Benefits of Utkatasana
Utkatasana is related to the fire element, and you can imagine actually stoking a fire in the belly when you need a little bit more get up and go. It will physically warm you too, so try practising it on cold winter mornings as we move into winter. It also strengthens the legs and ankles, stretching the chest and shoulders, and stimulating the abdominal organs, lungs and heart. You might know that already but did you know its name comes from the Sanskrit utkata, which means ‘fierce, proud, superior, or difficult'?
It’s kind of a high and mighty pose! The sense of opening up the armpits and chest as we breathe into it can tap into our sense of personal power in difficult times, letting us know us we all have what it takes to get through. It’s also a reminder to keep a sense of humour and listen to your body. Another name for it, quite tellingly, is ‘awkward pose’. I know that the way I do it is still perfectly imperfect, but maybe that’s the point. All our asanas are a work in progress, and we should always remember that yoga is not about the shapes we make, but rather how they feel in the body.
We can choose to accept the challenge of the pose with an understanding that there are some things about it that are uncomfortable, that we cannot change, but only soften with the breath. This is also a good analogy for how we can approach the obstacles of life, which is why I love yoga so much. You quite literally stay steady and breathe! All standing poses work by ‘rooting to rise’. If our foundation is good and we stay steady with our feet literally planted on the ground, we can achieve more than we thought we could, and rise up.
The meaning of Utkatasana
Most people call this pose ‘chair pose’ in English because it looks as if you are sitting in an invisible chair. You’ll realise by now that this is no comfortable armchair. In fact, the name is more likely to refer to a throne. In India, chairs were rare and most people sat on the floor up until British colonialism; their hips were better for it! Only royalty and deities sat on chairs; thrones, which raised them above their subjects so they could be seen and venerated. This act was known as darshan- seeing and being seen- which was said to unite a king or a god with the people.
As usual, there is a tale from Hindu mythology to go with the pose. The Ramayana is the tale of Lord Rama's exile, adventures, and eventual return to Ayodhya. It is his rightful kingdom but you might guess that there is that archetypal evil stepmother in the mix. Queen Kaikeyi tries to steal the throne for her son, Bharata, and Rama is sent into exile for fourteen years. This stepmother has had three wishes, you see. What she doesn’t bank on is Bharata’s loyalty to his step brother. He refuses to occupy the throne and places a pair of Rama's sandals on the royal seat instead. These send out a powerful message to the whole kingdom and maybe to us, that we should not take what is not rightfully ours.
How to do Utkatasana
So, what’s the best way to get into the pose?
You can start by gently flowing in and out of it, connecting to the breath, going a little further each time as you soften and straighten on each exhalation, eventually holding it for a few breaths, imagining that you’re ski-ing!
After warming up, stand straight, with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. If you want to notch it up, keep the feet together. Get that foundation right.
Inhale, and aim to lift your arms alongside your ears first. Lift your shoulder blades and rib cage along with your arms and make sure your neck is long. Look along your nose and it may be helpful to keep the chin into avoid creating tension in your neck and shoulders. Stretch your elbows straight; keep your wrists and fingers long and easy, though it may also help to spread the fingers. Imagine your arms getting longer with each breath as you move the tail bone back. If it feels painful to lift your arms fully, take the heels of your hands to the very tops of your thighs and press down.
Imagine the tops of your thighbones connecting with your heels. Exhale and see if you can use the breath to move the tops of your thighs back. Gently move towards lifting the rib cage until it is as nearly vertical as it will go, still keeping your knees bent and imagine you are sitting down in a chair, leaning slightly forward.
Draw your lower abdomen in and up, letting the front body support the back body. Keep your front ribs parallel with your back ribs, as much as you can and try not to arch your back or stick your ribcage out to lift your chest. This can be easier said than done and if you find yourself doing it, just ease off a little and breathe back into the pose. Keep your feet grounded and make sure your weight is equally distributed.
Continue to gaze along your nose and keep the back of your neck long, lift the base of your skull and the crown of your head—as if you were wearing a crown. Keep steady and calm, checking your eyes, jaw, and tongue for tension, releasing it as you exhale. Stay in the pose, breathing quietly, feeling the armpits and chest opening up so you can find more stability.
To come out of the pose, exhale, lower your arms, and straighten your legs slowly.
A good counterpose is Uttanasana (forward fold) or Ardha Uttanasana (half lift).
Read more about Utkatasana
If you're drawn to mythology you my be interested in buying this book by Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooj I love the easy style it's written in and the stories add depth to our experience on and off the mat.
'Alanna and Arjuna moved down an amazing road of story and myth that truly enhances our yogic lessons. Some of the nuances of ethics, posture, breath, and meditation can only be touched through metaphor and mythology and we thank them for taking us on this journey.' Rodney Yee
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