Sometimes, when you get so much of a good thing, you need to counterbalance it with another good thing. Enter Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose): The Anti-Chaturanga Dandasana.
Let’s look at these two poses from an anatomist’s point of view to see why they complement one another so well. First of all, Chaturanga Dandasana strengthens a lot of muscles. Chief among them are the main chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) and the main muscle that joins the front of the shoulder to the upper arm (anterior deltoid). It also strengthens several muscles that flex the trunk or hips (including rectus abdominis, obliquus abdominis, iliopsoas, and rectus femoris). All of these muscles are on the front of the body. Making them strong is an excellent thing to do, but unless your student balances that strength with flexibility, and with similar strength on the back of her body, this strength can cause some problems.
No single posture is the antidote to an overdose of Chaturanga Dandasana, but if you had to pick just one, Purvottanasana would probably be your best choice. Why? First, it stretches most of the muscles that Chaturanga strengthens. Second, it strengthens opposing muscles (antagonists). Purvottanasana stretches pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, the anterior deltoids, rectus abdominis, obliquus abdominis, iliopsoas, and, to some extent, rectus femoris. It strengthens the rhomboid muscles (which draw the shoulder blades toward the spine, antagonizing the pectorals), the posterior deltoid muscles (which pull the arms backward, antagonizing the anterior deltoids), the erector spinae (which backbend the spine, antagonizing the abdominal muscles), and the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles (which extend the hips, antagonizing the iliopsoas and rectus femoris). In short, while Chaturanga primarily strengthens the front of the body, Purvottanasana stretches the front of the body and strengthens the back of the body. This makes the two poses wonderfully complementary.
There are some notable exceptions to this pattern, though. One is that both Chaturanga Dandasana and Purvottanasana strengthen the triceps muscles (the elbow-straightening muscles on the back and outside of the upper arms). Another is that both poses bend the wrists backward and put weight on them. In spite of these exceptions, Purvottanasana is an excellent pose to teach your students to balance a practice that’s heavy on the Chaturanga.
Here, in compressed form, are instructions you can give your student to bring her into the classical version of Purvottanasana. “Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your hands alongside your hips and your fingers pointing forward. Bend your knees until the soles of your feet touch the floor. While exhaling, press your feet and hands down to lift your hips as high as possible off the floor. Then straighten your legs one by one and lift your hips still higher, pressing the soles of your feet toward the floor. Lift your chest as high as possible, then drop your head back, keeping the back of your neck as long as possible.” This version of the pose will go a long way toward counterbalancing Chaturanga Dandasana. If your student’s practice is based on Surya Namaskar, she might benefit from working it into her Sun Salutation sequence so she does it just as often and holds it just as long as Chaturanga.
Ultimately, yoga is about balance. It’s good to be strong, but balanced strength is better than unbalanced strength, and strength coupled with flexibility is better than rigid, restrictive strength. Chaturanga Dandasana is one of the key strengthening asanas. It’s a great pose, and it’s even better when complemented by Purvottanasana.
Excerpts from Yoga Journal Article The Anti-Chaturanga Dandasana By Roger Cole, Ph.D.