I disliked Utkatasana the first time I tried it.
Wende’s demonstration made it look simple enough: raise your arms, bend your knees and sit back. Simple yes. Easy, no. I was shocked by how hard it was, and how at sea I felt. I didn’t know how to make it better. And that’s were I stayed. I never understood the actions; I just made the movements and suffered through it.
What’s worse, I didn’t really care.
In my mind, Utkatasana (pronounced OOT-kah-TAHS-anna), was a first-syllabus pose, meant for beginners. It had no glamor. What’s exotic about sitting in mid-air? It had no sweetness; none of the surrender of forward bends, the unwinding of twists or the exhilaration of backbends.
Utkatasana was just work and weakness; my own weakness brought home with exquisite clarity, with a little knee pain tossed in for good measure. Yes, I could move from standing, through Utkatasana and into a squat, but the deeper my knees bent, the heavier I felt. And once I was fully squatting, I had no idea how to stand back up again. I felt like one of those bottom-heavy Japanese Daruma dolls, except without the traditional optimism and strong determination.
Lately, though, a light has been dawning.
My learning arc started with another introductory asana, Malasana, the garland pose, out of which so many other poses grow. Turn it upside down and it’s Apanasana; place your shins on the floor and you’re in child’s pose; slide your hands under your arms and straighten your legs and you’re in Kurmasana. Whenever a pose asks you to take your front groins deep into your body, and simultaneously lengthen your spine, Malasana is there.
And what is Utkatasana except the logical route from standing to squatting, from Tadasana to Malasana and back to standing again? What was it except Malasana, all over again, only with raised arms and straighter legs?
Yes, Utkatasana has plentiful benefits. It improves flat feet. It strengthens your ankles, thighs, calves, and spine and stretches your chest and shoulders. It also stimulates your abdominal organs, diaphragm and heart.
But here’s why I’d urge you to take it on as a Five -Minute Yoga Challenge: if you focus on the actions as you practice, and work with Utkatasana consistently, it will open doors to other poses. This is, after all, part of the genius of the Iyengar method: we learn actions in simple poses, then, once we can perform them, we carry them with us to more complex poses.
Don’t imagine a grim five minutes in the pose, reenacting time spent, back to the wall, knees bent, suffering through high school gym classes. Instead, start with supine Pavana Muktasana to wake up your groins. Then stretch into child’s pose, watching your hip creases recede deeper into your body. Come to standing, then Tadasana, and then bend your knees and take Utkatasana.
If you’re just starting to work with the pose, come up and down several times. Once you feel stronger, as long as your knees are healthy, take your Utkatasana all the way into a squat, and come back up without touching your hands to the floor.Or try sitting back to a real chair. Be sure to start by standing close enough to the chair that you know it will be there for you when you sit down. Now matter how strong you are, I’ll wager that the first time you try it you’ll be asking: “where is that chair, anyway?”
Then play with it. Try, for example, shifting from Utkatasana into Warrior III. All you have to do is keep the actions, raise one leg and lower your torso – magic.
You can find excellent resources for Utkatasana on the web. Check out the asana piece at the The Yoga Journal, and Shiva Rea’s excellent YJ piece called For Beginners: Utkatasana.
For a look at how to protect your knees in the pose – essentially by keeping your weight toward your heels as much as possible, check out Dr.Eden Goldman on How Yogis Made Chair Pose Dangerous.
Here are three essential actions to establish in Tadasana:
• Roll your top back thighs away from each other.
• From the sides, plug your top thigh bones deep into your hip sockets.
• Roll your top buttock toward the floor enough to bring your pubic bone parallel to the wall in front of you. You’ll know that’s happened when you feel your abdomen lift and firm.
And four helpful actions in Utkatasana:
• Bend your knees only slightly to begin with, then sit strongly back. Focus on stretching your inner thighs toward your inner groins.
• Keep your buttocks rolling down and your pubic bone lifted.
• Keep your weight toward your heels.
• As your top thighs sink toward the floor, lift your buttock bones up.
Of all the instructions I’ve read, that last action, which I found in Shiva Rea’s article, has been the most fruitful.
First experiment with sitting back, pressing your hands down on your top thighs and lifting your sitting bones up, and repeat a few times to get the hang of it. In full Utkatasana, activate your sitting bones partway down; don’t wait until you’re at your deepest point.
If you can keep a sense of your sitting bones lifting, no matter how deeply you bend your legs, you’ll be a Daruma doll no more.
Do you have any helpful tips for Utkatasana? Please share.
If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Use a strap around your hip crease to free your groins: Five Minute Yoga Challenge
Pain or Golden Glow: It matters what you call it
Why is yoga so hard to do?