Super Cool Anatomy Fact #53

 

(This is a little factoid that I shared on my yoga FB page, and I thought I'd also share it here on my blog because it's a pretty important concept for yoga teachers to understand. It's not a full blog post like my usual ones, but I have some more of those coming soon. :) )

SUPER COOL ANATOMY FACT #53: You probably know that your muscles move you around, but did you know that your connective tissue plays an important role in moving you around too? It's harder to picture because we know that our connective tissue doesn't actively contract like our muscles do. But our connective tissue actually stores what's called *potential energy* when it lengthens.

Think about this frog here. When this frog decides to jump, it first moves into a crouch, which stretches its tendons & other connective tissues, loading them with potential energy. When the frog releases this position, it certainly uses its *muscles* to propel itself forward, but its jump is hugely enhanced by the stored potential energy that was loaded into its connective tissues. It would never jump as impressively far if it didn't have its spring-like connective tissue to propel it much further than its brute muscle force alone could.

We humans rely on properties like this when we move too. It's therefore important to keep our connective tissue healthy for optimal energy storage and force transmission. One great way to cultivate healthy connective tissue is to integrate active stretching into your yoga/movement practice. When we strength-train our tissues at all ranges, we signal our connective tissue to grow stronger and stiffer ("stiff" being a good thing when we're talking about connective tissue!) We don't create healthy, efficient tissues by pulling on them and trying to make them longer - we create strength and resiliency in our tissues by making them stronger at all ranges.

Try thinking less about "length" and more about strength and efficiency in your yoga/movement practice and see if your flexibility magically improves anyway! My new hamstrings-focused online yoga practice is a great place to start if these ideas are newer to you. :)

Are Some Movements Inherently Bad?

We are often taught that there are ways the body can move that are inherently bad for us. We’re told that these movements will cause damage, “wear and tear”, or imbalance in the body, which will inevitably lead to pain and discomfort. Some examples of movements like these are cervical spine flexion (e.g. "text neck"), lumbar spine flexion, and many classic yoga alignment taboos like placing the foot directly on the knee in tree pose (vrksasana).

While this perspective is certainly well-meaning, it is missing some key insights about the body that recent science has revealed to us. Instead of asking whether a movement is good or bad, a more nuanced and helpful question is: are one’s tissues adapted to withstand the load of a particular movement? When we approach movement from this perspective, it becomes clear that there are no inherently bad movements - there are simply movements whose loads our bodies are not currently adapted to handle.

 


OUTDATED MODEL OF PAIN

One reason that the "bad movements" belief is unhelpful is that it is based on an outdated model of how pain works. If you read my recent article on The New Science of Pain in Yoga International, you may be familiar with the fact that the link between pain and actual tissue damage is often very weak. Recent studies have repeatedly shown that many people have real tissue damage in their bodies and no associated pain, and conversely, many people who experience chronic pain in their bodies have no associated tissue damage at all. Additionally, pain is not an input to the brain from the periphery of the body (i.e. from tissue damage), but an output from the brain that is meant to signal us to take some sort of protective action.

There are many more implications that the new science of pain has for today’s topic of “bad movements”, but for the sake of time I’m going to to leave this part of the discussion at that and encourage you to read my original article about pain if these ideas are new to you. (This paradigm shift is fascinating and important for us yoga and movement teachers to understand!)

 


DO OUR PARTS WEAR OUT LIKE THE TIRES ON A CAR?

The second main issue with the “bad movement” approach is that it is based on a model that views the body as similar to a car, or a machine. In this model, if we move or align our body in sub-optimal ways over time, certain body parts will wear out before others due to the accumulation of microdamage. Just like a car’s tires might wear out unevenly and need premature replacing if they aren’t aligned properly, our body’s joints (think knees, hips, spinal joints) can wear out if we move or align them poorly.

This idea makes great intuitive sense, but there is an important distinction between cars and human bodies that is missing from this perspective. Unlike a car or a machine, whose parts do mechanically wear out with time, our body consists of living, biological tissues which are constantly turning over and remodeling according to the demands they experience. For example, we all know that if we load our muscles and connective tissues with a weight-training program at the gym, they will respond by becoming stronger in order to handle these loads. Another way of saying this is that the tissues of our body adapt to the stresses placed on them (also known as Davis’ Law).


TEXT-NECK AND TISSUE ADAPTATION

Text-neck is not an inherently damaging movement.

Text-neck is not an inherently damaging movement.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, this same principle of adaptation applies in the case of the traditionally-labelled bad movement of “text-neck”. We are often cautioned that our head weighs the approximate amount of a bowling ball, and for every inch forward that it creeps, our neck is burdened with 10 additional pounds of damaging weight, leading to inevitable pain and imbalance in this area. (I have warned my yoga students about the dangers of text neck myself in the past too - believe me!)

But such cautions are rooted in the model which views our body like a machine full of parts that will wear out and break down if poorly aligned. By contrast, the living, biological organism of our body is constantly adapting to the loads it experiences. Therefore, if you position your head slightly forward of your torso on a regular basis, the muscles, fascia, and connective tissue of your neck will naturally adapt to become stronger and better able to withstand this load.

Now it’s certainly the case that holding any position for a long period of time, be it text-neck or otherwise, is problematic. But simply flexing our neck forward to look down is a natural movement that our body is designed to do. As well-intentioned as the cautions against text-neck are, they are not truly science-based and can encourage unnecessary fear and worry around this movement (which, ironically, can contribute to pain!)

 


“BAD ALIGNMENT” IN TREE POSE

Yoga alignment rules are another realm where "bad movement" beliefs often come into play. One classic example is the instruction that nearly every yoga student has heard to never place the foot on the opposite knee in tree pose (vrksasana). The reasoning behind this alignment rule is that the laterally-oriented force that the foot applies can damage the knee joint. We are instead instructed to always place our foot either above the knee (on the thigh) or below the knee (on the shin).

This alignment taboo does make intuitive sense, but let’s use the lens of biomechanics to look a bit closer. First of all, as we discussed above, the tissues of the body adapt to the loads placed on them. Therefore, in theory, if someone were to practice tree pose with their foot on their knee frequently enough, the tissues of the knee should adapt and get stronger to handle that load.

Secondly, yoga teachers often cue their students to actively press the standing leg and tree leg foot into one another in this pose. If practiced this way, this action actually creates stability in the standing knee joint which should resist any pressure applied by the tree leg foot.

And lastly, tree pose can be practiced with the tree leg actively working to hold itself up, rather than passively leaning against the standing leg. (Picture the leg lifting itself, rotating, and placing the foot on the opposite leg all on its own, without the help of your hand, and then holding itself up there.) In this scenario, the tree leg’s foot would actually be placing no pressure on the standing knee at all.

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the classic teaching that foot-on-knee placement in tree pose is inherently “bad alignment” is a questionable belief that probably does not apply to most bodies in this pose.

 


HEADSTAND (SIRSANA)

Another controversial asana in the yoga community is headstand (sirsana), a movement that many wonderful and well-meaning yoga teachers believe should never be practiced because our cervical spine is simply not designed to carry the full weight of our body in such a fashion.

It is absolutely the case that most Western bodies are not adapted to handle the loads that headstand places on their cervical spine. (This is why teaching full headstand to a group class is definitely not advisable!)

But if we look at headstand as a movement that applies certain loads to the body, and if we understand that the tissues of our body adapt to the loads they experience, we begin to realize that if someone were to intelligently and progressively load their cervical spine over time (and it would need to be slowly and over a lot of time!), it would be possible for their body to adapt to the loads of headstand. Sirsana would be a safe asana for this body to practice. It's therefore an oversimplification to state that headstand is an inherently bad movement. It would be more accurate to say that it is simply a movement which many bodies are not currently adapted to handle (but they could be trained with time!)

 

CONCLUSION

When we start thinking about movement in terms of load instead of inherently “good” or “bad”, we gain a more nuanced perspective on the body. It’s true that any movement with high enough loads can injure us, but low load positions that we frequent regularly are unlikely to be the source of damage and pain in our body because our tissues will respond by adapting to handle them. These realizations lead us away from viewing our body as an innately fragile structure that is vulnerable to damage from suboptimal forces, and instead as the strong, resilient, and adaptable organism that it truly is.

Stretching is In Your Brain: A New Paradigm of Flexibility & Yoga (Part 1)

In yoga, we tend to place a lot of emphasis on stretching as a means toward more flexibility. But what actually happens in our body when we stretch? Most of us envision our bodies as consisting of play-doh like tissues that we pull on and make longer through stretching, but new science is revealing to us a model of stretching that is much more complex, dynamic, and fascinating than what has previously been imagined. And it turns out that thinking of our bodies in this older “play-doh” like version may be counterproductive and can lead to a number of injuries and structural problems resulting from our yoga practice. In order to keep our wonderful yoga tradition evolving and current, it’s important that we understand this new and fascinating science of stretching and any implications it might offer for our practice and teaching.

 

A NEW PARADIGM OF FLEXIBILITY

Biomechanics-based Restorative Exercise™ teaches a lot of new and eye-opening information about stretching and flexibility that isn’t yet common knowledge in the yoga world. Additionally, the wonderful yoga teacher Jules Mitchell is on a mission to educate the yoga community about the science of stretching. Her recently-completed master’s thesis in exercise science is a comprehensive literature review of the most current scientific research on stretching to date, and it’s full of an abundance of important information for yogis.

Utilizing the innovative knowledge that these resources offer, let’s examine some of our current beliefs about stretching and introduce some helpful ways we can begin to update these beliefs to reflect the newest scientific word on the street.

 

WHAT WE THINK HAPPENS WHEN WE STRETCH

Most people think of their muscles as being either “long” or “short”, and that during a stretch, they are targeting their “short” muscles by physically “lengthening” or “loosening” them. In this stretching paradigm, our muscles are mold-able tissues like taffy or play-doh which we can form into a shape of our choosing by simply pulling or pushing on them. For example, when we fold forward into paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), we tend to imagine that our hamstrings are physically growing longer in that moment of our stretch in the same way that taffy would grow longer if we tugged on both of its ends for awhile. We imagine that when we release paschimottanasana, our hamstrings remain just a bit longer than they were before we did the stretch. And we also imagine that the longer and deeper we hold a pose like paschimottanasana, the longer and looser our hamstrings become.

This stretching paradigm is what most of us were taught in our yoga classes, workshops, and teacher trainings. It’s completely understandable that we might see the body as working like this, but new research is revealing a very different version of the biomechanics of stretching.

 

THE NEW SCIENCE OF WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE STRETCH

We all know that when we stretch, we experience a feeling of “tightness” at our end range of motion - a sensation that limits us from moving any deeper into the stretch. We have traditionally defined this “tight” sensation as the result of having reached the end length of the muscle(s) we’re stretching. In other words, we pulled on the ends of our muscle until we reached its maximum physical length, and once we hit that boundary, the stretch stopped and we felt the “tightness”. With enough stretching, we could increase the length of our muscle and therefore move further into our stretch with time.

The king of flexibility.

The king of flexibility.

But we now understand that increasing our flexibility has much less to do with the physical length of our muscle tissue, and much more to do with the part of our body that controls and moves our muscles: the nervous system. Our brain and spinal cord, which make up our central nervous system (CNS), are constantly monitoring the state of our body. One of the main imperatives of the CNS to keep our body where it perceives it is safe. Normal movements that we make throughout our day are considered safe by the CNS because it knows and trusts them. But on the other hand, our CNS is not familiar with ranges of motion that we never move into, so it’s much less likely to consider those places safe. When we stretch, if we move into a place that the CNS isn’t familiar with, our nervous system will likely end our stretch by creating a sensation of discomfort at the end range of motion it considers safe. 

For example, if you happen to work on your computer for 8 solid hours a day (and if you don’t take frequent intermittent stretch breaks for your shoulders - hint hint :) ), the CNS becomes very familiar with the arms-forward position that you use while typing and considers that range safe. Then later, if you decide to do a chest stretch in which you take your arm out to the side and then behind you, the CNS doesn’t feel that that movement is safe because you so rarely go there, so it will limit your range very early on in the stretch.

A major takeaway from this new flexibility paradigm is that when we increase our range of motion through stretching, it isn’t because we pulled on our tissues and made them longer. It’s because we visited the edge of our stretch (also called stretch “tolerance”) enough times that our CNS started to feel comfortable there and it began to allow us to move deeper into that range.

 

OKAY, I THINK I’M STARTING TO GET IT, BUT WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

It’s definitely interesting and more scientifically accurate to understand this previously-overlooked role that our nervous system plays in flexibility. But whether it’s your nervous system or the physical length of your muscles limiting you in a stretch, why does it matter? Isn’t a stretch a stretch, regardless of the mechanism behind it?

That’s a great question - I’m so glad you asked! The main answer has to do with what tissues are being targeted when we stretch. We often think and talk about stretching our muscles in our yoga poses (i.e. paschimottanasana stretches our “hamstrings”), but in truth our muscles are surrounded by, interwoven with, and inseparable from our fascia. Our fascia is our incredible body-wide web of connective tissue that is literally everywhere inside of us, and it includes our tendons and ligaments. Muscles and fascia are two distinct tissues with different properties, but both are affected when we stretch. And how we choose to stretch, which is based on whether we believe that we’re physically lengthening our muscles (old paradigm) or increasing our nervous system’s tolerance for the stretch (new paradigm), determines how our fascia will be affected during the movement. (Preview for Part 2 of this post: if we’re going with the older “pulling on our tissues like play-doh" paradigm, we’ll feel more drawn to stretching deeper and harder in our poses, which is much more likely to simply damage our tissues than give us the flexibility we seek.)

I’ll elaborate more on this and other important topics, like how we might choose to apply this new information to our yoga practice and teaching, in my next blog post. Stay tuned, guys! And in the meantime, if you’re interested in further reading, check out this awesome article by Jules Mitchell (written for a pretty science-oriented reader). See you for Part 2 soon!

Integrity in Your Movement: Hips vs. Spine

Once you’ve spent enough time studying the body and movement, you begin to develop refined anatomical eyes that can see patterns in the way people move that they can’t sense in themselves. One of these patterns that I see is that yogis tend to move where it’s already easy for their bodies to move while avoiding the work required where true positive change is needed. This is a complex issue that has partly to do with the alignment we choose for our poses. But another factor is a surprising sensory disconnect between what we feel is happening in our body and what is actually happening (also known as poor proprioception), combined with a widespread notion that going “deeper” into our poses is better or more “advanced”.

In our continuing effort to update our beloved yoga practice with modern-day biomechanics knowledge (the science of how the body moves), let’s examine how we can improve one specific body awareness issue that applies to many different yoga poses.

 

MOVING FROM THE HIPS VS. THE SPINE

We love to do everything while sitting in chairs!

We love to do everything while sitting in chairs!

Due to our sitting-based lifestyles, the overwhelming majority of us have tight, locked up hips. (Update February 2016: Although it's commonly believed that sitting makes our hips tight, I realize today that "tight" is a very subjective term that does not have an objective, scientific meaning. Many of use the term "tight" to imply "short", though, as in "sitting shortens the muscles of your hips", but truthfully, we don't actually have evidence to support this claim.) As I’ve written about before, when we don’t move well at one area of our body, we will compensate for that lack of mobility by moving more than we should at an adjacent area of the body, thereby creating too much mobility (a.k.a. hypermobility) in that spot. In the example of our tight hips, the neighboring area that we tend to overuse is our lumbar spine (low back). Hypermobile areas are the sites of pain and injury in many people - is it any wonder that so many of us experience low back pain in our lives?

We spend a lot of time in yoga trying to open our hips, but because it’s so much easier to move from our bendy lumbar spines than our stiff, unyielding hips - and also because of the belief that going “deeper” into our poses is better - we all-too-often bypass the very hip opening we seek by moving from our spine instead. Here’s an easy-to-remember rule: if we want to open our hips when we stretch, we need to move from our hips (the stuck place that needs mobility) and not from our spine (the hypermobile place that needs stability.)

This simple rule can be a challenging one to apply to our practice, though. Most yogis (even very experienced ones) haven’t developed the proprioception necessary to feel the difference between moving from their hips vs. moving from their spine, beyond an obvious example like swan diving forward into uttanasana (forward fold) from standing. Even yogis who consider themselves as having “open hips” because they can put their leg behind their head, drop into full hanumanasana (forward splits), or fold forward into pigeon pose are usually unaware that they’re not actually achieving these shapes by moving primarily at their hips. Instead, they’re moving more from (you guessed it) their lumbar spine, and also quite often at their knee joint (hello knee pain in hip openers!)

 

SUPTA PADANGUSTHASANA AND MOVEMENT INTEGRITY

Supta padangusthasana with big toe hold.

Supta padangusthasana with big toe hold.

But before we worry too much about complex shapes like leg behind the head and hanumanasana, let’s take a look at a relatively simpler shape: supta padangusthasana, or reclined big toe pose. The traditional version of this asana has the yogi hook their big toe with their fingers. Although this is how the pose is commonly taught, in reality if we bind this way, we’ll tuck our pelvis under, which flexes our lumbar spine and turns what we think of as a hamstring-opener into a low back-opener instead. It’s fine to do the pose this way (really, it is!) if your goal is to open your low back, but if you’re interested in stretching your hamstrings (and therefore your hips), you’ll need to ditch the big toe bind and opt for a yoga strap or belt instead.

Supta padangusthasana with a strap - an improvement over the big toe hold, but not the end of the story...

Supta padangusthasana with a strap - an improvement over the big toe hold, but not the end of the story...

Many informed yogis already practice this pose with a strap (great job, you!), but even with the help of an excellent prop, most of us still fail to find our optimal hamstring stretch. Remember our foundational rule that we must move from our hips in order to stretch our hips. It sounds like such common sense, but when we’re talking about bodies with ingrained non-optimal movement patterns, our brain doesn’t see things so clearly (poor proprioception). In order to move solely from our hip joint in supta padangusthasana, we simply need to pull our stretching leg in without also moving our pelvis. If the pelvis moved, the spine moved, which means you’re stretching your low back. Make sense?

Supta padangusthasana with a strap AND opposite hamstrings on the ground - the best variation yet!

Supta padangusthasana with a strap AND opposite hamstrings on the ground - the best variation yet!

But how do we know if we’re doing it right? There’s a perfect alignment marker designed just for this purpose that is extremely helpful, yet not well-known in the yoga world. You’ll know that you’ve moved your stretching leg solely at your hip joint if the hamstrings of your opposite leg are on the floor. This is because if you pull your lifted leg past the true edge of your hamstrings’ length, those hamstrings will pull the pelvis into a tuck, which will cause the other leg’s thighbone to lift away from the floor. (Can you picture that?) If a little Hot Wheels car can drive itself underneath your bottom leg’s hamstrings, then you know you need to lower your raised leg down - sometimes a LOT - until those hammies are back on the floor. Don’t be surprised if this means that the new alignment for your pose has your lifted leg only about 45 degrees (or less!) from the floor. Although it might be tough to accept this newly-defined edge for a pose you’ve done so many times before (believe me, I know from personal experience!), learning to reign your poses in to the actual, biomechanical stretch edge of the tissues you’re trying to mobilize is a huge first step toward improving your mind-body connection and therefore your proprioception.

 

IN CONCLUSION...

Supta padangusthasana is a great pose to examine in learning to refine hip vs. spinal movement. As poses become more complex like the super bendy ones on display in YouTube clips and Instagram photos these days, the emphasis on “deeper” shapes and how a pose looks takes priority over which tissues in the body we’re mobilizing and for what reasons. Although poses like these are fun, creative, and artful, if our goal in practicing yoga is to cultivate long-term balance and health in the body, the science of biomechanics would tell us that the pursuit of deep, bendy shapes is not the correct means to that goal. In my practice and teaching, yoga is about a focused and humble encounter with one’s own limitations. Once we learn to see and accept our body with clarity and accurate perception, we can begin our path toward movement integrity and wellness.

 

Related Post: Let's Forget About Hip-Openers

Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop

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.

 

human-body.jpg

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.