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.

Ouch!.png

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! ;-)

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.

The Benefits of Legs up the Wall (& how to make it feel better if it isn't your favorite pose)...

If you've ever been to a Restorative Yoga Class or really any gentle (or sometimes even not so gentle) yoga class you may have been asked to come into Legs Up The Wall or Viparita Karani. Many people cheer when the teacher calls this pose because it feels so good and restful! But what are the real benefits of this posture? And what do you do if it isn't your favorite? Read on!

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Inversions are one of the hallmarks of the physical practice of yoga because they are so unique to the discipline. What other movement form asks you to hold yourself upside down for an extended period of time? There are some key benefits to Legs Up the Wall. Here are just a few:

  • Reduction of fluid, swelling and pain in the legs - If you've been flying, have a job that requires a good deal of standing during your day or other health challenges you may find you have pain and swelling from time to time in the legs. The reversal of the effects of gravity on the body in Legs Up the Wall encourages better return circulation and drainage of excess fluids that may have collected in the lower extremities.

  • Relaxation - As compared with more active inversions such as headstand, Legs Up the Wall greatly encourages the relaxation response in the body. We're more able to breathe fully, deeply and slowly in this well supported position encouraging a sense of well being, taking the nervous system out of "fight or flight" mode and lowering the heart rate. Some study is now being done into how this position may also influence the vagus nerve which is being found to be a key pathway in the body for regulation of all major systems and mind/body connection.

  • Stretches the back body line - If you have tight hamstrings or a generally tight back body line, you aren't alone. This position can help lengthen this area which may generate some relief in low back pain or other spinal issues. The softening of pelvic muscles and the difference in the effect of gravity on the body may also help ease spinal tension experienced during our usual relationship with gravity throughout the day (i.e. being upright).

  • Safe and relatively easy way to experience the benefits of inversions - Headstand isn't for everyone. Legs Up the Wall is a simple way to gain the benefits of an inversion practice without the safety concerns of other more active inversions.

Obviously, these are some great benefits! But what if you're like me (yep, like me) and this isn't your favorite pose? Here are some modifications that might help:

  • Don't have your butt right up at the wall - If you come into this pose and that tight back body line we just talked about is screaming for mercy, try backing away from the wall to relieve the tension. If that isn't enough you may want to place a bolster between you and the wall or even try putting your legs up on a chair instead.

  • Put a blanket or cushion under your low back - If you have low back pain you may find that the weight of the legs moving down into the hip sockets does not feel good on your back or sacrum area. Try padding things up a bit more than you normally would with a blanket or some other cushion to relieve the pressure.

  • Ask your teacher to tie a strap around your lower legs - If you find this pose less than relaxing it may be because your muscles are trying too hard to hold your legs in position. If you have your teacher tie a strap around the lower legs while you're in the pose you may find that the muscles can relax and if the feet start to fall apart from each other the strap will do the work of helping you stay put. A much more relaxing experience!

  • Know when to say when - Not every pose is for every body. As you will often hear us say in class, "Your body, your practice". If you've given it the ole college try and it just isn't working for you, don't be afraid to come out of the pose, especially if there's pain. Your teacher can always give you some other options to work with.

Do you love Legs Up the Wall? Or could you live without it in your practice? Let me know in the comments! 

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.

Don't underestimate the half sun salutation!

Sun Salutations seem to be ubiquitous in yoga. You may think that they must be thousands of years old but the truth is they're actually a fairly recent development in our asana practice. So what's the value in this seemingly repetitive and simplistic series of postures?

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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.