What I’m teaching…Utkatasana

Yesterday, I posted about the benefits of squats.  Largely directed to any pregnant ladies who might have been reading, my post should have mentioned that the deep squat can prove beneficial to ALL women and men at any age, pregnant or otherwise. Today I want to share some info on another type of squat, very common in the vinyasa yoga practice: utkatasana (a.k.a. powerful/fierce pose or chair pose).

Here’s how Yoga Journal breaks down the pose:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Inhale and raise your arms perpendicular to the floor. Either keep the arms parallel, palms facing inward, or join the palms.
  2. Exhale and bend your knees, trying to take the thighs as nearly parallel to the floor as possible. The knees will project out over the feet, and the torso will lean slightly forward over the thighs until the front torso forms approximately a right angle with the tops of the thighs. Keep the inner thighs parallel to each other and press the heads of the thigh bones down toward the heels.
  3. Firm your shoulder blades against the back. Take your tailbone down toward the floor and in toward your pubis to keep the lower back long.
  4. Stay for 30 seconds to a minute. To come out of this pose straighten your knees with an inhalation, lifting strongly through the arms. Exhale and release your arms to your sides into Tadasana.

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Dr. Eden Goldman, a chiropractor and yoga therapist based in L.A., offers some really interesting views on proper alignment in utkatasana that differ from the traditional instruction and I think they are worth consideration.  I am copying this directly off of his website, yogadoctors.com. 

How Yogis Made Chair Pose Dangerous

Utkatasana, a.k.a. chair pose, is one of the most standard postures in the Yoga room.  If you practice Ashtanga Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, or any kind of Power Yoga derivative, chances are you’re doing chair 5-10 times a class, if not more.  It is basically a modified squat and is one of those poses (like downward dog) that appears to be quite basic at first, but once you investigate it, the pose’s more advanced qualities become obvious and apparent.

Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar says in his famous Yoga bible, Light on Yoga, that Utkatasana develops the leg muscles evenly, strengthens the ankles and helps remove deformities in the legs.  Unfortunately, what I commonly see from other teachers and students of Yoga is a propagation of the classical form that can actually cause many injuries – whereas the application of a bit of modern sports medicine ingenuity might actually keep people a whole lot safer.  Ask yourself this question:

Why is it that in all other standing poses teachers stress stacking a joint on top of another joint (one of the fundamental biomechanical principles of stability), but in a chair pose all that gets thrown out the window?

The truth is this.  Women outnumber men in Yoga classes 72% to 28% according to Yoga Journal’s most recent demographic studies.  What’s more, numerous scientific studies have shown that women are anywhere from 4 to 10 times more likely to have an injury of the ACL, otherwise known as the anterior cruciate ligament of the knee.  This ligament is sheared or damaged when your knee extends past your ankle, which is why many teachers tell you not to go past that point in Warrior 2’s and Side Angle poses.

So then why do most teachers teach chair pose with the knees diving waaaaay past the ankles adding to this deleterious effect on the ACL, especially for women?  Moreover, having the knees go so far forward further adds to the Western exercise world’s cosmetic fascination of making people more dominant in their quadriceps [in reference to their hamstrings] when all the research in the scientific and physical rehabilitation worlds says that we should be making people less quad dominant and more in touch with their glutes and hamstrings because they sit too much.

Still not convinced?  Try this…

If you do chair pose let’s say only 5 times a class, 4 classes per week then that’s over 1,000 chair poses you will do in 2011.  That’s a lot of chairs!  (Repetitive stress injury anyone?!?!?)

To help keep you and/or your clients safer, here’s how you can modify utkatasana:

1) Shift the weight into the heels and begin bringing to knees back behind the toes.  This will activate the posterior chain of muscles (i.e. the glutes and hamstrings) and cause them to take up more of the responsibility in this pose.  In talking with Dr. Craig Liebenson, team Chiropractor for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, he feels that about 50% of people with perfect form will actually be able to feel their glutes/hams working in a squat position like chair pose and 50% of the population will still feel only their quads because their neuromusculobiomechanical relationship is that compromised.  Just keep this in mind next time when doing/teaching chair and the fact that most people across the board won’t be able to get their knees directly over their ankles.  They will actually be about mid-foot and that would still be a MAJOR improvement!

2) Shift the hips back and stick out the butt more.  This will further load the posterior chain and will help encourage the knees to come back even more.  It’s an old adage that the knee is slave to the hip and that can be used here to benefit the body if that connection is better understood.

3) Keep the lumbar spine and pelvis neutral while engaging your core to support your low back.  That’s the first place that the stress of the pose will want to go as you shift your knees and hips back.  Do not do an anterior pelvic tilt…that will lead you down a slippery slope.  Apply a sternal crunch, brace the abdomen, lateralize the breathing and, as many Yogis in L.A. like to say, bring the front ribs toward the back ribs.

4) Loosen up the hips using other poses to make them more flexible.  An article that I pass out to the Yoga Therapy RX students at Loyola Marymount University when I teach their sections of hip and knee pathology is this one from the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy:

http://www.jospt.org/issues/articleID.2396,type.1/article_detail.asp

Among other great nuggets of wisdom, what the article details is that the body’s knee position and trunk flexion are intricately linked.  As your knees dive forward you are able to straighten up your torso more, a.k.a the classical Yoga chair position, and as your knees move back your torso will flex or bend forward a bit more.  This will feel strange at first, but the latter actually decreases quadriceps loading by almost 30% and will also decrease knee valgosity (where the knees fall toward one another at the centerline of the body) by more than 50%, which helps protect the MCL, the medial collateral ligament of the knee, too.  All good things!  Furthermore, loosening up the hips and making them more flexible will decrease the potential strain in attempting to try to lift up the torso because you will naturally want to try to straighten up to work the pose.  Hopefully, this additionally highlights why point #3 above dealing with the core is so important in protecting your back.  O;-)  Got it!

As the late great Pattabhi Jois famously said, “Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice.”  So rather than taking my word for it, go try some of these modifications now and see for yourself in your own body.


As with any physical practice or exercise, listen to your body.  We are made in different shapes and sizes, with different body types and abilities. I don’t think any posture or movement is “one size fits all”.  I like that Dr. Goldman has challenged tradition a little bit in an effort to keep our bodies safe and our yoga practices life long.  Try out his suggestions and see how they work for you.

 

What I’m teaching…Remain neutral

It’s so amazing how you can be at just the right place at the exact right time.  I caught a few minutes of the View the other afternoon on a break at work.  Paulina Pinsky, daughter of the famous addiction specialist “Dr. Drew” and former figure skater, was on the couch opening up about her 7-year battle with eating disorders. The ladies were asking about her recovery and how she deals with her body image today.

And she said, simply:

I remain neutral.

It could have been a phrase offered to her by specialists in her recovery or perhaps she came up with that articulation on her own. Either way, it was profound and I had never heard it before.  Remain neutral.  In other words, offer no judgement.  I can see how this strategy can be extremely helpful in healing an eating disorder, when the balance of judging body image as “good” or “bad”, “fat” or “skinny” is so delicate with so many consequences.

We can all cultivate more self-love and acceptance by remaining neutral in any temptation to self-judge or criticize.

Yoga practitioners aspire to follow the principle of ahimsa (non-violence, non-harming, non-injury), the first of the yamas (disciplines) which we learn about in the Yoga Sutras (II.35). Non-judgment is an important aspect of ahimsa, as the suffering that judging causes is harmful and painful.  To remain neutral gives permission NOT to judge.  It means there is no NEED to label.  There is no obligation to discern what is good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate.  Remaining neutral steers us away from suffering.  It’s a way to find more freedom in your life, relationships, yoga practice, or work.  When judgment turns to criticism, a portion of that negative, critical energy remains with you. It’s exhausting and painful to constantly carry that negative energy around with you.

It is possible to look on reality without judgment and merely know that it is there.

A Course in Miracles

Not to mention that often our judgements are misguided or incorrect. What we think we know to be truth, may actually be far from it. With more information, opinions shift and change.

eyore

So I think it’s a far safer and more healthy plan to remain neutral.  The next time you’re faced with the desire to cast a judgement, whether it be directed internally or externally, see how it feels to simply remain neutral.

 

What I’m teaching…Reactions are Teachers

re·ac·tion

We don’t really have experiences in life. We have reactions to experiences. Things don’t happen to us. Things happen in and of themselves, and what we do is react to them. It’s not the existence of standstill traffic that effects us, because if it’s happening, say across town and we don’t know about it, it doesn’t bother us. But if the cars are at a dead stop on the very road that we need to take, suddenly we are activated, and we react to the existence of traffic. It’s not the traffic we are experiencing, it’s our reaction to it! Built into our hardwiring as humans is the fight or flight response, which we needed way back in the caveman era to keep us safe. But we’ve evolved…there is a third option, which is to neither fight nor flee, and that is, to just stay and breathe. If you start to see your emotional feathers getting ruffled, just step back from yourself, come back into your body, watch your breath and feel the reactiveness dissipate. If reactions happen, come out of your head, and anchor into your body…

Baron Baptiste

Surely you’ve noticed how some people, experiences, events, interactions, etc. bring out strong reactions in you while others do not. The reactions may be positive or negative, but they are strong and are very knee jerk in nature.  When the wavelike sensation of reaction passes, we may look back at those moments with regret, shame, puzzlement, or even pride and satisfaction.  Either way, I think they’re worth a second look.

These strong reactions are our teachers.

9 times out of 10, when we take some time to analyze the source or “why?” of the reaction and then consider what those reactions are really doing for us, what they are serving emotionally, physically, spiritually…there is really interesting information waiting. Perhaps they allow us to dig a bit deeper into the work of self knowledge and reflection.  Perhaps they are feeding some sort of negative internal dialogue or maybe we are just parroting back what was modeled for us as children. Perhaps there are reactions that do not serve us well and by simply realizing that, they lessen their hold and we eventually become completely free of them.  Children are great teachers in this way.  The buttons they push are not by accident.  In fact, all relationships push our buttons for the purpose of transformation and growth.  So the next time you find yourself spiraling into a strong reaction, try to stop for a moment and breath deeply.  What is it specifically that you are reacting to? See if you can figure out when in your life you started reacting so strongly in this way and why.  Awareness is where transformation begins.

What I’m teaching…Seek inspiration

When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.

Patanjali

When we are inspired, we are motivated.

By definition, motivation arouses us to action and sustains goal directed behavior.  In other words, we do the work (willingly).  Destructive, old patterns have less of a hold.

Seek inspiration…in all facets of life: love, relationships, family, career, health, wellness, yoga…and share your inspiration with others.

Happy New Year.  Hope you are inspired this year!

Here’s a bit of yoga inspiration to get you started!