3 Big Ideas for Improving Your Utkatasana

Utkatasana or chair pose can be a challenge because it asks us for strength throughout our legs and, by extension, our core. Given that most people that come to yoga are interested in (and if we’re being honest, better at) flexibility this can be a challenge and doesn’t exactly put this pose in the category of favorites. But if you’re interested in balance in all things, you’ll want to include this posture. How can we become better friends with this pose? Here are some thoughts.

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Check your stance and position but don’t make it a habit to do so! An important aspect of this posture is moving our hips behind our ankles. Doing so keeps strain from happening in our knees because we are keeping the knees from going past the toes. You may notice in class I often don’t even call out the pose name, but rather ask you to move the sit bones back to call attention to this important aspect of the posture. As beginners (and even beyond), once we enter the pose we’re often told to take a look down and make sure we can see the toes beyond the knees. This is a good way to start to develop our understanding of the posture. However, once you know the pose, check in now and then, but don’t do it every time you do the posture! Really being able to feel our bodies in space is an important aspect of developing our practice. You’ll also be breaking the line of your spine and effectively taking your weight forward rather than back when you look down (and possibly creating other issues. The human heads weight a lot!). And in our modern world, we want to focus on strengthening that back body line rather than continuing to over stretch it as we so often do.

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Work the legs independently and create less strain in the outer hips by taking a wider stance. If you’ve been practicing yoga for a fair length of time and depending on the tradition you studied in, tadasana and utkasana were often taught with the big toes touching or even the inner line of the feet totally together like so.

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The next time you come into the pose like that, take a moment to really feel what’s happening in the legs and hips. Perhaps you’ll feel fine and strong and that’s great! Every body is different. For me and my frame and the majority of the people I work with, it’s just too narrow. As I like to joke, this practice was invented by skinny little Indian men. I am not that! So what I find is that a wider stance (sit bones distance apart, not hip width which I think would be taking it too far) creates less strain in my outer hips and makes me use the muscles of my legs more, which is in keeping with the strengthening aspect of the pose.

Now if the dang shutter would just snap me AND my hips would be even happier!.png

With my feet closer my knees can fall into each other so I end up squeezing them together rather than creating an isometric contraction in the totality of my leg muscles (that feeling of hugging the muscles to the bones). That feeling of the knees falling in toward each other creates strain in my outer hips, because the muscles there are trying to hold my spine up, rather than the legs helping the engagement through the core. Essentially, the strengthening benefit from the posture is gone.

But again, your milage may vary.

Finally, when moving through a common twisting sequence in this pose, pay attention to actually coming back to where you were in between each twist. We can find a great combination of flexibility and strength by bringing a twist into our utkatasana. The twisting action can help relieve tension in the spinal muscles that may have accumulated throughout our busy days. Where we get into trouble here is when we don’t fully engage between twists, letting the torso stay in a forward position rather than coming back to the full spinal height of the pose. Hopefully this image makes this a little more clear:

Didn’t mean for this one to get so psychedelic but hopefully you get the idea!

Didn’t mean for this one to get so psychedelic but hopefully you get the idea!

As you can see from the layering of these two images, the “lazy utkasana” brings the torso in front of where it might be if I’d been coming into the pose from Tadasana. My belly is practically resting on my thighs which probably means I’m not using my core to support my spine and missing out on the strengthening aspect of the pose again.

To make this more clear, here’s a short video of this twisting sequence. You’ll see me move into the twist and the first time I’ll lift the torso back to where it was when I first came into utkatasana, the second time I won’t so you can see the difference.

Now it’s your turn! Let me know which of these ideas you found most valuable for improving your Utkatasana. And while you may never love this pose, the next time you have to use a public toilet or pee in the woods, you might just thank me! ;-)

Exercising Barefoot

To a yoga practitioner, exercising barefoot is a matter of course. It helps keep us from sliding around on the mat, gives us better connection to the earth and creates more flexibility and strength in our feet. We probably don’t even think about the fact that we’re doing something that you don’t typically do in most other forms of exercise. But have you considered that you might be able to find benefits from being barefoot in other forms of exercise? Learn more with today’s guest blogger, Laurie Gouley, Creator of The Dalai Nala!

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Have you ever exercised barefoot? You may be thinking, with all the super cool sneakers on the market that "support your arches" or "absorb impact" why would we ever workout barefoot? But that is exactly why we should workout barefoot. Wearing those fancy shoes have made our feet and ankles weak.

Of course going barefoot is not for everyone. If you have diabetes, open sores, numbness in your feet, a contagious foot disease or poor circulation, going barefoot is really not recommended.

However, most of us learned how to walk barefoot and spent lots of time as a child barefoot. We have grown accustomed to shoes but it is a very liberating feeling to be without shoes. It's so freeing!

Think about when you were small and outside barefoot in the grass. How did it make you feel? When I remember that, I get a happy feeling. There is an actual name for this! It's called, earthing. Earthing means walking barefoot on soil, grass or sand (meaning: any natural surface). Sorry this doesn't include sidewalks. :)

A review published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health looked at a number of studies that highlight how drawing electrons from the earth improves health. In one, chronic pain patients using grounded carbon fiber mattresses slept better and experienced less pain.

Another study found that earthing changed the electrical activity in the brain, as measured by electroencephalograms. Still other research found that grounding benefited skin conductivity, moderated heart rate variability, improved glucose regulation, reduced stress and boosted immunity.

One particularly compelling investigation, published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that earthing increases the surface charge of red blood cells. As a result, the cells avoid clumping, which decreases blood viscosity. High viscosity is a significant factor in heart disease, which is why so many people take blood thinning aspirin each day to improve their heart health. Another study in the same journal found that earthing may help regulate both the endocrine and nervous systems.

Most shoes act as a crutch, thus contributing to foot and ankle dysfunction.

Going barefoot improves bio-mechanics, strengthens the foot (ligaments, tendons and muscles), lengthens the Achilles tendon, and enhances coordination and balance. Going barefoot strengthens the stabilizing muscles of the foot and ankle and makes them stronger. It us true that shoes give a lot of stability and support, however, this is what makes the foot and ankle lazy. Strengthening the small stabilizing muscles of the feet can improve our balance and overall sports performance. Improving foot and ankle function will do wonders for movement mechanics, particularly in the hips and lower torso.

Going barefoot can improve our proprioception. Proprioceptors are sensors that provide information about joint angle, muscle length, and muscle tension, which is integrated to give information about the position of the limb in space. The way that we can tell that an arm is raised above our head, even when our eyes are closed, is an example of proprioception.

Going barefoot helps us to feel and connect us to our environment and this helps our balance and develops our natural movements. While it may seem the padding of shoes will reduce the impact on your feet and legs, in fact it may increase it since your proprioceptive system depends on feedback to adjust to impact and the padding can cause you to impact harder to activate it.

No stinkies! Bare feet do not naturally stink. The sweat glands in the feet are just like the sweat glands in the hands. Feet will only stink after being cooped up in shoes for hours.

Benefits for athletes! Athletes who train barefoot have amazing results and experience fewer injuries. No matter how strong, powerful, mobile, agile, fast, or explosive an athlete is, correcting these foot and ankle deficiencies will only improve upon their pre-existing bio-motor capabilities as well as reduce their risk for injuries.

(There are 5 bio-motor abilities. They are strength, endurance, speed, flexibility, and balance or coordination.)

An example why doing a lunge bare foot is better - To properly perform any variation of a lunge (front, reverse, walking, or lateral), first and foremost, you need balance. Performing them barefoot allows you to grip the floor with your entire foot—your toes, the balls of your feet, and your heels—for maximum stability. A sneaker would impede that ability.

While there are many benefits of going barefoot; don't just jump right in with both feet. :)

Train up to it just like you would with anything. After all we spend most of our lives in shoes now so our feet and ankles have weakened! Slowly transition. Your feet will be tender for awhile, so don’t do a whole workout right away.

Give your feet time to adjust. Begin with a barefoot warm-up for a couple of weeks. Slowly increase the number of exercises or drills you do without sneakers. If your gym doesn’t condone barefoot training, try minimalist footwear.

Take your shoes off when you’re in your house or sitting at your desk, too. You can also roll a tennis ball under your arch, and flex and point your toes to strengthen all the muscles in your feet.

I’m a huge believer in barefoot training just for the foot-strengthening and injury-prevention benefits alone!

"But, what if I drop a weight, Laurie?!"

Let's face it...if you are worried about a weight dropping on your foot, your sneaker is not going to do much to save you. Either way it will suck if that happens. So use caution. :)

If you're unable to perform a majority of your activities in barefoot or minimalist conditions, then you have foot and ankle deficiencies. Your feet & ankles will need to be re-trained. I will say it again, if you'd like to start barefoot training, ease into it slowly. The feet, ankles, and toes need to be trained just like any other body part. In fact, you could easily say they require greater emphasis considering most individuals wear shoes that limit, constrict, and bind their feet in unnatural positions, ultimately promoting dysfunction of the lower extremity.

Do you have blisters, corns, ingrown toenails, bunions, skin irritations of the feet, and calluses? Most of these can be traced back to either poor footwear, improper foot and ankle mechanics, or a combination. Most of these are a result of placing uneven pressure on various locations of the feet, a common result of faulty foot mechanics.

But remember whether you choose to workout with shoes or not, be sure to pay attention to any signs of discomfort in your toes, arches, heels, or ankles, and consult your physician if you feel abnormal pain or discomfort.

Do you dare to go bare?

Thank you Laurie! Check out the original posting here.

Hike October

I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment, dear reader, in a post that may seemingly have nothing to do with yoga at first, but which I assure you will come back around at the end.

Mental health is a huge issue in our country right now. Just turn on the nightly news and you will see story after story referencing it directly or indirectly. It’s influenced by our society as a whole, our daily interactions with others and our own personal inner landscape. What I personally observe is that many of us have not been taught coping mechanisms to manage our mental health struggles. Yoga certainly gives us a great toolbox of coping mechanisms. But I’ve written before about how yoga may not be enough to see us through our own personal mental health struggles. Today I want to offer another idea that might help you and also gives you an opportunity to join me in helping others.

That idea is taking a walk in the woods.

It’s only in the last several years that I’ve truly realized how important the outdoors are to me. It’s a love that was instilled at a young age. I grew up playing in the back yard making mud pies and being outside in our rural area. My Dad has been an avid outdoorsmen all his life and brought me up to love it just as much. He had me on cross-country skis as soon as I could walk. We went camping on a fairly regular basis when I was a kid and created some great memories like “steak on a stick” and “what do you mean I have to kneed the peanut butter?!”. We went on hikes from time to time and enjoyed our local state park.  

As I grew older and pursued my educational and career dreams the call to more urban areas took me away from the rural life I knew. But as I like to say, “You can take the country girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the country girl”! Now living in Manchester, NH I find myself with the best of both worlds; living in the city but a short drive from everything the country side and especially the amazing White Mountains have to offer.

Yoga is a practice of self knowledge. It’s only through my yoga practice that I have continued to explore what it is I really need in my life to help me with the ups and downs of the day to day. It’s that mindfulness that recently lead me back to camping and also hiking.

And hiking has totally captured me in the last few years. A fascination with the Appalachian Trail years in the making found me starting the ATC 14 state challenge last fall, taking my first hike in my home state of NY with my Dad. I’ve since completed hikes in 7 states including climbing Mount Katahdin on July 9th, 2018 - a feat that took 15 hours and was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. And so, so, SO worth it! I’m working on NH’s 52 With A View list and hope to climb my first 4000 footer in NH before the end of the year.

What has hiking given me? Confidence in my physical and mental abilities. Another form of mediation (when I’m out there, nothing else exists). A deeper understanding that we are all connected. Less back pain. Stress relief. Great memories. Freedom. Clarity. Happiness.

And a coping mechanism. When the swirling of my mind and the news in our country is more than I can handle I go outside and I see that there is still beauty in the world. That the cycles of nature are still running. That there is something still to love and embrace. That there is still something worth fighting for. And that this is not the end of the road. The cycle of rebirth will happen again.

So this month, I decided to put my love of hiking to good use by supporting an amazing charity called Hike for Mental Health. Eighty percent of the hike donations provide grants that enable scientific research and fund programs aimed at alleviating suffering from mental illness. Twenty percent of the hike donations support preservation of wilderness trails. Those are amazing numbers in my mind. Did you know that according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American spends 93% of their life indoors. 87% of their life is indoors, then another 6% of their life in automobiles. No wonder we are disconnected and loosing our way as a society! We need to get out there to remember what it means to be part of the natural world so we can care enough to preserve it for the future of all beings.

So I’m challenging myself to walk 100 miles outside and raise $500 in the month of October. As people always say, no donation is too small. If you can’t donate, please share my page with anyone you think might be interested in supporting me. And if you’re local, come walk outside with me this month! I’d love to have company as I do my best to stay motivated towards my goals!

Most of all, I hope you take a little time this month to go outside yourself and enjoy the spectacular fall we get to enjoy here in New England. Take a moment to notice how you feel afterward. I’m willing to bet you’ll notice a transformation not unlike coming to a yoga class.

P.S. Would you be interested in the studio offering more opportunities to combine yoga and the outdoors? Leave me a comment or send me an email and let me know! Thank you!

Disclaimer: Not all yoga poses are suitable for all persons. Please consult with your health care provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. The information provided in this blog is strictly for reference only and is not in any manner a substitute for medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor.