New to yoga and want to really build some heat while still sticking to the basics?
You’ve stumbled across the right post, my friend.
Actually, whether you’re a seasoned yoga practitioner or are just starting out on your asana journey, daily Sun Salutations are the perfect place to build the strength, endurance, and flexibility you’ll use for a lifetime both on and off the mat. While watching someone flow through a round of Surya Namaskara may not wow you as much as the constantly upside-down handstand addict you follow on Instagram, each pose of the sequence offers an opportunity to connect with your mind, breath, and body. You don’t need fancy poses to practice serious yoga!
Last week, we explored the framework of Surya Namaskara B, the second sequence of sun salutations performed in a traditional Ashtanga practice. If you need a recap, go ahead and click here. This week, we’ll continue our discussion by looking at the first new pose of the sequence: Utkatasana.
While Utkatasana is commonly referred to as Chair Pose (or even Awkward Pose), one of the literal English translations from the original Sanskrit is Fierce Pose. As anyone who’s ever tried this pose can tell you, “fierce” is a pretty good description of what starts to happen in your quads after holding Utkatasana for even just a few breaths. It takes your body from the gentle movement of Surya A into powerhouse territory with just a little bend of the knees and tuck of the tailbone. And, although classic Utkatasana is practiced in a traditional Sun Salutation B, it’s a great pose to spice up and add into other flows later on in the practice, depending on what sort of flexibility or strength you’re looking to build.
Before we get into the variations, let’s do a quick rundown of basic Utkatasana alignment:
Start in Samastitihi, with the base of your big toes touching and your heels just slightly apart. Breathe here for a moment or two, concentrating on entire body and mind engagement. On your inhale, bend your knees deeply, keeping them glued together. You want to get your knees as close to parallel to the ground as possible, but don’t worry too much about that if you’re just beginning.
At the same time you bend your knees, lean your torso out slightly over your thighs and sweep your arms up alongside your ears. Your palms can either press together or stay parallel to one another; the important part is to keep your arms straight, strong, and engaged. Keep your tailbone very gently “tucked” (reaching down toward the floor) so that your spine stays long and the pose doesn’t turn into a backbend. Additionally, try not to let your knees reach past your toes as this can compromise the knee joint.
You can either keep the gaze straight ahead and stare at one spot on the floor or you can challenge your balance by bringing your eyes up towards your hands. Either way, stay here, breathing deeply, for about 30 seconds. Then, when you’re ready to come out of the pose, inhale and straighten your legs back into Samastitihi.
Fierce, Fierce, Fierce!
Here are three ways you can use Fierce Pose to rev up your engine and get that inner fire seriously burning:
1. Chair Pose — With a Twist!
Also known as Parivrtta Utkatasana (Revolved Utkatasana), this variation on Chair Pose is great for lengthening the spine and bringing openness to the chest. Start in basic Utkatasana, taking care to safely set up your alignment.
Bring your hands to heart center (Anjali Mudra), and on an exhale hollow out your low belly as you twist to your right. Hook your left elbow outside of the right knee, keeping your weight in your heels. Your left knee will most likely start to pull in front of the right, but work to keep both knees in line.
If you have the mobility to rotate further, you may use your left elbow as leverage to move even deeper into the twist. Once you find your balance here, work towards reaching your left hand down to the ground outside of your right foot and spreading your right arm upwards to come into what I like to call McCartney & Wings-Asana. Hold, breathe, and keep pulling your left knee back in line with the right.
Repeat on the left side.
This is a great pose to prepare for arm balances like Side Crow or Eka Pada Koundinyasana I, so feel free to play around a little!
2. One-Legged Chair
Okay, the name of this one sounds like something your elementary school teacher would have yelled at you for (“Keep all four legs on the ground!”), but it is SERIOUSLY one of my favorite hip-openers to play around with when I teach. Not only does it test your balance, but it also gets into the hips in a way that’s accessible for most not-so-flexible people.
It’s also a really versatile pose to add into flows where you want to explore arm balances that require lots of hip mobility, like Grasshopper, Bhujapidasana, or Tittibhasana (Firefly).
Starting in your basic Utkatasana alignment, bring the hands once again to heart center. Slowly start to transfer your weight into the left foot, coming up onto the tiptoes of your right foot. Once you’ve got the balance there, lift your entire right foot off the ground and, to the best of your ability, cross your right ankle over the left thigh, making sure to keep your weight grounded in the left heel with your left knee still deeply bent.
That’s it! Let your right knee open as much as is natural; don’t force anything. Gravity will do its work, and you’ll feel the stretch. Repeat on the second side.
The possibilities are endless with this one! You can use it for any sort of hip-opening preparation you like, even following it up with a leg behind the head.
3. Bikram Style — Tip Toed Utkatasana
If you’re a Bikram yoga fan, you’ll already be familiar with this variation on classic Chair Pose. It’s great for strengthening the calves and the triceps (because of the position in which you hold your arms), as well as improving circulation and mobility in the ankles and feet. Since balance is a bit trickier on your tiptoes, it also works your core stability! What’s not to love?
Unlike the traditional feet-together stance of an Ashtanga Utkatasana, Bikram yogis practice awkward pose with their feet about six inches apart (parallel to one another). Come into a basic chair pose, but bring your arms straight out in front of you so that they are parallel with the floor. Keep all of your fingers stuck tightly together.
From here, sit a little deeper. Then, finding one spot to focus your gaze on, come up onto your tiptoes. Channel your inner ballerina! Try to bring your heels as far up off the floor and as far over your toes as possible. Remember to keep your knees bent deeply and your spine tall (not leaning forward over the thighs). Maintain an engaged core here, which will help with both balance and length in the spine.
This is where our variation stops, so hold here for as many breaths as you like, and then come up as slowly as you came into the posture. If you want to give your legs a little break, shake them out and finish off with a rejuvenating forward fold.
(NOTE: When practiced in the Bikram sequence, this pose has another part to it, but for our purposes the above variation is sufficient.)
Utkatasana and its variations take a lot of mental strength and focus. It can take a little practice to feel at home in this posture (after all, there’s a reason it’s called Awkward Pose), but concentrate on keeping your knees safe and your core and legs engaged, and you’ll be just fine.
Feel those quads BURN! Let your shoulders shake. If it gets tough, remember that the mind likes to tempt us into quitting. Cultivating the mental strength to sweat through a few rounds of Fierce Pose is a feat you should be proud of, and it’s sure to leave you feeling strong and powerful.