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Chair Pose: The Complete Guide

Utkatasana builds powerful legs and strong arms while stimulating the diaphragm and heart.


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Utkatasana (Chair Pose) is a foundational yoga posture that looks simple and straightforward—a basic knee bend—but actually requires significant amounts of strength and flexibility.

“When I teach Chair, at first it produces more frowns and even moans than almost any other pose,” says yoga teacher Annie Carpenter, creator of SmartFLOW Yoga. “Yet when I ask my students to persevere, they are always glad they did. This pose teaches you the determination you need to meet a challenge and the perseverance to return to it repeatedly over time, despite its difficulty.”

Utkatasana is ultimately an energizing posture: it works the muscles of the arms, legs, and core, and requires flexibility in the shoulders. The pose can also help improve your posture, which is of utmost importance for proper alignment. All of your core muscles fire as you hold the pose, lifting your pelvis and working not to over-arch the spine as you reach up with the arms. Chair Pose teaches you to organize all parts of the body, including your breathing, toward a unified cause.

“Those glorious in-breaths and out-breaths, and standing back up again stronger than you had before make Chair a whole circle of physical strengthening, warmth, and self esteem,” says Rina Desphande, a teacher, writer, and researcher of yoga and mindfulness practices. “To me, it’s an immediate boost of confidence and joy!”

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Chair Pose basics

Sanskrit: Utkatasana (OOT-kah-TAHS-ah-nah)

utkata = powerful, fierce

Pose type: Standing balance

Target area: Lower body

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Benefits

Chair Pose improves balance and can build cardiovascular health and resilience. It particularly strengthens your core, thighs, and ankles.

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Step-by-step instructions

  1. From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), use an inhalation to bend your knees deeply and raise your arms overhead so that your biceps are just slightly in front of your ears. Initially keep your hands shoulder-distance apart.
  2. Allow your shoulder blades to open out and move up, away from your spine and toward your outer armpits (upward rotation) in order to maintain spaciousness at the base of your neck.
  3. Press your shins back to move a bit more weight into your heels, but continue to press down through all four corners of each foot.
  4. Rotate your inner thighs back and down while simultaneously directing the tailbone toward the floor, such that your pelvis is neither spilling forward nor backward.
  5. Draw your upper arms back in line with your ears while softening your front ribs.
  6. Draw your triceps toward your midline and turn your palms toward the back of the mat.
  7. If you are able to do so with straight arms, reach up, look up at your thumbs, and touch your hands.
  8. Hold for 5–10 breaths.
  9. To exit, use an exhalation to press back to standing.
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Explore the pose

As you sit back in Chair, feel the consolidation of your energy in your pelvis, your seat of power. Try not to fight or resist the strength of the pose. Focus on creating strength in the legs and squeeze your thighs and knees together to create stability. Reflect on developing confidence, courage, and faith here.

Meditation during Utkatasana can be a powerful asset. Think of it as building fire in the belly but keeping your mind cool. Keep in mind that breath is the key to remaining calm and centered in Utkatasana. Breathe mindfully, sinking a little deeper with the exhalation, lifting the arms and torso higher with the inhalation.

Beginner’s tips

The secret to a stable Utkatasana is releasing the heads of your thigh bones toward your heels. In the pose, bring your hands to the tops of your thighs. Nestle the base of your palms into your hip creases and push your thighs toward your heels, pressing your heels into the floor. Against these actions, lift your sitting bones up into the pelvis. Practice here until you can hold the pose without compromising the bend in your knees and hips. Then progress to lifting the arms overhead.

If you have tight shoulders, bring your arms up and overhead only as much as you can rather than back alongside your ears. Alternately, bring your hands to Anjali mudra with thumbs to your breastbone.

If you feel winded, try practicing with your arms straight out in front, down by your sides, or in Anjali mudra.

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Chair Pose variations

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Chair Pose with a block

Hold a block between your thighs to further activate your inner thigh muscles (adductors).

Photo: Eleanor Williamson

Chair Pose against a wall

Stand with your back against the wall, then slowly walk your feet forward, lowering down into the pose. Keep your feet at hip-distance apart. Make sure your knees are directly over your ankles, not in front of them. Stay for several breaths to several minutes.

Photo: Eleanor Williamson

Chair Pose against a wall, arms raised

Try the variation above, then slowly lift your arms up into a big V shape. If you feel stable, lean forward, keeping your hips against the wall. Stay for several breaths to several minutes, then bring your back to the wall again and slowly walk your feet back toward the wall to come up and out of the pose.

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Preparatory and counter poses

Preparatory poses

Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)

Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend)

Counter poses

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)

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Your body in Chair Pose | Anatomy

Utkatasana suggests potential energy waiting to be unleashed. It uses the concept of simultaneous ascent and descent to create this energetic effect, explains Ray Long, MD, board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga instructor.

Several actions contribute to this. The downward forces include pressing the feet into the mat, flexing the hips to tilt the pelvis forward, and engaging the glutes to tilt the pelvis downward from the back. The ascending forces include activating the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum to lift the torso. When you draw the shoulder blades toward the midline and down the back, the chest opens and lifts upward. Raising the arms also builds upward tension.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

An anatomy illustration shows what the body looks like in Chair Pose: Utkatasana
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Chair Pose strengthens several core muscle groups, including the low back muscles, quadriceps, and the hip flexors, as well as the psoas, pectineus, rectus femoris, and satorius, which hold the femurs in a fixed position.

The quadratus lumborum activates to arch the lower back. The erector spinae muscles synergize this action. The psoas provides a counterbalance to the back muscles, which protects the lumbar spine. The rectus abdominus, which tethers the rib cage to the pelvis, is active and prevents the ribs from bulging forward.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses by Ray Long.

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Put Chair Pose into practice

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10 Yoga Poses to Help Prevent Dead Butt Syndrome

10 Energy-Boosting Poses to Banish Sluggishness


About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.–––