It has been a while since we have had a "Pose of the Month" but we are starting 2022 with a pose that is not everyone's favourite.
Utkatasana is Not one of the favourite poses of our teacher Meg Laing.
Utakatasana - Chair Pose
Prashant Iyengar has often said that we should seek out and identify our least favourite postures and then see that we practise them regularly.
We can learn most easily about our embodiment (how our body, mind and breath interact with each other) from postures that we can hold for a long time, such as Trikonasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Salamba Sirsasana and most of the supine postures.
In those poses we can access the breath and begin to observe, in a more sensitive way, what unfolds in the process of ‘doing’ the posture.
We discover what becomes of our body and our mind in response to the breath, how in turn the breath itself responds, and how each aspect of body, mind and breath interacts with each other. It is when this begins to happen that the ‘posture’ becomes an ‘asana’.
The fact that these ‘long stay’ postures enable us to find our way in our learning does not, however, let us off using those ‘touch and away’ postures that we often find less rewarding and therefore least favourite. The least favourites can teach us different things about our embodiment. Utkatasana is one of these for most of us.
Although I cannot pretend that it is one of my favourite postures, nevertheless I have always found it very useful. It is excellent for allowing one to feel unevenness in the work of the legs and pelvis and to help in correcting these.
That is in fact one of the Effects of it listed in Light on Yoga. It also (as listed there and in Geeta Iyengar’s Preliminary Course) ‘tones the back muscles and abdominal organs’ and develops the thoracic muscles to help the chest become fully expanded.
Since experiencing arthritis in the hips I have also found it invaluable in maintaining healthy mobility in the ankles, knees and hips, and in keeping all the pelvic muscles well toned and supportive.
Utkatasana is one of those postures that is very simple in outward shape but not easy to perform correctly, partly because it is so difficult to stay long enough in it to catch the correct actions. Guruji sums it up in Light on Yoga: ‘Stay in the pose for a few seconds, 30 being sufficient. It is difficult to balance in this pose’.
The difficulty in doing the pose with sufficient ‘balance’ (i.e. evenness and harmony) is partly because it requires, at one and the same time, a strong inward grip in the outer hips and a softening and release of the groins.
The grip of the hips is so as to control the lumbar spine, keep the shoulder blades moving in and the chest lifting and expanding. The release and softening of the groins so as to be able to bring the thighs horizontal to the floor.
Most of us are built so that we find one of those crucial actions easy to do but not the other.
Those of us with a good hip grip find it difficult to release enough to go down properly. Without the correct action in the groins, nothing much happens in the pelvis. The legs and arms end up working independently instead of integrating their actions.
Those of us with soft hips and groins tend to ‘lose’ the tailbone and descend too far, dropping the front of the pelvis and bending forward, instead of staying as upright as possible, with shoulder blades moving in, and maintaining an expanded chest.
Preliminary Course gives some tips on building up strength for those who find it difficult to perform the pose at all.
- Having the back to the wall and sliding down till the thighs are parallel to the floor and then lifting the arms is one, which certainly helps to develop the quadruceps.
- Facing the wall with fingertips touching it while descending the hips helps in keeping the chest open and lifted.
- Those with wall ropes can also hold onto them while descending the hips, though here it is important not just to rely on the arms, but to find a way of gripping the outer hips whilst also releasing the groins with minimum help from the arm support.
- The next stage might be to have a belt round the wrists or to hold a brick between the palms both of which encourage the arms to work properly to activate the shoulder blades and to keep the lift and openness of the chest.
- Those who find it hard to release the hips enough to go down can try with a slanting plank or a rolled mat under their heels.
Here it is interesting to look at the picture of Guruji in Light on Yoga and see how very extended the backs of his lower legs are. His Achilles’ tendons seem to be a mile long. Most of us don’t have that flexibility in our ankles and calves, and lifting the heels can help us with the balance as we descend the hips.
It can also be helpful to have a brick between the upper thighs and to imagine pushing it backwards and downwards while still gripping the hips to lift the spine.
I tend to think of laying an egg when I do this, which may or may not be helpful to others!
So what can this posture teach us, and how can we turn it into an asana in our own practice? How can we turn ‘a few seconds’ into longer, so that we can catch something unfolding?
We watch the breath. What happens to the breathing in this posture? How can we use the breath to stay longer? How can we use the posture to help the breath? What happens to the mind? And so on......
Once we begin to explore and experiment in this way an unfavoured posture can become a valued friend - and of course an asana.