For Beginners: Utkatasana
Yoga postures are good teachers. Some of the asanas are gentle and nurturing, showing you how to relax into your being. Other asanas are strong and direct—the kind that don't pussyfoot around. Meet Utkatasana (OOT-kah-tah-sah-nah), one of those vibrant asana teachers that you'll likely never forget.
Utkatasana is often called "Chair Pose." To the external eye, it looks like a yogi sitting in an imaginary chair. When you do the pose, however, it is definitely not a cushy, passive ride. A deep squat, Utkatasana immediately engages the strength of your legs, back, and ankles. The literal translation of the word "utkatasana" from Sanskrit is "powerful pose." Here power is not about domination or control over someone else so much as it is about aligning with the life energy within and around you. At the core level, Utkatasana teaches you how to find your seat of power within your pelvis, at the center of your body.
From the yogic view of the body, your pelvic region (from the navel to the pelvis floor) not only houses the organs of procreation, digestion, and elimination, but also controls the flow of energy along the spine. If the pelvis is misaligned, the rest of the spine, and by extension, the pose, will be out of balance, often resulting in lower back pain and overworking the knee and ankle joints. When your pelvis is centered and aligned with gravity, there is a feeling of stamina and vitality within the pose, as if you've tapped into a geyser of energy.
Let's begin to explore Utkatasana. We will start by finding the optimum position of the pelvis—a good seat, if you will. If you are familiar with Utkatasana as part of an Ashtanga practice, you may already be doing the pose with your feet together as it is done within Suryanamaskar B (Sun Salutation B). If you are new to this pose, however, practice with your feet apart to steady your balance.
From a standing position, step your feet hip-width apart so you feel grounded and connected to the width of your pelvis. On an exhalation, squat down from here as if to sit in a chair, keeping your heels on the floor.
Explore the range of motion in your pelvis by bringing your hands to your hips, tilting your tailbone up (into a swayback) and then tucking it under. Notice the effect of both extremes. When you lift the tailbone, tipping the top of the pelvis forward, you jam your lower back. When the tailbone is tucked under, your abdomen is restricted.
Now find the balance. Reach back and feel your sitting bones (those bony points at the base of your buttocks). Take your hands and sweep your sitting bones back as if dusting off your bottom—this is the direction you want to move your sit bones. Keep releasing your sitting bones back while turning your tailbone down, so the sacrum moves forward into the body. You should feel a release in the lower back as your pelvis is stabilized (neither tucked nor swaybacked) and your sacrum broadens.
On an inhalation, come up to standing (whew!) and take a few cycles of breath to rest your thighs and integrate what you have experienced.