Have you ever seen the famous paintings of ancient Indian yogis sitting in chairs meditating? Me neither. Over the millennia, the vast majority of sadhus who committed themselves to the yogic life owned little more than the minimal clothing they were wearing, along with a bowl and utensils for collecting their daily alms of rice. Most of them likely never saw a chair, let alone sat on one.
So, like Malasana, the original Sanskrit name for Utkatasana, has absolutely nothing to do with its most widely used English name: Chair Pose. Utkatasana’s root word, utkata, actually means “wild,” “fierce,” “frightening,” “furious,” or “intense,”—words that, for me at least, do not conjure up the image of someone lounging in an easy chair, or even sitting in an office chair.
Utkatasana is one of yoga’s heating, strengthening and stabilizing poses. It is, in fact fierce, furious and intense, during its practice and in its effects, generating upward-radiating waves of heat and energy in some practitioners. Utkatasana is best practiced in the morning or early afternoon, as it can be stimulating enough to interfere with sleep when practiced too late in the day.
Practicing Utkatasana strengthens your thighs, hip flexors, calves, ankles and back muscles; stimulates your abdominal organs, heart and diaphragm; stretches your shoulders and chest; and can help build arches in flat feet. It is one of the most efficacious poses to prepare your legs and teach you how to lower your center of gravity for stability in downhill skiing.
Because Utkatasana strengthens the hips and legs, it is an important balance for the many yoga asanas that mobilize our hips. While there’s a whole lot of emphasis on “hip opening” in yoga these days, stabilizing our hips is arguably more important. For mobility to be healthy, it must come from a foundation of stability. So weave Utkatasana into your regular routine, along with one-legged balance poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose).
How to Practice Utkatasana
- To practice Utkatasana, stand with your feet hips-width apart on a yoga mat. Tune into the bottoms of your feet. Locate the four corners of your feet: the inner and outer balls of your feet and the inner and outer heels. How is your weight distributed among the corners? Take a minute or so to explore the relationships among these areas. Find a way of standing so that your weight feels equally balanced among the four corners.
- Extend your arms up alongside your ears, taking care to lift your back ribcage as well as your front ribcage. When many of us raise our arms overhead, our tendency is to raise our front ribs and let our back ribs collapse downward, which compresses the low back. Elongate your low back by lifting your back ribs, lowering your pelvic rim and grounding your heels as you raise your arms.
- Tilt your pelvis and spine forward so that your knees bend, as if you’re about to sit down. Feed the weight of your pelvis into your legs. Now check the four corners of your feet again. In Utkatasana, our weight tends to pull forward onto the balls of our feet. Actively root your heels to balance your weight and activate your hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
- Without tightening your abdominal muscles, keeping them free and mobile to receive your inhalations, draw the lower abdominal muscles gently upward—millimeters, not inches. Allow your torso to slant forward so that you can keep your natural spinal curves intact. Lengthen the back of your neck so that your head and neck follow the natural trajectory of the rest of your spine.
- As you feed your pelvis into your legs and feet, allow your torso from the waist up to rise. In this action, explore the dynamic relationship between grounding (lower body) and rebounding (upper body).
- Take 5 to 10 deep breaths. Return to standing. Take a moment to feel the effects of Utkatasana. Repeat one or more times if you like, taking time after each repetition to feel what happened.
Updated Article from March 11, 2013.