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Utkatasana (Chair Pose): What’s It Doing For You?

in For Teachers, In Class, YogaDork Ed

beach-utkby Jenni Rawlings

As a yoga teacher, I get lots of questions about the alignment of poses. Should I throw my head back in upward facing dog? Should I reach for my feet in a seated forward fold? Should I squeeze my quads and lift my kneecaps in tadasana? My best answer to questions like these is usually it depends on your approach to your practice. From my perspective, there are two versions of nearly every yoga pose: the traditional version and the biomechanically-updated one.

Yoga, like all forms of systematized movement (think Pilates, tai chi, dance, etc.), has a set of alignment rules for its poses. Although specific yoga schools differ in terms of their style, sequencing, pacing, use of props, etc., they all share similar alignment guidelines which are rooted in the system codified by B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the founding fathers of modern postural yoga. Iyengar’s classic 1966 book Light on Yoga is widely considered “the bible of modern yoga” and is required reading in nearly every yoga teacher training program.

human-bodyTRADITIONAL OR BIOMECHANICAL ALIGNMENT?

I’m very familiar with traditional yoga alignment, but I prefer to work with biomechanical alignment, which is informed by modern science, anatomy, and the study of how the body moves. There are certainly places where these two versions of alignment overlap, but there are also important instances in which they do not. Biomechanics gives us a clear picture of how to align our body if minimal joint friction, optimal circulation, and whole body health is what we seek. In my yoga practice and teaching, I biomechanically update some key traditional yoga poses so they do a better job of moving us toward these goals.

Let’s focus today on utkatasana, yoga’s chair pose. Before we can discuss the details of this pose, we need to take a look at a muscular imbalance you may be familiar with that nearly all of our modern chair-sitting bodies share: front body dominance and back body weakness.

where-are-my-buns-

Where are my buns? :)

OUR LONG-LOST BACKSIDE

When we sit for prolonged periods of time, the part of the body on which we sit – our glutes and our hamstrings – receives the signal to shut off. This results in the significant weakening of these important “back body” muscles, and in response, our quadriceps (the muscles that line the front of our thighs) and our hip flexors (the muscles that cross the front our hip) tend to take over and become dominant in all of our movements. You sometimes hear this referred to as “quad dominance” and sometimes as (heh heh) “flat butt syndrome.”

This imbalance between some of our largest muscle groups has a profound effect on the health of our body in the long-term (think chronic aches and pains, injury, and eventually disease), and one of our main priorities in correcting this structural issue is to restore function and strength to our glutes and hamstrings.

Look at those quads!

Look at those quads!

Surprisingly, there are relatively few opportunities in a traditional yoga class to effectively target these muscles. Yoga is in general much more front-body than back-body strengthening – as is also the case with many other forms of exercise, such as running and cycling. (Have you ever noticed the prominent, over-developed quads that can be seen on many professional athletes?)

Utkatasana, yoga’s chair pose, is one of the few asanas that offers us the opportunity to restore our long-lost back body strength. But if we practice the pose in traditional yoga alignment, we’ll miss this important chance to charge up our backside. Take a look:

utkatasana-traditional

Traditional Utkatasana

Do you see that in traditional chair pose, the knees track forward of the ankles, and the emphasis is on moving the whole body lower to the ground? If your knees are forward of your ankles, the quads, not the glutes, are the main muscle group working. In addition, this angle of load to the legs creates shear forces in the knees which contribute to joint degeneration and ultimately osteoarthritis with time. You can probably feel this yourself in the pose – from standing, move into chair pose by letting your knees move forward and your hips lower straight down. Do you feel most of the work happening in your quads, and do you maybe even feel some pressure and discomfort in your knees?

(As a side note, take a look at Yoga Journal’s prescribed utkatasana alignment. Although they might change this photo at some point, at the time of this writing, their model is shown with his knees about a foot more forward than my knees in this photo (!), and his rib cage in a significant degree of rib shear.)

We now understand that traditional utkatasana simply reinforces our modern postural imbalance of dominant quads and weak glutes. But all is not lost! We can practice an updated utkatasana that creates positive change in our body. Here is our biomechanically-aligned chair pose:

Updated Utkatasana

Updated Utkatasana

In this version, the knees stay parked directly above the ankles and the hips move back in space instead of down. By keeping the shins vertical like this, the majority of the work in the legs has been transferred to the glutes instead of the quads, and as an added bonus, there is no compromise in the knee joints because they are not being loaded in a non-optimal position.

You might notice that in biomechanically-updated utkatasana, we can’t lower our hips as close to the floor as we do in traditional utkatasana. This is simply because we aren’t strong enough in our glutes to hold ourselves up at the same height level we could achieve using our dominant quads (a perfect example of front body/back body imbalance in action). Try it for yourself: come to standing and then move into utkatasana by reaching your hips back (not down) and keeping your knees directly above your ankles.

This is usually such a challenge for most people that they’ll let their knees drift forward without their even realizing it, so I’d strongly recommend watching yourself from the side in a mirror to make sure your knees don’t move forward at all – not even one little inch! Depending on your particular level of glute strength, you might not be able to lower your body more than a couple of inches toward the floor. But if you regularly practice your utkatasana in this newly-aligned way, your glutes will strengthen up and allow you to find a lower pose with time.

Remember, with biomechanical alignment, our priority is on stability and true bodily change as opposed to looking or feeling like we’re going “deeper” in a pose at the expense of our structural integrity. We’re looking to create new movement patterns rather than reinforce old, unhelpful ones. Make sense?

Just for fun, remember to not do your utkatasana this way, okay?

What is this pose?

What is this pose?

It’s often said that yoga brings balance to the physical body. Biomechanics shows us that this is not necessarily the case, but that fortunately with a few insightful updates, we can have an amazing yoga practice that offers us true structural re-balancing. Have fun with your new glute-strengthening, knee-protecting utkatasana, guys! Let me know how it goes for you.

~

Jenni Rawlings loves to weave her natural interest in anatomy and biomechanics into her yoga teaching. She is grateful to so many teachers who inspire her, most notably amazing biomechanist Katy Bowman. You can find out more about Jenni at www.jennirawlings.com.

~ Article republished with permission ~

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20 comments… add one

  • S.

    It’s not called “chair pose.” It’s translated as “awkward” or “fierce” from Sanskrit. You know, that language yoga comes from…

  • Adri Frick

    S.:
    What an unnecessarily antagonistically phrased comment! Although your translation is accurate, she used the formal Sanskrit for those interested, it is perhaps more commonly called Chair pose in English, and even BKS Iyengar wrote in LoY: “Utkata means powerful, fierce, uneven. This asana is like sitting on an imaginary chair.”

    Given that the entire article is about updating the tradition to actually make it work for the students we get today, instead of clinging to aspects of tradition when it may prove harmful in a modern context, I fail to see why you believe using a commonly accepted nomenclature merited such a superior attitude, esp. when the article is focused on biomechanics and not linguistics.

  • Nelle

    Wanted to make the same comment. Well said.

    Anywho, great and helpful article!

  • John

    I thought it was called “half squat with arms raised” in English… you know, that language the vast majority of yoga poses in fact come from (though Danish and the Swedish gymnastics also had a strong influence, but filtered through English). Still, if “it’s more spiritual to hurt yourself doing it wrong and naming it in a dead language” is working for you don’t let us stop you.

  • Julie

    S. I love that painting, ‘Dance’, by Mattisse, in front of which you are posing (I assume it’s you?).
    This painting represents a significant turning point for western modern art. Mattisse suffered scorn for his break away from representational art and traditional painting. He was so brave. And then, when he lost the ability to leave his bed to paint, he invented a way to paint with cut paper. He was not always embraced for his forward thinking or his adherence to tradition, but thankfully, that need to stick to the old ways is not what drove him to his life’s work.

  • A third way of thinking about chair is accessing the Deep Front Line (to use ‘Anatomy Trains’ terminology). If you are able to sit deep in chair (and not everybody is or should), there’s a keener awareness drawn to the connection between the psoas, the diaphragm and the lungs.

    That is my intention as part of a Sun Salutation B, for instance, where you only practice chair pose for a brief time. I trained under Tias Little, whose view of the physical practice is Deep Front Line, or core line training. The rest of the practice practice is designed to balance and support that.

    Mixing up the above two styles of chairs sounds like a good way to practice!

  • C

    Hey S. — Yes, let’s translate everything literally from Sanskrit even if no one understands what we’re talking about! Do your “intense” pose (Uttanasana). Now, everyone try “three point face one foot intense west” pose! Hah hah! Can you say pedantic???

  • J.K.

    I’ve always loathed getting into this pose. Not because I don’t like it, but because every instructor has their own view of the ‘correct’ chair pose and make corrections that don’t work for you. I love how this pose shows me where restrictions are and what parts of my body are open, but this seems to be the pose that everyone corrects to match what they think it should do and what it does for them. I appreciate that this article shakes things up! :)

  • Evonne

    Thank you Jennifer for giving us something to think about. I’m going to try this updated version of chair in yoga class today.

  • John

    Interesting post. I like it as far as it goes – you can take this stuff much further and start to move away from the whole “make this shape” idea of “alignment”. Also, I think the “traditional pose” thing is a bit of a straw man, I’ve never been taught anything but taking the weight back in this pose – that includes Iyengar teachers 15 years ago. Moving through to a full squat is a different matter. I grant you, the yoga journal picture is a bit different, but if you’re trying to learn yoga from the yoga journal website you’ve a lot of other problems :)

    I’d question “there are relatively few opportunities in a traditional yoga class to effectively target these muscles.” Define traditional – all those sun salutes that involve stepping back to lunge variations are perfect – hands off, get the weight back, keep it back, keep the hip low, step back. Knees, chest, chin is just chair pose rotated round and I find that wrapping the muscles and drawing back the hips effectively works the same area.

    On a tangent… it’s far easier to get the weight back and the effort into the glutes (and effectively use the hamstrings) with weight – a barbell across your shoulders (or some one stood above your knees) – could it be weight lifting is bio-mechanically better than yoga? ;)

  • Great article, Jennifer! I too have found this pose difficult to get into and not a particular favorite (myself or students). Maybe “taking it apart” when giving instructions, more will give more appreciation. Thanks

  • Kate

    Thanks for this! I dread this pose like no other, mostly because my shoulders are tight and it’s so uncomfortable to put my arms up while trying to squat down, resulting in my not really thinking about my lower half at all. This is very helpful.

  • VQ2

    That’s part of the psychological draw of the pose; as it is with many foundational, “action” poses. Con job or confabulation? You be the judge. Obviously based on somebody in times where they did not have to use legs in the way modern people have to use them; thus someone with superhuman knees as well. This pose is making you to have to concentrate on limbs that are less important for everyday living, in search of that ever-elusive “shoulder opening” and “arms fierce” that may not be extant or doable with every pose.

  • An Actual Kinesiologist

    I appreciate the specificity and intent of this article, but I’d like to caution you against replacing one rigid rule (“traditional” alignment) with another equally rigid rule (“biomechanical” alignment).

    You’re correct in asserting that when the knees pass the ankles in a squat, forces are increased on the supporting ligaments. In fact, we have research to support this that shows the force increase is about 30%. However, when the knees are NOT allowed to move past the ankles, torque on the hip and lower back can be increased dramatically–as much as 1000%.

    http://mobile.journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/_layouts/oaks.journals.mobile/articleviewer.aspx?year=2003&issue=11000&article=00001

    Your advice may replace an unlikely risk for the knees with a highly likely risk for hips and low back.

    If you’re working with someone with knee issues, your recommendation for this posture might be great. If you’re working with someone with hip and low back issues (which are far more common I would add) then your recommendation could be disastrous.

    As I said, I appreciate the intent of the article, but you’ve separated both your “biomechanical” version and the “traditional” version from the context of an actual body with actual issues. Neither version is “right”–they are just useful in different scenarios.

  • John

    Good link and valid point regarding rigid rules. I’d question the exact application of the link, though. Barbell squats are mythical for the pressure they put on the lower back and a big part of it is the large round things on the ends of the bar and what they do to centre of gravity at the bottom of the squat and the effect that has on maintaining good form. That’s why safety bars were invented. I don’t think it’s possible to exactly transfer articles about barbell squats to unweighted chair pose – particularly as there’s no pressure to go deep in chair. Since links are coming into this…. http://drsquat.com/content/knowledge-base/i-may-not-know-diddley-i-know-squat

  • An Actual Kinesiologist

    I think you’re right, John–the comparison to barbell squat is inexact, especially at the extremes of ROM for each exercise. I think the underlying knee-hip-lumbar mechanics are similar enough in the range being applied in this article. It was the nearest research I could find, since specific yoga poses are notoriously under-researched.

    As I said, I really like the intention of articles like this to bring a new perspective into a practice that is sometimes unnecessarily dogmatic, but the reductionist approach focused almost entirely on the knee placement is, I think, missing some essential elements.

  • Hi, “An Actual Kinesiologist”! Thanks for your thought-provoking comment about my article – I appreciate your input!

    The biomechanically-updated chair pose that I’m describing here is not what the weightlifting world would consider a squat. If anything, it more closely resembles a deadlift – there’s a difference between these two moves. And aside from that, both a weightlifting squat and a deadlift are moves meant for lifting weights and holding barbells, neither of which is the point or the goal of the chair pose I’m describing. The goal behind *this* chair pose is to strengthen the glutes and save the knees, and when we do it in alignment (with attention to what the pelvis and spine are doing), the TvA and other core stabilizing muscles are engaged and would protect the hips and spine from the overloading you’re cautioning against.

    I was also curious about why you chose to attach that specific research article to your comment for reference. You mentioned that if you keep your knees above the ankles in a squat, this can increase the torque on the hip and back as much as 1000%, but this article did not actually measure or report this. The article did confirm that position of the knee matters, though, which is a main point I was making in my article.

    I hear your claim that I’m offering a “rigid rule” for chair pose, as though everyone should do it this way, always. I tried to be clear in my writing, though, that this is the way to practice the pose *if you want to develop glute strength and input new and healthy movement patterns for your body*. If that isn’t your goal, or if your goal is to load your body with weights while doing a squat, then you certainly might make a different decision about how to align your joints.

    I hope this explanation is helpful in describing the deeper intentions behind this updated version of chair pose. Thanks so much for reading my post and offering your feedback!

  • An Actual Kinesiologist

    Jenni–apologies in advance for a long reply, I wanted to do your followup justice.

    I appreciate that chair pose is not a squat (nor is it a deadlift), though I would say there are fundamental aspects of both those exercises present in utkatasana. There is no research I’m aware of regarding exactly the action you’ve described in this article and I’ve acknowledged that the research I’m comparing it to is an extrapolation. But I think the underlying principles highlighted in the study I chose do apply, in a basic if inexact way.

    To be clear, the study evaluated a squat with unrestricted anterior movement of the knee vs a squat with anterior knee movement restricted to the line of the toes. The study did find that restricted squat decreased knee torque by 28% and increased hip torque by 1000%, because restricting anterior knee movement requires increased hip flexion and greater forward pitch of the torso. (You can see this even in the two pictures of you in your article). I’m not sure why you suggest the study did not measure hip torque–here is the exact data line:
    For the unrestricted squat, knee torque (N[middle dot]m; mean +/- SD) = 150.1 +/- 50.8 and hip torque = 28.2 +/- 65.0. For the restricted squat, knee torque = 117.3 +/- 34.2 and hip torque = 302.7 +/- 71.2.

    Now, to be fair, you’re advocating a movement with NO anterior movement of the knee, even to the line of the toes. However, that restriction would only serve to exacerbate the need to flex at the hips and tilt the torso forward MORE than if some anterior movement at the knee were allowed. Presumably, your version of this movement would involve even less knee torque (which you identify as a good thing), but could serve to create even more hip torque (which you appear not to consider in your article), which invariably translates force to the lower back (as the study I mention points out). You can’t have one without the other.

    Additional hip force is not necessarily a bad thing–the hip is a large joint and can integrate many kinds of force quite well. However, so can the knee; and this particular study found that forces on the knee even in the more intense unrestricted version of the squat were well within the normal tensile strength of the knee’s supporting ligaments. Part of the reason I chose to reference this study is in its general conclusion that “While increasing the forward tilt of the torso may decrease the forces at the knee, it is likely to also increase the forces in the lumbar muscles and ligaments.”

    You suggest that in your updated alignment, the TvA and other stabilizers would offset the increased lumbar load. That’s possible, but it’s also entirely possible the increased load would not be compensated for sufficiently. I could just as fairly assert that in the traditional alignment, stabilizers of the knee could offset the additional force there. What I’d like to point out is that these two choices are in effect trading force in the knee for force in the hips/low back. Let me also admit my bias here: in my own work, I encounter vastly more injuries and weaknesses to the low back as compared to the knee. I think that trend extends beyond my office.

    So now we have to make a choice, do we go with the “traditional alignment” which will likely create additional force on the knee, or your “updated alignment” which will likely create additional force on the hip and low back? Or do we do something else entirely? Staying with the two choices in your article, I’d suggest that choice is best made in the context of an individual’s history of movement, injury, and goals.

    You’ve expressed your goals clearly and eloquently, and I believe they’re accurate up to a point. That point is when you say this updated alignment is for people who want to “input new and healthy movement patterns for your body.” When we tell someone, “You can choose TRADITIONAL A, or you can choose HEALTHY B,” that language is loaded in a small but significant way. I’d offer that while your alternative will be new to many, whether or not it is healthy depends on more variables than you have accounted for here–specifically diminshed lumbar support, which is a significant issue for many many people.

    My personal belief matches the conclusion of the study–that in actions like this, a balance of forces among many joints and muscles will be the most efficient choice for most people. In the absence of other injury or clear imbalance, the will likely look like a moderation of both hip flexion and anterior knee movement. Something in between the extremes.

    Lastly, I just wanted to say that the name I chose, “An Actual Kinesiologist” was is in no way an attempt to suggest that you are not actually qualified to offer people guidance on movement and exercise–you very clearly are. This website autofilled it in my initial reply–the name is actually an unfortunate holdover from a response I wrote ages ago to a Jill Miller video on downward dog which I thought was nonsense. Your article is, on the whole, not only sensible but highly useful.

    P.S. I realized my original link was to an abstract only. Anyone who wants to read the full study can find a PDF simply by searching “Effect of Knee Position on Hip and Knee Torques During the Barbell Squat.” Full disclosure this is not my research.

  • JayBee

    This is a very interesting discussing, and I appreciate the comments of both Jenni and AK. The article on Barbell Squats was good to read, and based on my own rehabilitation process involving my ankles, knees and hips (and resulting scoliosis), balancing the torque between my hips and knees has been very important for me. I have been placing a lot of focus on Utkatasana for months, after realizing I was not getting the alignment down properly. I had to wind back significantly, to the point that I was barely sitting back at all, or I’d start to twist. In my own body, it feels best when I strike the middle ground here – neither going with traditional, or with updated, but right in between. I wasn’t aware of the two methods, I have just been following how it feels in my hips/legs/ankles, and my back.

    As a side note, and addressing more of the study, it has been very helpful for me to engage my abs as strongly as I can, keep good strong arms, but with my shoulders relaxed back. When sitting deeper and leaning more back onto my heels, the abs take most of the load out of the lumbar area, so the torque doesn’t migrate there when working to bring the knees back more.

  • In my short years of practice I’ve come to recognize there are many variations of many postures. As for naming the postures Sanskrit is pretty cool and has a sexy ring to it but, I haven’t taught in Sanskrit for over 15 years.

    I’ve also noticed there are differences between styles in the naming of postures. For example in todays mass mind Yoga world if I ask students to move into lunge many will perform what I call Warrior 1. In Forrest Yoga (which I teach) there are several versions of lunge most of which are practiced with the back knee down. If I say Triangle to a Bikram student they’ll do something I recognize as Extended Warrior, Side Angle or Parsvakonasana. So lot’s of our differences are both in language and alignment.

    It is challenging to have an intelligent conversation here because there are so many variables especially the uniqueness of the students body and energy and the purpose for the pose in ones sequence of postures. Personally like to practice postures using deep Ujayia breathing with feet and hands active, neck relaxed, engaging most musculature subtly while scanning my inner landscape for energy movement and awareness – kind of challenging to understand without many classes and deep instruction from me . . . isn’t it?

    Let us honor the difference, unique awareness and application we bring to our practice and teaching!

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