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:
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.