Utkatasana: Awaken Your Inner Fire
Have you ever seen the famous paintings of ancient Indian yogis sitting in chairs meditating? Me neither. Over the millennia, the vast majority of sadhus who committed themselves to the yogic life owned little more than the minimal clothing they were wearing, along with a bowl and utensils for collecting their daily alms of rice. Most of them likely never saw a chair, let alone sat on one.
All this is to say that the Sanskrit name for this pose, Utkatasana, has absolutely nothing to do with its most widely used English name: Chair Pose. Utkatasana’s root word, utkata, actually means “wild,” “fierce,” “frightening,” “furious,” or “intense,”—words that, for me at least, do not conjure up the image of someone lounging in an easy chair, or even sitting in an office chair.
Utkatasana is one of yoga’s heating, strengthening and stabilizing poses. It is, in fact fierce, furious and intense, during its practice and in its effects, generating upward-radiating waves of heat and energy in some practitioners. Utkatasana is best practiced in the morning or early afternoon, as it can be stimulating enough to interfere with sleep when practiced too late in the day.
Practicing Utkatasana strengthens your thighs, hip flexors, calves, ankles and back muscles; stimulates your abdominal organs, heart and diaphragm; stretches your shoulders and chest; and can help build arches in flat feet. It is one of the most efficacious poses to prepare your legs and teach you how to lower your center of gravity for stability in downhill skiing. Practicing Utkatasana can also keep you well above the fray when you find yourself in a situation where you have no other alternative than to use a porta-potty.
To practice Utkatasana, stand with your feet hips-width apart on a nonskid mat. Tune into the bottoms of your feet. Locate the four corners of your feet: the inner and outer balls of your feet and the inner and outer heels. How is your weight distributed among the corners? Take a minute or so to explore the relationships among these areas. Find a way of standing so that your weight feels equally balanced among the four corners.
Extend your arms up alongside your ears, taking care to lift your back rib cage as well as your front rib cage. When many of us raise our arms overhead, our tendency is to raise our front ribs and let our back ribs collapse downward, compressing the low back. Elongate your low back by lifting your back ribs, lowering your pelvic rim and grounding your heels as you raise your arms.
Bend your knees and lower your pelvis, as if you’re about to sit down. Feed the weight of your pelvis into your legs. Now check the four corners of your feet again. In Utkatasana, our weight tends to pull forward onto the balls of our feet. Actively root your heels to balance your weight and activate your hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
Without tightening your abdominal muscles, keeping them free and mobile to receive your inhalations, draw the lower abdominal muscles gently upward—millimeters, not inches. Allow your torso to slant forward so that you can keep your natural spinal curves intact. Lengthen the back of your neck so that your head and neck follow the natural trajectory of the rest of your spine.
As you feed your pelvis into your legs and feet, allow your torso from the waist up to rise. In this action, explore the dynamic relationship between grounding (lower body) and rebounding (upper body). Take five to ten deep breaths. Return to standing. Take a moment to feel the effects of Utkatasana. Repeat one or more times if you like, taking time after each repetition to feel what happened.
March is named after the sizzling, crimson planet Mars. Utkatasana, in all its ferocity, perfectly expresses the intensity of the month. Utkatasana stirs things up. It awakens our inner fire. Despite its commonly cited English misnomer, Utkatasana is not about sitting on our laurels. Think of it as a dynamic launching pad for the spring and summer months to come.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine, and is the author of two books:Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.