For this installment of our new Pose of the Month feature, we turn to utkatasana, often known as “chair pose” in English, but actually best understood by its literal meaning, “powerful pose” or sometimes, “fierce pose”. As with so many asanas, the name says it all: this pose is powerful and fierce, and practitioners often have strong responses to it as well! Regular practice of utkatasana cultivates our own sense of physical power; mentally, it fosters focus and determination. In winter, it is also a welcome pose for the internal heat it can generate.
Shiva Rea, in an enlightening article on utkatasana for Yoga Journal writes, “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, one of those vibrant asana teachers that you’ll likely never forget.” (To read Shiva Rea’s full article, click here.)
With this approach to asanas in general and utkatasana in particular, we can better set our intention for the month: to set aside time each day for utkatasana, time to be taught by utkatasana. With our broader December goal of firing up our internal furnace for the winter months ahead in mind, the intensity of utkatasana gives us some powerful kindling indeed.
Baron Baptiste, in his Journey into Power, offers the following utkatasana practice:
- Stand up straight with the inside edges of your feet touching. Work from a strong base and move upward. Keep rooting into the floor. Drive your legs down into the earth and lift your sternum to the sky, creating traction between the souls of your feet and the top of your head.
- Inhale as you bend your knees down deep to 90 degrees and bring your hands up over your head, arms alongside your ears. Squat down as if you were sitting in a chair, bringing your hips/tail slightly back.
- Lift your toes off the floor and shift the majority of your body weight (80 percent) back to your heels. You want to create lower body strength, upper body length.
- Hips low, heart high. Squeeze your sitting muscles in toward each other and lengthen your spine, reaching your arms up like a thunderbolt.
- Spread your shoulder blades apart. Pull your fingers up out of their knuckles. Spin your pinky fingers in toward each other, rotating your thumbs outward. Gently lift your chin and look up through your hands.
- Hold for at least five full breath cycles.
Baptiste notes, “It may feel a little stressful to hold this pose for the full five breaths…. In moments of stress in life, we tend to tense up and breathe less. But in the middle of stress – in life or in this pose – you have the perfect opportunity to reverse that pattern and rewire your nervous system. Rather than breathing less in stress, breathe more.”
Baptiste also offers a variation of utkatasana – utkatasana with a twist. According to Baptiste, “The twist creates flexible strength in the mid- and lower back. It squeezes and rinses the organs and muscles of the mid-section of the body like a sponge, including the kidneys and digestive organs.”
- From utkatasana, reach up through your hands, and as you exhale, bring them down into [anjali mudra, prayer pose] at your heart.
- Inhale and spin your left elbow to the outside of your right thigh. Keep your feet and knees together and dip your hips low. Pull your butt back and your chest plate forward, lengthening your spine. Pull your sitting bones in toward each other.
- Now straighten your arms. Ideally, the lower hand comes to the floor with your five fingertips set into the floor, like a claw. You can use a block if you need to, or, if you are more flexible, set your palm flat on the floor.
- Bring your right hand straight up to the sky, stacking it directly above your right shoulder. Bring your lower shoulder blade forward and pull your upper shoulder blade back. Look up and start to work on your twist.
- Match your breath to each micromovement. On the inhalation, lengthen the spine; on the exhalation, twist your torso open. Every two or three exhales, see if you can spin a little bit more. Be sure to twist from your torso, not from your arms.
And with advice perfectly timed to New Year’s resolutions, Baptiste concludes, “Putting actions to your intentions is the same as putting postures to your prayers. Let your intention for growth flow through your movements. Relax and ask for guidance and support and you will receive it.”
Yes, when the student is willing, the teacher appears. This month, our teacher is utkatasana. How will you chart your experience of utkatasana this month? By keeping a journal of your emotional response to the pose? By recording the time you are able to stay with the pose? However you choose to take on this practice this month, we’re eager to hear all about it! Come back by the blog any time in December and share your insights and your challenges in the comments section.
The painting above, “Bonsai Yoga Utkatasana” by Roger Schultz, can be found at washingtonlife.com.