As a yoga teacher, I get great deals of concerns about the positioning of postures. Should I toss my head back in upward dealing with canine? Should I reach for my feet in a seated forward fold? Should I press my quads and raise my kneecaps in tadasana? My finest response to questions like these is usually it depends on your method to your practice. From my point of view, there are two variations of almost every yoga pose: the traditional version and the biomechanically-updated one.

Yoga, like all types of systematized movement (believe Pilates, tai chi, dance, etc.), has a set of alignment guidelines for its positions. Although certain yoga schools differ in terms of their style, sequencing, pacing, use of props, etc., they all share comparable alignment guidelines which are rooted in the system codified by B.K.S. Iyengar, among the founding papas of contemporary postural yoga. Iyengar’s timeless 1966 book Light on Yoga is extensively considered “the bible of contemporary yoga” and is necessary reading in nearly every yoga educator training program.

human-bodyTRADITIONAL OR BIOMECHANICAL ALIGNMENT?

I am extremely knowledgeable about standard yoga positioning, but I prefer to deal with biomechanical positioning, which is informed by modern science, anatomy, and the study of how the body steps. There are certainly places where these 2 versions of positioning overlap, however there are also crucial instances in which they do not. Biomechanics gives us a clear image of how to align our body if minimal joint friction, optimum flow, and whole body wellness is what we look for. In my yoga practice and teaching, I biomechanically upgrade some vital standard yoga postures so they do a much better job of moving us toward these goals.

Let’s focus today on utkatasana, yoga’s chair position. Before we can discuss the details of this posture, we’ve to have a look at a muscle imbalance you could be familiar with that almost all of our modern chair-sitting bodies share: front body dominance and back body weakness.

where-are-my-buns-

Where are my buns?

OUR LONG-LOST BACKSIDE

When we sit for prolonged amount of times, the part of the body on which we sit – our glutes and our hamstrings – receives the signal to turn off. This results in the substantial weakening of these important “back body” muscles, and in response, our quadriceps (the muscles that line the front of our thighs) and our hip flexors (the muscles that cross the front our hip) have the tendency to take over and become dominant in all of our motions. You sometimes hear this referred to as “quad dominance” and sometimes as (heh heh) “flat butt syndrome.”

This imbalance between some of our biggest muscle groups has a profound effect on the health of our body in the long-lasting (think chronic aches and discomforts, injury, and ultimately condition), and among our main top priorities in remedying this structural issue is to bring back function and strength to our glutes and hamstrings.

Look at those quads!

Look at those quads!

Surprisingly, there are relatively couple of chances in a traditional yoga course to successfully target these muscles. Yoga is in general much more front-body than back-body strengthening – as is also the case with many other forms of workout, such as running and cycling. (Have you ever discovered the popular, over-developed quads that can be seen on many professional athletes?)

Utkatasana, yoga’s chair posture, is one of the couple of asanas that offers us the chance to restore our long-lost back body strength. But if we exercise the pose in traditional yoga alignment, we will miss this important possibility to charge up our backside. Have a look:

utkatasana-traditional

Traditional Utkatasana

Do you see that in traditional chair pose, the knees track forward of the ankles, and the emphasis is on moving the whole body lower to the ground? If your knees are forward of your ankles, the quads, not the glutes, are the major muscle group working. In addition, this angle of load to the legs creates shear forces in the knees which contribute to joint degeneration and ultimately osteoarthritis with time. You can probably feel this yourself in the posture – from standing, move into chair pose by letting your knees move forward and your hips lower directly down. Do you feel the majority of the work taking place in your quads, and do you possibly even feel some pressure and pain in your knees?

(As a side note, have a look at Yoga Journal’s prescribed utkatasana alignment. Although they might alter this image eventually, at the time of this writing, their design is shown with his knees about a foot more forward than my knees in this picture (!), and his rib cage in a substantial degree of rib shear.)

We now understand that standard utkatasana just reinforces our contemporary postural imbalance of dominant quads and weak glutes. But all isn’t lost! We can exercise an upgraded utkatasana that creates favorable change in our body. Here is our biomechanically-aligned chair posture:

Updated Utkatasana

Updated Utkatasana

In this version, the knees stay parked directly above the ankles and the hips move back in space instead of down. By keeping the shins vertical like this, most of the work in the legs has been moved to the glutes rather of the quads, and as an added reward, there’s no compromise in the knee joints because they aren’t being loaded in a non-optimal position.

You may notice that in biomechanically-updated utkatasana, we cannot decrease our hips as near to the floor as we do in traditional utkatasana. This is merely since we are not strong enough in our glutes to hold ourselves up at the same height level we might attain using our dominant quads (a perfect example of front body/back body imbalance in action). Attempt it for yourself: come to standing then move into utkatasana by reaching your hips back (not down) and keeping your knees directly above your ankles.

This is typically such a challenge for many people that they’ll let their knees wander forward without their even realizing it, so I ‘d highly suggest viewing yourself from the side in a mirror to see to it your knees do not progress at all – not even one little inch! Depending on your specific level of glute strength, you couldn’t be able to reduce your body even more than a couple of inches towards the floor. However if you frequently exercise your utkatasana in this newly-aligned way, your glutes will boost up and allow you to find a lower posture with time.

Remember, with biomechanical positioning, our concern is on stability and true bodily change as opposed to looking or feeling like we are going “deeper” in a posture at the expenditure of our structural stability. We are planning to produce new activity patterns instead of strengthen old, unhelpful ones. Make sense?

Just for enjoyable, keep in mind to not do your utkatasana by doing this, okay?

What's this pose?

What’s this pose?

It’s typically stated that yoga brings balance to the physical body. Biomechanics programs us that this isn’t necessarily the case, however that the good news is with a couple of informative updates, we can have an amazing yoga practice that offers us real structural re-balancing. Have a good time with your new glute-strengthening, knee-protecting utkatasana, people! Let me understand how it chooses you.