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

**Update, November 2015: Since writing this blog post, I have learned about new science which makes a good deal of what I wrote in this piece outdated. This post was informed by what I had learned from my body studies at the time, and there are still some aspects of it that I agree with. But the idea that if you let your knees track forward of your ankles in utkatasana, you will be contributing to joint degeneration in your knees does not take into account the ability of the tissues of the body to adapt to the demands placed on them. In reality, if you practice the pose with forward knees, your tissues should respond to the pose by becoming stronger and better able to handle that load. In the yoga world, we talk a lot about "good" and "bad" alignment for asanas. But a broader perspective on alignment might be that there are no inherently "bad-for-you" movements - there are simply movements which your tissues are *adapted to handle* and movements which they aren't.

So the question of how to align yourself in utkatasana is more a matter of what your specific goal is in doing the movement at that time. I do think that glute-strengthening is a worthwhile goal for our modern bodies, and so there is great value inherent in practicing utkatasana with your knees directly above your ankles as I suggested in this piece. But it's not "bad" to practice the pose with forward knees, and there are benefits to be gained from that joint arrangement as well.

(Also, it's true that a muscle imbalance like the quad/hamstrings relationship I mentioned in this piece is not optimal and should be addressed, but it's not something that by itself would necessarily cause chronic pain in the body. Although it's commonly believed that muscle imbalances create pain (this is what I was taught and believed too), I understand today that pain is a complex experience and that muscle imbalances haven't been shown to have a direct causal relationship with pain. Just for the record!)

I hope this broader perspective on movement that I've gained since writing this piece is helpful to you and your own attitude toward your body both on and off the yoga mat. I'll be elaborating on these ideas in some upcoming blog posts, too, so keep your eyes out for them if you're interested! ///

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.

 

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TRADITIONAL 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:

Traditional Utkatasana

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.