Today’s pose is Chair or Utkatasana. It probably should be Upward Facing Dog, but I covered that one in May. Onto new thangs! (Yes…THANGS) Sometimes chair pose is called “Lightning Bolt” because well, your body is in the shape of a lightning bolt, and the word Utkatasana loosely translates to “fierce” or “powerful” pose…you know, like a flash of lightning. It’s the beginning pose of the Sun Salutation B, and people can get downright testy about it’s alignment.
Some people teach Chair as if you drop the hips straight down, but this causes the knees to jet out in front of the toes which could be harmful if you have knee injury. If you just sit the hips back as if you are going to sit in an actual chair, you can keep the knees relatively over the ankles. The first version is a very quadriceps dominant action; whereas, the latter incorporates the glutes (if you are sedentary, you NEED to move the glutes since they don’t get much action sitting in at a cubicle all day). There is an interesting University of Memphis study that said stress on the knee joint increases 28% when the knees move past the toes in a squat or lunge, but when you restrict forward motion of the knee in a squat the stress on the hip joint increases 1000%. So, by trying to protect the knees, we may be causing more damage to the hips. If you have a knee injury, it’s still good to take precautions and make sure you can see your toes in Chair pose. So, if you are looking for a definitive “this is the right way” response, I don’t have it. If your knees are good you may have to experiment to find which feels better for your body.
You can squat as deep or shallow as you need. I like to keep my feet together, but some people find more stability with the feet a few inches apart. Keep the pelvis neutral here. Don’t point your tailbone down or scoop it up. The abdomen is pulled in tight, and the shoulder blades are sliding down the back. Arms are kept active, and chest is open.
Teachers hold their yoga closely to their hearts because likely it has facilitated great transformation in their lives, and when someone walks in with their fancy science trying to change it people can get defensive. A fellow teacher once told me that they felt all this focus on alignment and anatomy was taking away from the spiritual portion of the practice, and they fear that the West is just turning a thousands of years old tradition into some form of group exercise class. Yoga could become the next TaeBo or Jazzercise, but I hardly think it would happen. Asana is just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Its purpose is to prepare the body and mind for meditation; thus, asana could encompass (and it does) many different things. While it isn’t necessary to have perfect postural alignment to do yoga, focusing on key elements helps one develop body awareness.
I remember the first time a teacher told me about “mula bandha” (root lock or lifting the pelvic floor); in order to do it, I had to concentrate on it very hard. The action of squeezing and holding the perineum up into my pelvis was something foreign to me as it is to a lot of people. We have places in our body that we don’t even know exist, much less how to move them. I can tell students to “pull their shoulder blades down on the back” and sometimes I see this look on their face that says, “Huh? What?…hrrmmm….Oh!..Okay, that’s how that works.” Body awareness develops through concentration, visualization, and kinesthetic experience. All of these things assist one in the meditation process.