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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.