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.
Now let's add another layer to the pose—the power of gravity. Start again from a standing position and squat down while meditating on those two opposing movements (sitting bones back, tailbone down) so that your pelvis is balanced. Imagine that your friend gravity is standing on the tops of your femurs (thigh bones).
Shift and center your weight so that your knees come over your ankles. Now extend your arms directly out in front of you with your palms facing each other, and then take them overhead in direct alignment with your shoulders. Allow your hips to dangle from your spine with the weight of gravity.
Rather than holding all your weight up, use this powerful pull towards the earth to relax your pelvis more deeply. This should again bring ease to your lower back and take any strain off your quadriceps. On an inhalation, come back up to standing.
Now we can harness the power of the pelvis through the lower belly. Let's explore the dynamics of the abdominal action from a standing position first. Take one hand to your lower belly and the other hand above the navel at your lower ribs and diaphragm. Lift your lower belly in and up towards your spine, keeping your lower ribs soft.
This subtle movement lengthens the spine upwards from the base of the pelvis while supporting your lower back. Be aware of creating tension with this movement, as we are often conditioned to "suck up" our gut.
Now sit down into Utkatasana again, this time raising your arms overhead with an inhalation as you begin to squat. As you exhale, position your pelvis and let your hips drop with gravity.
On an inhalation, lift your lower belly in and up. Allow your chest and arms to rise from this subtle lift at your core, bringing lightness to the strength of this pose. As you open your chest, make sure your lower ribs are not poking out, subtly breaking the upward flow of energy from your pelvis at your midback.
Refine your arms by stretching from your outer shoulders while keeping your inner shoulders grounded. This will free your neck so you can look up at your fingertips (don't collapse your neck back) or slightly down to calm the mind. On an inhalation, rise to standing.
Inside the Chair
Let's go down in the pose once more, this time listening to the inner teachings of Utkatasana. Try to release any attitude about the pose or yourself before you go into the pose. Let your body/mind/spirit be receptive while you are in the pose; adjust the alignment by your sensation of balance rather than by thoughts about whether it is right or wrong.
As you sit down, feel the consolidation of your energy in your pelvis, your center, your seat of power. Try not to fight or resist the strength of the pose. Go into this fire in the belly but keep your mind cool. Radiate your energy from your center out through your limbs.
Take a few more cycles of breath here, sinking a little deeper with the exhalation, rising from your roots with the inhalation. When you are ready, come up out of the pose on an inhalation and bring your palms together at your center.
Feel what Utkatasana has given you, beyond the sensation in your thighs. The effects of a good teacher are often felt much later, as seeds of confidence, courage, faith, and self-knowledge manifest in other areas of our lives. At the very least, your legs will have the strength and stability of trees.
Shiva Rea teaches flow (vinyasa) based yoga integrating alignment and intuition, strength and fluidity, meditation and wisdom in action at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California, and UCLA's World Arts and Cultures Program. She is the author of the home practice CD, Yoga Sanctuary, and leads workshops and adventure retreats worldwide. She can be contacted through www.yogadventures.com.