Take a Seat
It might be surprising that the Sanskrit name Utkatasana is sometimes translated as Fierce Seat or Powerful Pose. The asana looks fairly straightforward and simple—you bend the knees as if preparing to sit on a chair. It looks so much like someone sitting on an imaginary chair that it's commonly called Chair Pose.
But rather than let you relax back into a La-Z-Boy, Utkatasana requires you to support yourself in a standing squat. This action engages the muscles of your legs and back—and is arguably the single best movement for strengthening the thighs, both the quadriceps and the hamstrings, as well as the erector spinae muscles in the back. Leg-strengthening squats are workout staples at the gym, where people often do them holding weights. Utkatasana is similarly strengthening but should generate less wear and tear on your joints over the long haul.
Supporting your weight in Utkatasana is challenging. It's recommended for athletes involved in sports requiring strong legs, and it helps prevent a loss of muscle mass as you age. In some versions of Utkatasana, such as in Sun Salutation B in the Ashtanga practice, feet and knees are kept together and palms are pressed overhead. Other traditions keep the legs apart, which makes balancing easier, and the arms parallel, which puts less stress on the shoulders. My teacher, the late Esther Myers of Toronto, believed a wider stance to be more appropriate for most Western bodies—and especially for women, whose hips tend to be broader than men's. So I practice and teach the pose this way.
The pelvic region controls the flow of energy along the spine. For optimum energy flow, the pelvis must be properly aligned. The idea is to keep the pelvis balanced and centered as the knees bend and the buttocks release down, while you simultaneously keep the torso lifted and the spine long.
To experience the action of the pelvis, stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with feet hip-width apart, knees soft, and hands on your hips. Place your fingers on the pointy protuberances at the front of the hip bones (the anterior superior iliac spine, or ASIS) and tilt your pelvis forward and backward a few times. Tilt your pelvis forward by moving your pubic bone back. Notice how your lower back sways and compresses into an arch. Next, tilt your pelvis back by tucking your tailbone under. Notice how your abdomen becomes tight and constricted. To find a healthy balance between these two extremes, do both movements but more subtly. Gently move your tailbone slightly forward as you move your pubic bone back. These two bones seem to move toward each other and find a balanced middle ground where the lower back is long and uncompressed and the abdomen is firm but not gripped. To support the lower back, draw the belly in and up toward the spine. Don't suck in your gut by tightening your abdominal muscles. Instead, let the action be a gentle lift.
Now, retain this balanced pelvic alignment in a "mini-chair" pose. Slightly bend the knees—be sure they track out directly over your toes—and lower your buttocks an inch or two. Keep your chest lifted, shoulders relaxed, and feet pressed evenly into the floor. Stay here for two or three breaths, keeping your spine long and pelvis stable, then return to Mountain Pose.
Utkatasana becomes more challenging the deeper you squat; the lower you go, the harder your body must work to resist gravity. Holding the legs and torso upright as the buttocks descend demands much of, and ultimately strengthens, the thigh muscles. The pose can therefore present a paradox for people with knee problems. Although strengthening the muscles that support the knee can ultimately benefit this vulnerable joint, squatting too deeply can strain the knee—particularly if you have had any injuries. People with knee concerns are advised to stay with the modified versions and avoid excessively bending the knees.
To help build strength in the thighs, first practice the supported Utkatasana against a wall. Stand with your back against a wall, your feet shoulder-width apart, and your heels 12 to 18 inches from the wall. Keep your knees slightly bent and rest your hands on the top of your thighs. Press your feet into the earth and lengthen your spine by extending up through the top of your head. Let the back of your head, your shoulder blades, and the back of your pelvis rest lightly against the wall. Bring your pelvis into balance—tailbone and pubic bone moving toward each other—so the lower back retains its slight natural curve. Inhale length into your spine and draw your belly in and up.
On an exhalation, slowly bend your knees and release your buttocks toward the earth. Extend your spine and lift your chest as you slightly slant your torso forward, being sure to hinge from the hips and to keep good pelvic alignment, with the back of the pelvis supported by the wall. Let your hands slide down your thighs toward your knees. Stay as relaxed and as lifted as possible and continue to breathe slowly and deeply through your descent. When you reach a place where you feel challenge but not strain, stop and stay in the pose for two or three breaths, being sure to soften your face, shoulders, and throat. Do not lower your hips below your knees, and do not let your bent knees extend past your toes. To come out of the pose, press your feet into the earth as you inhale, straighten your legs, and slide back up the wall.
Ignite the Fire
Next, try the pose away from the wall with a modification that extends the arms forward, providing a nice counterbalance for the upper body as the buttocks descend. Stay with this version of Utkatasana if you have shoulder problems or find the full pose too intense.
To do a standing squat, stand with your feet hip-width apart. On an inhalation, bring your arms out in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing down. The forward position helps with balance; extending your arms forward is easier than holding them over your head.
On an exhalation, bend your knees and drop your buttocks toward the floor. As you squat, let your body angle forward. Keep good pelvic alignment, with the chest lifted and the crown of the head extending skyward. Move toward having the thighs parallel to the floor, breathing as you hold the pose for two or three breaths. To release, press the feet down on an inhalation and straighten the legs.
To perform the full pose, stand with your legs hip-width apart and bring your arms up overhead as you inhale, palms facing each other. Relax your shoulders down away from your ears and gaze softly toward the horizon. On an exhalation, bend your knees slowly and drop your buttocks toward the floor, maintaining a balanced pelvis as you let the body angle slightly forward. Remember to draw the belly in and up, hinge from the hips, bend the knees directly over the toes, and root down evenly through your feet. Keep your head in line with your spine so that your gaze is forward and slightly down.
Focus on dropping your sitting bones down while simultaneously lifting your heart as you tune in to the inner sensations of the posture. You may begin to feel a fiery heat in your belly and a sense of lightness in your head. Challenge yourself to sit deeply, but don't cross the edge into strain or tension. Continue to sink deeper on exhalation and lengthen up on inhalation. When you're ready to come out, press down with your feet, straighten your legs, and relax your arms. Then hinge forward into a cooling Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) for several breaths.
Remember to be patient with yourself and consistent with your practice. Don't worry if the posture feels awkward at first—in fact, one translation of the Sanskrit name is Awkward Pose. Over time, you'll make progress—and be rewarded with strength, stamina, and powerful legs that can take you surely and steadily wherever you choose to go.