chair vs. squat

 

ImageFor many crossfitters or frequent squatters, chair pose may seem like a confusing version of the quintessential movement known as the squat. During chair, I’ve caught myself wondering, usually after 4-5 breaths (what feels like an eternity) ”geez louise when is this ever going to end? I don’t get it, I thought yoga was supposed to make me more open, but this just feels like hard work!”

If you find yourself wondering this too, or in general wanting to avoid chair, you are not alone. And yes, this pose does feel like hard work. Because it is. And it is one of the poses where you may not always notice the benefits right away. Over time, it will seriously help you grow stronger in your practice, both on and off the yoga mat. 

While it has a couple major differences from the squat that you know and love so dearly, there are several key elements to chair that will benefit your squat position. Namely:

  1. Weight in heels
    • You can check this by lifting your toes and shifting your body weight back, so 80% of your weight is in your heels. 
    • Note: this is important to maintain safe positioning for your knees — weight forward stresses your knees. 
  2. Chest lifted (i.e., upright torso)
    • Keeping your torso upright requires a ton of motor-control and stabilization, which chair pose helps you develop.
  3. Core engaged
    • Pull your belly button toward your spine and drop your tailbone down.
    • Pull your lower ribs in.
    • Tune in to the connection between your torso and your legs – the more deeply you bend your knees and drop down, the more you’ll need to lift your belly to maintain the natural curve in your spine. 
  4. Breathing
    • Lifting your arms helps open up the muscles between your ribs, which can increase breathing capacity.
    • By focusing on the breath as you hold this pose, you may start to notice the calming effects of the breath. The physical sensation starts to feel a little less intense and more manageable as you ramp up your breathing. 

Now for the chair/squat show-down. Some differences between the two include:

  1. In chair, your feet and legs are together.
    • Yes, this will limit your ROM. Practicing with your feet together, however, helps awaken your inner thigh muscles. The more you bend your knees and the lower you drop your hips, the more intense the pose. You want to find that happy medium point where you’re dropping your hips as low as you can without compromising the alignment of your upper body — remember, upright torso. 
  2. Arms. While squat has different arm variations depending on the squat iteration you’re working on, in chair, the arm alignment is a little more specific, with the intention of creating a safe and open position for your shoulders. Some pointers to think about:  
    • Straighten your arms, alongside your ears. If you have tight shoulders, widen the distance between your arms (v-shape).
    • Keep your arms and fingers straight.
    • Spin your pinky fingers in and rotate your thumbs out. Palms face each other.
    • Spread your scapulae, broadening through your upper back.
  3. Gaze. Is important in yoga. Setting a steady gaze helps set your focus so you can stay present and calm.
    • In chair, you can gaze up through your hands, as long as you can maintain length through the back of your neck while doing so. You can also gaze straight ahead at the horizon, or at a point on the floor a few feet in front of you. Play around with this and see what works for you. The important thing is just that you pick one point and keep your eyes fixed on it, steady but relaxed. Soften the muscles around your eyes.

Fun fact: utkatasana (the Sanskrit name of this pose), translates to “powerful” or “mighty”. An awesome side effect of taking the physical posture is it teaches the determination and perseverance required to meet a challenge and stick with it. 

Because it is challenging, common tendencies that arise include clamping up and holding tension, often in places that are easy to overlook. Next time you practice, notice if you furrow your brow, clench your jaw, or hug your shoulders up toward your ears. If so, relax the area of tension. Also notice if your breathing turns into panting, or if you hold your breath. I love Baron Baptiste’s excerpt on this in Journey Into Power:

“…sometimes your stress reduction program is going to be a little bit stressful! In moments of stress in life, we tend to tense up and breathe less. But when 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.”

Since I started practicing yoga, I’ve really noticed where I tend to carry excess tension and hold my breath. Sometimes when I’m really focused or stressed, I breathe less. Now that I’m aware of this tendency, I find myself taking deep, ujjayi breaths during meetings at work. I may be known as “that crazy yoga girl” around the office, but this is a nickname I embrace wholeheartedly. 

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just some light, healthy sibling rivalry
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a few of my favorite yoginners rocking an overhead squat after class at roam fitness dc

laugh a little, fall a lot

skiing

Over the past couple of weeks I was fortunate enough to go on two ski trips. First in Colorado, and then a weekend trip to the mountains with friends. Similar to yoga, while skiing, the mind-body effect really shows up. The distinction between the mind and the body’s respective roles in creating action is not always crystal clear. In my experience, going with my body works, yet my mind is really good at holding me back from doing so.

Skiing in vail I was on my own. I love skiing alone. I find it meditative. Without the pressure of trying to keep up with others (who are pretty much always better skiers than me), I can relax, tune in to my body, and go my own pace.

In wisp, killing time at the lodge before we hit the slopes, I remembered something I noticed in vail. One of my friends on the trip is a good skier, so I asked him for some tips. I am so glad that I did. He ended up giving me pointers in the living room, and then showed me what he was talking about on the mountain later. We talked about skiing and how he learned by going with friends who were more advanced than he was, falling down a whole bunch of times and then just getting up and trying again. Whoa. Talk about something I hear all the time on my yoga mat.

It feels different, being out in the real world and trying something new, without fear of falling. On my mat, I have fallen a lot. It’s not scary anymore, nor is it a sign that I’m “doing it wrong”. Falling during yoga feels light. I’m the first one to laugh at myself. I feel secure, surrounded by teachers and yogis that I trust to laugh with me, or be a support as I pick myself back up.

After a couple of green runs in wisp, the guys wanted more of a challenge. I had never skied a black diamond before. My first inclination was maybe I should stick with what I know I can do. But then I decided to give it a shot. Try out the falling-down-the-mountain-to-get-back-up-thing.

And I did fall, a lot. Probably fell down half the run. I was all smiles and laughs at the bottom.

It’s crazy for me to think that even with this innate ability to laugh at myself, I still hold back. I still don’t take the big leaps that, deep down, I know I need to take.

Later on, we met up with more friends, and I went for my second black. This one didn’t look that bad from the lift. On the mountain it was a different story. It was starting to get dark, so it was icy, and man, was it steep. I kept hitting ice and falling, only this time instead of staying in one place, I was losing control and sliding, down 10-15 feet each time. I was having a hard time figuring out how to stop falling. Falling down the mountain seemed to be working out better than skiing had been. I was covering more footage that way. I told myself there is no right way to get down the mountain. I had to get down somehow, so may as well make it as quick as possible.

Getting back up wasn’t as straightforward. It wasn’t obvious how to get up without immediately falling down again. There were a couple of times I landed with ski tips facing the moguls, so standing up, momentum would take me onto them (and I really didn’t want to go there). My creativity kicked into play, and I figured out that if I did this crazy splits-like windmill move to get my skis facing the opposite direction, I could get up without having to try my hand at the moguls. Thank god I do yoga. That move required a little flexibility, and a whole lot of being willing to look completely ridiculous.

At this point about 10 of my friends, some of whom I had just met, were all standing at the bottom, watching and waiting. Formerly my worst nightmare, I realized it actually wasn’t a bad situation to be in. I stopped worrying what they were thinking, about me, and my weird, carnie-esque ski moves, and instead couldn’t wait to get down to the bottom and laugh with them about it.

Oh, did I mention that this run was directly under the chair lift? I had a whole fan club of people gasping, oohing (during my rougher falls), and cheering me on. During one of my falls I lost a pole. It was too far up the mountain to reach, and I was in struggle city trying to get it. I thought really hard for a few minutes. I was in the midst of a serious internal debate (leave the pole and phone a friend to do the run again to grab it, or push through and pick it up), when these guys on the lift, realizing I needed encouragement, shouted, “you can do it”. I asked them what to do about my pole. Hands down they said I should go get it. So I sucked it up, took a deep breath, and managed to inch up to get the pole without losing my skis.

After that experience, I didn’t want to keep falling.  It no longer seemed like the easier option. Dealing with the repercussions of falling suddenly seemed like more work than just letting myself ski. I stopped taking myself out and I committed to giving it a real shot. As terrifying as it was, I thought about the tips my friend had given me earlier, and then I just got up and skied. I made it down the bottom third of the slope without falling again.

I used to tell myself that skiing alone was better than the stress of potentially embarrassing myself in front of my friends, or the pressure of feeling as though I was holding them back. I was so caught up in worrying about what other people thought about me, I failed to realize that skiing with friends is just like any other simultaneously shared and solitary experience. While it’s fun to ski together as a group, each one of my friends was having their own experience getting down the mountain. I may have been one of the last ones that made it down, but that doesn’t make my trip a bigger deal.  In fact, my friends and my chair-lift fan club actually weren’t judging me at all. They were supporting me, because each of them had been in my shoes (ski boots) sometime before. My own self-judgment had been clouding my ability to recognize their support. Skiing alone is still peaceful, but skiing with friends is actually really fun.

I’ve heard it said often that the hardest part about yoga is getting to class. For many this is true. I know I have days when getting on my mat seems near impossible. A lot of the time, I love going to class. It’s my favorite part of the day. I jump right up and say yeah I’ll try the black diamond. While getting there may be no problem at all, committing to actually being there is where the difficulty shows up. It’s easy to take myself out, tell myself I’m too tired or not ready for whatever pose. When it feels tough, my mind falls into doubting. If I stop listening to it, I can hear the more subtle message from my body saying “calm down, I got this.”

The rest of the evening, I noticed that now that I wasn’t thinking so darn much about how I was skiing, I felt way more at ease doing it. It was more enjoyable; I was actually having fun.

Even though I love doing yoga, I still have practices where my mind takes over and I forget to let myself have fun. Next time you’re on your mat, I want to encourage you to let yourself laugh. Even if the teacher isn’t necessarily telling jokes, sometimes I find myself laughing about how weirdly serious I can make the practice out to be in my head. Laughing is a good reminder to me that it actually isn’t as serious as my brain is telling me it is. It’s just yoga. Even when it feels really challenging, my body’s got this. There is no right answer, only right action.