For 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:
- 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.
- Chest lifted (i.e., upright torso)
- Keeping your torso upright requires a ton of motor-control and stabilization, which chair pose helps you develop.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.