Beware of Chair! How Can We Keep Our Knees Safe in Utkatasana?
Squat, Fierce Pose, Chair, Utkatasana…whatever you want to call it, this is a pose we love to hate!
- How low should you squat?
- Should your knees stay over your ankles?
- Do you keep the knees together or apart?
- Is it okay for the knees to knock together like they do in a Bikram class? In other words, is what we’re practicing in Utkatasana safe for our knees?
Take a seat and keep reading. I’ll address the questions above as quickly and succinctly as possible. If you scroll down to the end of this post, you will see the reference articles if you’d like to read about these concepts in more depth.
Let’s begin this conversation with the belief that we shouldn’t let our knees go past our toes. I will share and explain to you why this really isn’t always so bad (actually it can be good!) and, at the same time, I will tell you why I still use “knees over ankles” as one of my main cues.
My first reference is from Dr. Eden Goldman, D.C., C.Y.T., E-RYT, who is a wellness-based Chiropractor, certified Yoga therapist and physical rehabilitation specialist. As you read below, you will understand why his beliefs about the knee join have greatly impacted my decision to generally cue to “keep the knees over the ankles” when teaching Utkatasana in large group classes.
Dr. Goldman says that there are many scientific studies that show women are 4 to 10 times more likely to have an injury of the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).
He explains that when your knee extends past your toes, as it oftentimes does for many yoga practitioners in Utkatasana, this ligament can be sheared or damaged. This is why you were most likely taught to keep your knee over your ankle in poses such as Chair and the Warrior poses.
You will soon read why and how we can allow the knees to track over the toes or even beyond as well as why many body workers are saying it’s now okay. But, for now, let’s review Dr. Goldman’s alignment tips (in my words) for keeping our ACL happy and our knees as close to over the ankles as possible.
1. Keep the weight in your in heels to turn on your posterior chain, i.e. hamstrings and glutes. I have a Michael Jackson cue for this in my Favorite Finds. Dr. Craig Liebenson, who is a team chiropractor for the Los Angeles Clippers, explained to Dr. Goldman that only 50% of people will actually feel the hamstrings and glutes turn on while the other 50% will feel the work more in their quadriceps. Either way, he says if the knees track somewhere between the toes and ankles, it’s all good. Keep your eyes open for next week’s favorite find – I have a fabulous video that will give you a visual that may change how you look at Utkatasana. IT’S A BIG FAVORITE FIND OF MINE!
2. Take those hips back and stick your tush out!
3. Find neutral in your pelvis. This means not tucked and not overly arched in the low/lumbar spine. With a slight inward curve at the low back, apply a “sternal crunch”. Okay- I’m interjecting here for a moment. Sternal crunch. Love it! My new favorite cue for so many poses. I explain this by telling students to “nod” their sternum down a bit without letting the tailbone tuck. Give it a try! Sign up for my weekly newsletter (it’s short, but inspirational) to find out why these cues work so well.
What happens with our torso and upper body also has an impact on the knees when doing Chair. To begin, I’m going to quote Dr. Goldman as he talks about an article from The Journal of Orthopaedics and Sports Physical Therapy.
“Among other great nuggets of wisdom, what the article details is that the body’s knee position and trunk flexion are intricately linked. As your knees dive forward you are able to straighten up your torso more, a.k.a the classical yoga Chair position, and as your knees move back your torso will flex or bend forward a bit more.
This will feel strange at first, but the latter decreases quadriceps loading by almost 30% and will also decrease knee valgosity (where the knees fall toward one another at the centerline of the body) by more than 50%, which helps protect the MCL, the medial collateral ligament of the knee, too. All good things! Furthermore, loosening up the hips and making them more flexible will decrease the potential strain in attempting to try to lift up the torso because you will naturally want to try to straighten up to work the pose.”
My two cents:
● I agree that activating our posterior chain is all the rage now. I read about it everywhere. The idea is that the stronger our hamstrings and glutes are, the better off our back, hips, and even knees will be. There seems to be quite a bit of evidence supporting this.
● I did learn, a long time ago, that allowing the knees to travel too far past the toes can have a shearing effect. However, I have since learned, that, if we work slowly and progressively with this range of motion, we can strengthen the tissues i.e. ligaments and tendons which can contribute to a healthier knee joint. But…we want to be careful with repetitive stress injuries. So, to me, this means having rest days (depending on how intense your practice is), and/or changing it up. Letting the knees track past the toes occasionally can help to strengthen the knee when practiced slowly, progressively and with control.
● If hips back really does decrease knee valgosity (knees falling in) and, therefore, helps to protect the MCL ligament in the knee, would we ever want to knock the knees in on purpose like they do in Bikram? Don’t jump to conclusions that it’s inherently bad to do so. Once again, there may be a time and a place. When practiced intentionally, with control, knocking the knees together may help to strengthen the MCL.
● Because I have read enough articles about the shearing effect of the knees going too far past the toes, I still most often use the cue to shift the hips back and to line the knees up as close to over the ankles as possible. We practice so many Utkatasanas (at least where I teach and practice) and I am a believer in repetitive stress injuries. What I am saying is if we practice Utkatasana each time with knees traveling past the toes, eventually this may lead to wear and tear. Dr. Goldman states, “If you do Chair pose let’s say only 5 times a class, 4 classes per week then that’s over 1,000 Chair poses you will do in a year. That’s a lot of chairs! (repetitive stress injury anyone?!?!?)” So, while I am no longer as worried about correcting someone if I see their knees line up over the toes or even go slightly past, I still believe it is safer to cue knees over ankles to get them as close to that alignment as possible.
● Side note here. When I have new students in a class I am not overly concerned with alignment. I like them to get a feel for the poses so I can see how their body naturally moves. If they become a regular, that is when I will start do a little more work with alignment. I am not worried about someone shearing their knee from one, two, or even 20 classes. It is when they start doing yoga regularly that the repetition of knees traveling too far past the toes may create some problems.
My next expert is a PT from Squat University.
I know…cute name. Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS. While his article is referring to squats with weights, he is referencing the basic alignment for a squat- which is essentially a similar movement to Utkatasana. And in his post, he does show alignment for a squat/Utkatasana without the weights. He also talks about the alignment when squatting all the way down, which he calls “ass-to grass”. I like that! There are times that we do lower all the way down to the ground when moving into Malasana. So, is it a problem if our knees go past our toes when we squat low?
The HUGE takeaway for me in his article, and I can’t believe I have never come across this in all my yoga research and readings over the years, is that our ankle and hip mobility has a lot to do with our ability to hinge our hips back without letting the knees drive too far forward.
I know…crazy! And it makes sense when you think about it. Let me explain.
In a nutshell, Dr. Aaron Horschig explains that when we hinge at the ankles first, our knees hinge forward. Go ahead…try it. Our weight is then shifted forward to the balls of our feet and the knees end up leading the way- which is NOT how we want the initial phase of Utkatasana to begin. He explains that moving this way contributes to more shear force on the knee joint.
If you know anything about anatomy (and if you don’t, you will now) that the knee is a hinge joint and therefore will move forward based on what’s going on at the ankle and hip joint. Because movement of all these joints is linked, Dr. Horschig says we should be focusing on our ankles and hips when we squat down and not so much on our knees. Interesting!
Here are his top tips for alignment in a squat:
1. “Sit back” or “push the hips back” which enables us to move from the mobility of our hips first and places the knees at an advantage by preventing them from moving first. He agrees that this helps to engage the posterior chain, our “powerhouse”.
2. When squatting deeply (think Malasana), the knees can travel past the toes if you hinge at the hips first. Even though this may place a little more shear force on the knee, the body can handle it without risk of injury.
3. When watching someone squat (in our case sit back into Utkatasana), watch to see if the knees are moving first. A well-aligned squat will have the hips moving first.
My two cents:
● After reading this article, I really like the idea of having students start by hinging at the hips to about a 40-degree angle, pulling the hips back and then bending the knees to find Utkatasana.
● If you want to see visuals of a “good” vs “bad” squat/Utkatasana, make sure to click on his reference article.
● Based on what we just learned if you have a student whose knees are driving past the toes in Utkatasana, check the range of motion in the ankle and hip joints. Doing some nice mobility warm ups may make quite a bit of difference.
● Once again, I generally feel that in traditional Utkatasana, cueing to keep the hips back and knees pulled back is the safer way to go. Not only do we know that this activates the glutes and hamstrings, but it also decreases the risk of injury.
● I do practice tippy toe Utkatasana in the classes I teach and encourage the students to let their knees go past their toes. Once again, the key is to work slowly and progressively on this over time and not to just go full out right away.
Next let’s talk about the one tool we can ALL use to make Chair pose FEEL better.
THE BLOCK!! Injured or not, why does it make so many of us feel more stable and just all together better in the pose?
I’ll let Baxter Bell explain this one.
Baxter is a long-time yoga instructor (he came to the studio I owned years ago- lucky us!), a medical doctor and a medical acupuncturist. Go to 4 resources every yoga instructor (and curious yogi!) should know about and you’ll find a link to his YouTube channel.
Baxter explains that whenever there is pain in a joint like the knee, we should be aware of how the joints above it and below it are moving. This concept goes along with idea that the hips and ankles need to be mobile and healthy for a well aligned Utkatasana (alert – whenever there is chronic pain in a joint, this is probably something a professional should check out for you).
Baxter’s reasoning- and it’s good! – for using a block between the thighs, especially when there is pain in the knee joint, and its potential benefits are as follows:
1. By squeezing the block, it helps to rebalance the weight in the feet.
2. If someone tends to be more knock- kneed, the block can help to move the knees out a little which creates space in the outer knee joint helping to relieve pain.
3. By squeezing the block, we engage the adductor (inner thighs). If someone has weak inner thighs, this action can help to bring the “vertical alignment of the thigh bones back towards even.”
4. If the outer hips are tight, which would pull the legs apart, the block still helps by internally rotating the thigh bones.
5. Not only all the above, but the block can help to turn on the inner quadriceps muscle, which tends to be the weakest.
My two cents:
● To be honest with you, I have never heard these benefits of using the block between the thighs. But knowing how many people like it, it makes sense. As with most alignment cues, each body is unique and using the block can help in different ways depending on the individual’s body.
● I always wanted to know why a block in Chair pose feels better on my back, and I read somewhere that when we engage the inner thighs, our pelvis is pulled down slightly due to the fascial connections. This was an “ah-ha” moment for me. If our pelvis is pulled down, for those students who have some degeneration or benefit from a little more space in the low back, the block can make all the difference.
● As with everything else I share and post, try it out for yourself and see if you notice a difference.
I’ll end this post with some of my favorite cues for Utkatasana:
1. Isometrically drag feet apart (they won’t move) and hug inner thighs in. Thank you Dr. Ray Long for this one! When I use this cue in class (I pick and choose each week- can’t use them all in the same class!), it is inevitable that there are a few people who are shaking their heads “yes”. They can really feel the stability with this cue.
2. Create the feeling like you are about to do the Michael Jackson Moonwalk. Isometrically drag your feet towards the back of your mat.
3. Lift the inner thighs up as the hips sink back.
If you want to know why these cues are used i.e. the purpose behind them, you sign up for my weekly newsletter. It is a 2-minute read and will give you one pose, one cue, the purpose of the cue, one tip, one song and one quote.
I didn’t want to overload you with too much info in this post, but I highly recommend taking look at My Favorite Finds on my website to view the awesome video that shows how the length of our thigh bone and shin bone has such an impact on how low you can squat down- as well as if you can keep your heels down.
There is so much information to be shared about how to do Utkatasana the safest and best way for you. My hope is that this blog gave you a starting point to further explore ways to take the fierce out of Fierce Pose (and make it a pose you actually look forward to practicing and teaching!).