Some yoga poses may come to you quickly and easily, with little struggle in flexibility or strength. Other poses can feel nearly impossible, even after years of practice. Utkatasana (Chair Pose) falls into a category of its own: It looks deceptively easy and straightforward; yet, when you try it, you'll find it demands a great deal of flexibility in the shoulders as well as stability in the core and strength in the legs.
That is the challenge of Chair Pose. Its simple form offers little promise of glory. For all the effort it requires, you won't end up with your leg wrapped behind your head or in some other fancy position. When I teach Chair, at first it produces more frowns and even moans than almost any other pose. Yet when I ask my students to persevere, they are always glad they did. It's hard while you're in it, but in the end this pose brings a satisfying sense of accomplishment. It teaches you the determination you need to meet a challenge and the perseverance to return to it repeatedly over time, despite its difficulty.
Chair Pose will strengthen your thighs, helping to stabilize your knees. Your ankles will become more limber and sturdy, and your arms and shoulders will gain power and flexibility. As you reach your arms up and stretch the muscles between your ribs, you'll increase your breathing capacity. The pose can also help improve your posture. All of the core muscles fire as you hold the pose, lifting your pelvis into a more upright alignment and working against the tendency to exaggerate the arch of the spine as you reach up and back with the arms. Whew! Sound like a lot? That's the point of Chair Pose: You learn to handle many actions all at the same time for what feels like way too long.
It's helpful to practice Chair in two parts. First, practice the pose with the lower half of your body. Before adding the arms, work on bending your knees toward a right angle while shifting your weight back into your heels. Then, stand tall in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and work on extending your straight arms up and overhead without letting your rib cage jut forward or your back overarch. Finally, you can bring all the elements together into a cohesive and powerful whole. Unite the work of the legs and arms by bringing your awareness to your torso as you lift your core muscles and lengthen your spine.
If you commit to a steady practice, you will gain stamina in this pose after a few months. When you take a break from your practice, it might feel as if all of your progress is gone once you return to the mat. If this is your situation—if your muscles are burning in Chair and it's a sweaty struggle of will—don't be discouraged. The pose is teaching you its most important lesson and a key concept in yoga: Steady practice over time is better than occasional, intense spurts. It's worth maintaining a regular daily practice rather than feeling like you have to start all over again each time you do a pose. Consistency in yoga yields deep and lasting results.
Feeling fierce? Utkata means "powerful" or "fierce," and while this pose calls for fiery power in the body, it's best practiced with a cool mind. Notice if you crunch your brow or clench your jaw; if so, relax them. If your breathing starts to turn into panting, lengthen your exhalations. You'll feel cooler and more focused.
Power Up Your Lower Body
Step 1: Work Your Legs in a Deep Squat While Keeping Your Spine Long
Set It Up:
1. Stand with your back against a wall and your hands on your hips.
2. Step your feet about 2 feet away from the wall and bend your knees into a right angle, as though you're sitting in a chair.
3. Adjust your feet so that your shins are perpendicular to them, with your knees stacked above your ankles.
Refine: As you exhale, press your heels strongly into the floor until you feel your calves and hamstrings engage. Maintain the strength in your legs and observe the back of your body making contact with the wall. The backs of your pelvis, your ribs, your shoulders, and your head will touch the wall, while the lower back and neck will tend to curve away from it.
If you feel your hips tipping forward away from the wall, exaggerating the curve in your lower back, use your hands to redirect the hip points into an upright alignment. Activate your lower belly to sustain this position. The action feels like drawing up a zipper from the pubic bone toward your navel. Use just the right amount of effort. Don't go so far as to tuck your tailbone, which will flatten your lower back.
Finish: Your thighs are probably burning by now, but try to stay strong and maintain good posture for several deep breaths. On an inhalation, straighten your legs and rest.
Step 2: Open Your Chest and Shoulders While Stabilizing Your Spine With a Strong Core
Set It Up:
1. Stand with your back to a wall.
2. Step your feet together or keep them a few inches apart if you feel unsteady.
3. Lift your arms up to shoulder height and spread them shoulder-width apart.
4. Straighten the arms, but draw the heads of the shoulders back into the wall.
Refine: Notice that your shoulders and upper back are touching the wall. Your lower back and neck are not; these are places where your spine naturally curves toward the front of the body. Work to maintain (but not exaggerate) these natural curves as you lift your arms. Notice that when you reach your arms up, your ribs and spine will want to follow the arms, jutting forward and producing discomfort in the lower back. Engage your core muscles to stabilize yourself, and gently draw your lower ribs toward the wall. Experiment with how high you can take your arms overhead while keeping your ribs in contact with the wall behind you.
Finish: Take at least 5 full breaths here, expanding your chest and grounding your legs. On an exhalation, lower your arms and relax.
Final Pose: Utkatasana
Set It Up:
1. Begin in Tadasana with your feet together. Spread your weight evenly through your feet.
2. Lift your arms to shoulder height directly in front of your body. Draw the shoulders back, opening your chest.
3. Now lift your arms overhead as high as you can without letting your lower ribs pop out.
4. Bend your knees, coming as close as you can to a right angle while keeping your weight in your heels.
Refine: Recall the feeling of your back against the wall in Step 1 and try to re-create that feeling now. The more deeply you descend as you bend your legs, the more you'll need to lift your lower belly to maintain the balanced curves in your spine. Remember to zip your pubis up toward your navel and to pull in your lower ribs. Keep stretching up through your straight arms even as you reach down with your strong legs and press firmly through your heels. Let your gaze rest on a point just in front of your mat.
Finish: Take a couple more breaths, if you can, and, on an inhalation, press down to rise up. Straighten your legs and lower your arms, returning to Tadasana. Pause and feel the effects of this powerful pose.
Try These adjustments to optimize the pose for your body:
- Feet: Practicing with your feet together will help awaken your inner thigh muscles, but if you're feeling unsteady, try stepping your feet hip-width apart.
- Arms: This pose demands stamina. If you feel winded, try practicing with your arms straight out in front or down by your sides.
- Knees: Shift your weight back toward your heels to keep your knees safe. Make sure your knees don't extend forward past your toes.
- Chest: Lift your chest up and away from your thighs. It helps to imagine leaning your whole torso against the wall behind you.
- Neck: Keep the head and neck in line with the rest of the spine. Instead of looking up, rest your gaze on the floor a few feetin front of you.
Elements of Practice
In Sanskrit, the word for dedicated practice is abhyasa. It is the act of making an effort to reach a goal, wholeheartedly and consistently over time. In yoga, this implies discipline, but it is also a movement toward effortlessness. "Practice" means staying aware of the present moment. This awareness is quickly lost if you get too interested in achieving a pose. Effortlessness arises when you let go of the outcome of practice. You have to make yourself show up, which is hard, but if you stay interested in the practice itself rather than the goal, effortlessness will come.
Watch a video demonstration of this pose.
Annie Carpenter leads classes and trainings and mentors teachers at Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California.