. If one came to Chaturanga or Plank by leaping directly at the floor from tadasana, I would be gravely concerned about the joints (and practitioner’s mental health), but in a normal jump-back the wrists, elbows and shoulders are not really experiencing propulsion in the same way as the legs and chest. While the legs shoot straight back, the action is ideally balanced by extension in the chest and the primary direction of movement is forward and back, making gravity the prime issue. While it is true that some students are unable to land with this kind of precision, that would suggest the problem is one of an individual’s skill level or frequency of practice rather than an always true natural law. Perhaps, if a student is not ADVANCED enough to perform chaturanga, the other associated risks of a beginning form will probably be present: weak core, heavy landing, misalignment of joints, etc.

Similarly, the age of my hypothetical jumper can play a key role in potential injury. As we age, multi-joint function precision and control wane. One recent experimentexamined the role of aging in multi-joint function between men in their sixties versus men in their twenties and found that age reduces power. Guidance and modification for one population may not apply to another.

There may be some who state that jumping back into plank is universally harmful regardless of the individual student or what the math and science show. As yoga is founded on wisdom for which science has sometimes failed to account, perhaps, they suggest, what the body experiences is what really matters. Who would allow someone to jump back into plank, since just looking at the process seems injurious? Enter the burpee.

Image from and more info at http://recapturefitness.com/what-is-a-burpee/

This old-school calisthenic technique is essentially a squat-plank-squat-stand with optional jump and push-up. Surely, the cautious yoga practitioner suggests, this activity must be harmful on all of the joints and tissues and be outlawed by any reputable scientist? In oneNew York Times article [Yes, the newspaper that once published the infamously inflammatory and riddled with misquotes “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,”] Martin Gibala, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, suggested the burpee may well be one of the best single exercises.

It is not that the burpee is without risk. Some exercises are not for everyone. The burpee is also featured prominently in “5 of the most injury prone exercises.” In this article, Matthew Blauner, a personal trainer at The Gym in Englewood, suggested that “the danger [of the burpee]is that the strenuous movement is entirely plyometric (exercises in which practitioners exert maximum force in as short a time as possible), and plyometric moves are risky. The burpee poses risk to the shoulders, lower body and lower back. ” He went on to suggest that a person should be able to do “10 pushups, 10 jump squats and a 30- to 45-second plank” when determining their fitness. While jumping back to chaturanga dandasana certainly has plosive force, it is not a sequential jumping back and forth as a burpee, so the degree of risk may be less, even taking into account the frequent repetition of action of an Ashtanga practitioner. And again, are we certain the jump itself is what is causing the problem? Blauner suggests the issue is not a universal proclamation, but a question of preparedness to be practicing the pose safely.

One message board forum for personal trainers had a similar debate as to the risks of the burpee, ultimately suggesting the real problem is not the action, but in the execution. Many of the trainers discuss the potential risks, mostly to the lower back, and ultimately determine that the lower back is often injured because people often don’t execute a plank form correctly. Because students frequently have weak abdominal muscles, their hips begin to tilt down, causing excessive strain to the lower back. Just as a teacher should exercise caution doing plank with ANY student who has a tendency to dip their belly down in plank (OR chaturanga for that matter), a teacher should certainly not teach a student who cannot execute a form without potential risk of injury.

The fact is there are many individual factors that come into asana practice. Yoga instructors who are untrained in orthopedics, biomechanics, physical therapy, etc., need to remember that these fields are extremely complicated. While you may have a lay-person’s opinion, you may not have the technical expertise to truly make or support those kinds of claims. We are not qualified to diagnose conditions or make statements as to function if we do not understand the underlying reasoning.

It doesn’t really matter, though if yoga instructors are creating the emerging field of fictional biomechanics, since the act of prescribing itself is really the problem. Even if we were able to determine the precise amount of force used in each of the anatomical regions affected, even if we were able to determine what percentage of shock was absorbed by each joint and determine whether one is better than the other, even if we proved that this additional force load is potentially unhealthy or could cause injury, even if we proved that the student standing in front of me was too old, out of shape, or unable to practice the form in a way that would prevent injury, does that mean I should write this prescription for everyone? Or should I evaluate whether or not to teach an action based on what is actually in front of me in the moment?As one master teacher (Maty Ezraty, actually) wrote in an undated Yoga Journal article, the instruction may just be particular to each individual student’s abilities rather than a permanent prescription of NEVER performing the action:

On the other hand, it’s true that beginning students could jar their lower back and jam their elbows while attempting to jump into Plank.[ . . .] Beginning students can lock their elbows and jar the lumbar if they are not aware or strong enough.Therefore, in beginning classes, I often recommend stepping to Plank and then lowering into Chaturanga.

Because the first article is undated, I don’t know the context of the initial “never jump back into plank” claim. Perhaps the article was an internal memo to instructors who were expected to understand the complex reasoning behind the choice. It seems as though, then, that this issue of jumping back into plank has certain qualifiers that have been lost in translation.  The purpose of the practice may be key in your choice, for instance, if it is to build strength or awareness in certain areas, observe the relation of weight to ground. Similarly the duration or repetition of the practice should dictate the degree to which you find an action harmful. If your student is not an experienced practitioner, if a student is relying too heavily on skeletal structure rather than muscular, if a student shouldn’t be doing the action in the first place, then you should not have them do it. If a student is not practicing Sun Salutation in the same way an Ashtanga practitioner does, with extreme repetition and lacking in significant variation, then there is may or may not be a risk based on a variety of factors. But by saying “Never jump into plank” instead of “Watch for the following concerns in these poses,” we are potentially also creating these back problems and other potential risks in students in chaturanga as well, or eliminating part of the joy that can come with a beginning student experiencing something with a beginner’s mind and whimsy.

And I’m not the only person who feels this way. Just as Maty Ezraty points out that jumping back to plank is more of a concern for vinyasa beginners that a universal declaration, she notes the dangers of prescriptive teaching:

Conversely, it is possible to jump into Plank with awareness, without jarring the lower back or the elbows. Any posture can be done with care and awareness or with harmful lack of attention. It may interest you to know that in the classical Ashtanga system, we jump right into Chaturanga. Therefore, the practice of Plank is an adaptation, but a useful one for many students.

Remember that there is no one correct way to do a pose. Look for the pros and cons of doing any given posture and make the best choice for your students based on what you see.  [emphasis added] Then make a choice that is well informed, compassionate, and rooted in ahimsa, or nonviolence. When you teach with this awareness, there is no right or wrong. There is only truth and what is good for the students.

Unfortunately, I do not know which article came first and if Ezraty may have seen an issue so frequently as to strengthen her opinion. I suspect, however, that the context and audience of each article were different and thus the rhetoric she used was different. As students grow, they begin (and should) to formulate their own opinions. Unfortunately, if we are building insular, self-sustaining environments and rapidly churning out students who are not taught to reflect or reason on the yoga-whys, then we are at risk that those opinions may be unformulated, parroted, shallow and just plain wrong. The teacher and student need to encourage an environment of questioning, and both need to dedicate themselves to study. Quite frankly, I think reading an article or a book (or even looking up a definition on an important topic) on occasion could go a long way toward encouraging more curiosity in yoga teachers.

I once met a yoga instructor at a conference who was on his way to a class taught by the founder of his yoga school. He said that he didn’t really feel like taking classes from teachers he didn’t already know anymore, since he really didn’t feel like learning things from a new teachers at that time. He was at a point in his practice, he said, where he just wanted to settle in to the familiar, and I was unable to tell if it was just for that particular year of the conference, or permanently. Unfortunately, this lack of desire for alternative viewpoints and a singular focus on perceived “depth” can translate into sometimes not really delving into a topic as deeply, since you are only unquestioningly half-hearing one person’s opinions. Sadly, not many people in the yoga world seem to be identifying the difference between universal fact and personal opinion these days, either as speaker or as listener.

I suppose my central argument is that teachers should stop looking for short cuts and actually know how to read the student’s ability and safety in the room without falling back on prescriptions and generalizations. We above all, in a field where we supposedly embrace relative perspectives and a variety of paths in order to perceive a greater whole, should exercise caution when using words like Always and Never. With the extreme popularity of yoga, this type of sometimes blind and unconscious prescriptive teaching even has the potential to introduce new learned problems and issues into bodies that never had the problems we were trying to prevent in the first place. As the yoga community grows over the next 10 years, we may find ourselves cautioning against doing anything because everyone blew their lumbar disks jumping into one too many floppy chaturanga dandasana-s or stepping back gingerly into equally floppy planks.

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