Modifying Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

In yoga, in exercise, in athletic training, we’ve always been told – and if we are teachers, trainers, or coaches – we’ve always instructed to keep your knees from going beyond your toes in lunge-type positions. It’s conventional wisdom. A knee that shoots out over your toes is no longer supported vertically by the bones of your lower leg and in this  compromised position, it is being asked to hold the weight of your pelvis, torso, and head. Your knee joint is not designed for this type of load. Yet. Yet, what do we do in Utkatasana aka chair pose? We send both knees out over the toes and amass the weight of our pelvis, trunk, and head onto not one but two unsupported knees. Two bad knees are better than one, I suppose.

With Smart Alignment in Utkatasana, your knees don’t shift forward when they bend, but instead, your lower legs remain near vertical and your untucked butt moves back. Thus, the weight of your hips, torso, and head is held not by your knees but by your hamstrings and gluteus maximus – the big guns.

The  functional benefit of engaging your hams and gluts is the role that they play in pelvic floor health. Who cares? You should. Symptoms of a weak pelvic floor can present at any age and include urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and organs prolapsing out of your vagina or anus.  Known as pelvic floor disorders, they effect both men and women, regardless of reproductive status.

Healthy gluteal muscles are what provide optimal length to your pelvic floor muscles, which run between your sacrum (lowest section of your spine) and your pubis aka “pubic bone.” Your pelvic floor muscles, when they are at  optimal force generating length, are long, taut, yet supple; and are in the perfect condition to help hold up your pelvic organs and allow you to open and close your bathrooming muscles. Your gluteal muscles keep your pelvic floor muscles at this optimal length by keeping your sacrum from counternutating, or moving your tailbone anteriorly toward your pubis. Unless, that is, you are not using them. If your tailbone moves forward – think butt tuck – it creates slack in the pelvic floor muscles, which signals them to contract to create tension to hold everything up and in. Your pelvic floor is not meant for long term force generation aka constant contracting. When it is constantly contracting, it does not become stronger, it becomes weaker. A contracted pelvic floor pulls your sacrum even more forward – a negative loop you want to avoid. Utkatasana aligned with the knees shooting over the toes is suboptimal alignment for using your butt muscles, thus suboptimal for your pelvic floor.

If you are regularly practicing Utkatasana, begin to use your posterior leg muscles as I’ve described. This will result in you essentially squatting each time, which is about the best thing you can do to ensure the long term health of your pelvic floor, because it is the best thing you can do build your butt. I can’t say it any better that Jonathan FitzGordon at CoreWalking Blog, when he wondered about disappearing butts “The butt, gluteus maximus needs to be big and strong. It should fill in your pants. That is the simplest way to describe it. The space between the belt and the hamstring in your pants should be full to exploding with a supple gluteus maximus.”

Classic Utkatasana

Classic Utkatasana

This is classic Utkatasana with the phantom yogini’s knees shooting forward. I tried to pose for this picture, but was not willing to sacrifice my knees for the cause. I won’t mention the rib thrust that is happening here. Nope, I won’t.

Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

This is a smarter alignment for Utkatasana. Knee saving, butt firing, pelvic floor lengthening happiness. Note my neutral spine – it did not change shape from Tadasana, but retained its natural curvature. Note my lower legs – shins & calves are darn near vertical.

Utkatasana with lordosis and rib thrust.

Utkatasana with lordosis and rib thrust.

Sometimes, I see this presentation – knees forward, hyper lordodic spine, and rib thrust. If this were my student (actually she is) I would place my hands on her hips and guide her back until her shins are vertical. I would place my hands on her lower ribs and help her to rotate then down and in. That would likely resolve the lordodic lumber spine.

Utkatasana with butt tuck

Utkatasana with butt tuck

More often, however, i see this presentation – knees forward, butt tucked, flat lower back. Yoga teachers, this is what often happens when you cue to “drop your tailbone down.” This is a pelvic floor killa.

Utkatasana without external hip rotation

Utkatasana without external hip rotation

In this presentation, my external hip rotators are not firing, thus my knees knock together resulting in improper tracking which causes heat, friction, and eventual pain and degeneration of my knee joints. Ouch. This is fixed by externally rotating my hips so that my knees track forward in the same channels as my anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS) aka pelvic bones.

Utkatasana internal rotation of hips

Utkatasana internal rotation of hips

By bringing my feet together, it might appear that I have fixed my knees, but its a lie. If I introduced a proper external rotation in my hips, I would likely have a small space between my knees. As soon as my knees touch, the tendency to press into each other for support is there and that will take my knees into poor tracking, albeit less severe than the previous image.

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Here I present knees that are safely tracking in the same channels as my pelvic bones due to the engagement of my external hip rotating muscles.

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Namaste, Michele

Advertisements

3 responses to “Modifying Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

  1. How do I do regarding my knees or feet when there is a twist to the right or twist to the left. I have done with knees and feet together from a chair pose

    Like

    • Hi Chris,

      It is possible to rotate your torso with your feet and knees lined up pelvis width distance apart. I will explain the biomechanics of twists in another post, but I never hook my elbow on the outside of my knee in Utkatasana. When you do, you bypass your body’s own musculature, using the leverage of your arm against your leg to twist, instead of the strength of your core. This is a passive form of stretching, and will not make you stronger or more flexible in your torso. But worse, your lumbar spine has only 5 degrees of rotation, whereas your upper spine has 35 degrees. When you leverage your arm against your knee to crank your body further into a twist, you are in danger of taking your lumbar spine further than it is safe to go. If instead you keep your hands in prayer at your heart and use your strength to twist, you won’t go as far but you will be using your own strength to get you there and that is how we increase our range of motion, by getting stronger at our current boundary. Does this make sense? thanks for your comment. Michele

      Like

  2. Pingback: My Top 25 Movements at My Standing Work Station | FootLove Yoga

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s