Nov. 29, 2017

Sustainable Yoga Series: Chair Pose

Quite often even the most beloved of yoga postures can create wear and tear on your ligaments and joints resulting in repetitive strain injuries at the very minimum. What is tricky about practicing yoga (and moving in similar ways off the mat) without an understanding of loads, biomechanics

This series takes a look at some of yoga's most popular poses, and gives them a modern update. Movement science is progressing at a speed faster that your average vinyasa class. Which is exciting because we can take updated, evidence-based information and apply that to our yoga practice, making it one that is healthy and sustainable for the longterm. 

Quite often even the most beloved of yoga postures can create wear and tear on your ligaments and joints resulting in repetitive strain injuries at the very minimum. What is tricky about practicing yoga (and moving in similar ways off the mat) without an understanding of loads, biomechanics and so on, is that you could be practicing a particular posture in a particular way for years and not feel any pain... and then all of a sudden, BAM... injury happens. Just because you don't feel pain, doesn't mean you are moving in a sustainable manner. And that is why it is important to learn more about this amazing vessel of yours and update your yoga practice so that you can enjoy yoga and everything else you love in your life for a very long, pain-free and mobile time to come.

This week we are looking at a more sustainable Chair Pose (Utkatasana). If you practice a vinyasa style class, you will be familiar with this pose. Sometimes it is held for a few breaths within a sun salutation or held for longer as a strengthening pose. However you fit it into your practice, how you do the pose makes all the difference. 

The traditional cues in the pose are generally like this

  • Feet together, knees together.
  • Tuck your tailbone.
  • Lift your chest
  • Stretch your arms up to the sky.
  • Look at your hands.

Let's dissect each cue for a moment and examine what might be happening in your body when you do it.

  • Feet, knees together. 

When we bring the feet together and actively squeeze the knees, we are creating pressure at the knee joint as they bear a lot of the load. Your femur bones move more into internal rotation, which for many people is a place the femurs default to even when standing.  This bent and squeezed knee position increases the unhappy load to your knees and reinforces a skeletal position that we need to be working out of. 

The knees are also traditionally positioned over the toes which adds to the work your knee joints have to do to carry the bulk of the load. Not so much fun for them.

  • Tuck your tailbone.

Sigh. The good old tuck your tailbone cue. In this case as your femur bones are already quite internally rotated, your knees are bearing the brunt of the load, tucking the tailbone makes things even more challenging for your body. Tucking your tailbone flattens your lumbar curve, puts undo pressure on your pelvic floor and asks the quadriceps to work harder than they need too as the glutes turn off. 

  • Lift your chest.

Lifting your chest feels like you are creating opening at the front of the body, and you are in a way. Yet it is at the expense of the thoracic spine. When we cue to lift the chest, what actually happens is that we thrust the ribs forward and up to create that lift. That rib thrust is really a vertebral shearing and will create wear and tear over time in specific vertebrae. Also will turn off the deeper core muscles like your transverse abdominis and uses your psoas to help hold you up, which in this case, your psoas really doesn't want to do.

  • Stretch your arms up to the sky.

Stretching your arms up to the sky is a nice stretch to do. Yet it is important to understand just how mobile your arms actually are. Here is a great little video demo for you to play around with to discover your actual range of motion at the shoulder joint.  If you reach your shoulders up and past the point of your mobility, then your ribs will need to accommodate and do that rib thrust/chest lift to give the appearance of reaching your arms up to the sky. You will get more open chest and shoulders over time, if you know your actual mobility and stay working within that range. Unless you are hypermobile or super flexible, then that is another story.

  • Look at your hands. 

If you are trying to reach your arms up to the sky and then look up at your hands, your cervical spine (neck) will move into hyper extension. Not so happy for your neck. You can think of it as a mini version of the rib thrust. To look up in hyperextension requires one or two vertebraes to shear forward, again creating wear and tear over time. And not to mention that it really just feels uncomfortable.

Phew. All those details for one little pose! But you can see, how these small details matter in a big way. Let's see how we can update it for happy knees, low back, spine and neck.

  • Feet pelvis width apart. Knees pelvis width apart. Shift your hips back so that your knees are over the ankles.

When you stand with your feet pelvis width apart there is more structural stability for your bones and muscles. And when your knees are aligned over your ankles, you are continuing that structural support. Now there is less pressure on the knees and your glutes (your strong muscles in your butt) get to join the party.

  • Un-tuck your tailbone. 

Untucking your tailbone maintains your lumbar curve which then put less stress on your lower back. Keeping your tailbone untucked also frees up pressure on your pelvic floor and your glutes get to awaken and help hold you up. Hurray! 

As you incorporate these two new cues, you will immediately feel the work shift out of your knees and quads and feel more work happening in your glutes. 

  • Keep your ribs down over your pelvis.

This will take the strain out of your lower back, keep your spine happy and engage your core in a deep and functional way.

  • Stretch your arms out in front of you.

You will find that you need to keep the arms reaching forward to help counterbalance all that work going on in your posterior leg muscles once you've aligned your lower legs with a vertical shin.

  • Back of the neck long with your eyes gazing forward.  Easy on the neck, easy on your shoulders.  

I recommend trying it the more traditional way, followed by the updated way. Notice and feel the different type of sensations each version brings to your body.

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Brea Johnson
Brea Johnson

Brea Johnson has been teaching yoga and movement since 2003 and is the founder and lead teacher of Heart + Bones Yoga. With a focus on a functional and sustainable approach to yoga, Brea is known for providing a safe foundation of healthy movement while remaining focused on the heart of the yogic teachings.