As yogis, we take a seat in “chair pose” more often than some of us would like. Utkatasana, perhaps the least desirable seat in the house, doesn’t refer to a cozy armchair, a supportive desk chair, or even a stiff-backed chair at the dining table. In fact, the translation of utkatasana is “intense powerful pose” and has nothing at all to do with a chair. Regardless, the visual image has resulted in “chair pose” being common vernacular in yoga studios. A good chair should be sturdy and comfortable, so let’s consider ways to help your utkatasana become as cozy as—well, at least as cozy as a park bench.
Although the three alignment cues that follow may not feel as comfortable as a seat on the chaise lounge that you dream of plunking onto while you read or watch your favorite TV show, they do have the potential to make utkatasana safer and more sustainable.
1. Clean Up Your Feet
Utkatasana is a standing balancing pose, so your feet are your base. Whether you take the classic stance (big toes touching and heels slightly separated) or work with your feet inner-hip-width distance apart, keep your feet parallel to each other: If you notice a tendency to internally or externally rotate one foot (or both), clean this up. A rule of thumb (or should I say rule of toe?) is that the outer edge of each heel should line up with the outer edge of each pinky toe. (If you drew vertical lines down your mat, the outer edge of your pinky toe and the edge of your heel would be against the same line.) For many, this may mean pressing into the ball of your foot, lifting your heel, and moving the heel out a little bit so that the outer edges of your feet are parallel to each other and parallel to the outer edges of your mat.
2. Let Your Knees and Your Feet Talk with Each Other
In utkatasana, your knees work in concert with your feet. Direct the center of each kneecap forward so that it points in the same direction as its corresponding second or third toe, regardless of the width of your stance. If you’ve chosen a wider stance in your feet, keep your knees separated the same distance as your feet. (Avoid knocking your knees together.) The conversation between your feet and knees will keep your knees healthy, and your commitment to keeping your knees stable will be transmitted all the way down to your ankle joints and up to your hip joints. Keep in mind that the deeper you bend your knees, the deeper the flexion in your ankles—so if you’ve got weak or cranky ankles, decrease the bend in your knees. If you tend to overpronate your feet (allowing your inner arches to roll inward), lift and spread your toes in this pose. This will help even out the weight distribution on your feet and recreate a natural lift to your inner arch.
3. Use Your Arms and Chest
Utkatasana is a full-body posture. While your lower body bears the weight, paying attention to your upper body can lessen the load. When practicing the traditional form of the pose with arms reaching up overhead, spin your palms so that they face each other, and reach up through your fingers as though someone’s tugging them from above. Maintaining straight and strong arms, try to bring your upper arms in line with your ears (which is different from jutting your head forward to line your ears up with your arms!). Keep your collarbones broad and your chest lifted, but resist jutting your rib cage out. If your front ribs pop forward, knit them toward your back ribs and draw your navel in and up.
It’s important to remember that in utkatasana, and in any pose for that matter, you are in control of how deeply you choose to move. How low you go in utkatasana impacts the distribution of weight that trickles down into your ankle joints and the muscles that support flexion there (including the gastrocnemius, soleus, tibialis posterior, and tibialis anterior). And the depth of your pose impacts your hip joints and the muscles that support hip flexion (including the psoas major, iliacus muscles, and quadriceps).
So the next time you take a “seat” in chair pose, consider how the stability of your base and the support of your whole body can create a cozier experience.