The next few installments here (you see how I am being vague? that's because I haven't completely decided how many) will focus on asanas that tone the pelvic floor by strengthening the glutes (and, to a lesser extent, other surrounding large muscle groups).
How does that work? Basically, there are a lot of circumstances that can lend themselves to creating a "pelvic tuck." Some examples that are applicable to me and may or may not be applicable to you:
- Sitting on chairs/couches/etc. designed for "slouching" and/or sitting on the tailbone rather than on the sit bones.
- Sitting on a contemporary, western-style toilet and/or straining to poo. (For more on that, scroll to the bottom of this entry.)
- Painful penetration -- whether it's sex, tampon use, medical exam, etc. -- and/or sexual assault.
- Chronic pelvic pain, such as may result from endometriosis.
- Yoga/pilates/equestrian instructors who insist that a neutral spine necessarily means a flat spine and incessantly remind you, "Don't stick your butt out!" Not to mention any resulting body image issues to which this might contribute.
Utkatasana / Chair Pose
Read about it here on Yoga Journal. For this pose, like all poses, I'm going to encourage you to take care of your knees, low back, and neck.
- Stand with your feet parallel, either with your feet touching or with your feet hip distance apart. Having your feet apart may give you more stability and make it easier to balance. That said, I am a fan of entering utkatasana with my feet together as it helps me ensure that my knees aren't falling in or out.
- Bend your knees, reaching your bum back and down behind you like you're going to sit down in a chair. The sort of "fullest expression" of the pose involves bending so deeply that your thighs are about parallel to the floor. So you might think about getting as close to that as you can while still honoring what works for your body. It is 100% okay to be "only a little squatted" if that is what's best for your body right now.
- Check your feet: You should be balanced between your feet, with your weight moving back toward your heels. Not that you won't have any weight in the front of your feet, but -- Backward-moving weight is going to make your butt work; forward-moving weight is going to put pressure on your knees. If you're feeling the pose more in your knees than in your thighs or glutes, that's a sign to modify.
- Check your legs: They should be about parallel with one another, so your hips are level and your knees aren't turning in or out. (If I do the legs-together version, I can know they're parallel by pressing my inner legs against one another.)
- Check your spine: You want it to be in its neutral alignment, not overly rounded or arched. See if you can lengthen your tailbone down (as opposed to tucking it under).
- Do something nifty with your arms: This is going to get long, so I will expand below.
- Check your shoulders and neck: When your arms are doing their thing, double-check that your shoulders are sliding back and down and that your neck is relaxed.
- Hold the pose for as long as is a safe challenge for you. To exit, straighten your legs and either rise up to standing or fold over into uttanasana.
This video does a good job of explaining the low back and tailbone position, though it only demonstrates one arm variation:
As for Nifty Arm Things, there are a bunch of them. Generally speaking, the closer your arms are to the "center" of this pose (roughly, your hips and thighs), the easier it will be. Raising the arms above the torso is a way to add extra challenge. The following are arm variations I've tried, in easiest-for-me to hardest-for-me order (YMMV):
- Place your hands on your hips.
- Bring your hands into anjali mudra, or prayer, in front of the heart.
- Bring your hands into reverse prayer. (Not everyone loves this, but I find it useful for ensuring that my shoulders are relaxed and my heart open.)
- Extend your arms forward parallel to the ground.
- Extend your arms up at an angle and bring them alongside your ears.
- Raise your arms overhead, palms touching. (This brings a lot of tension to my shoulders, so I almost never do it in utkatasana. I'm already feeling quite enough in my thighs and arse, thank you very much!)
Wow. That was a lot of talk about arms. Arms are not pelvises. Let's talk about pelvises.
Smoothest. Transition. EVAR.
Particularly if you have a bendy lower back, there's probably going to be a tendency toward overarching the low back and tilting the pelvis forward. This also tilts the upper body forward and down, moving the center of gravity toward the knees and away from upper legs and glutes. Not only does that mean the glutes aren't being strengthened as much as they could be, but it also leaves room for knee and low back pain from this asana.
The best way I know to achieve a neutral pelvis and spine is: a) fucking not easy; b) kind of contradictory. Part one involves engaging the abdominal muscles to lift the torso up away from the hips and closer to vertical; I never do get all the way back to vertical, but that's what I'm visualizing when I lift up from my core. Then, when my thighs are burning and my glutes are burning and now my abs are burning on top of everything else, part two is to exhale deeply -- maybe take a big sigh out of the mouth -- to fully relax my lower back. And that can be really tough, to maintain mental calm and physical relaxation when so many large muscle groups are working so hard. If you find that it crosses over from "tough" into "no fucking way," it may be worth it to "ease up" -- don't bend quite so deeply, change arm position, etc. -- out of the pose a little.
Maybe because it's such an intense pose for me to hold, I tend to enjoy incorporating utkatasana as part of a flow. I'd still encourage folks to be mindful as they enter and exit each chair pose (or any pose, really). But I know that for me, it is easier to be mindful if my mind knows I'm not going to hold it for long. Some simple (easy to learn and follow, not necessarily physically easy to do) flows:
Utkatasana to uttanasana:
Utkatasana (now with bonus arm variation!) to an upward salute. It is totes my new favorite for energizing:
Chair to prayer twist:
Also, other fun stuff with chair:
- The Pragmatic Yogi's asana analysis of chair. Also a Shiva Rea article exploring utkatasana for beginners.
- Modified utkatasana using a wall. I'll admit, this works my quads a lot while my butt feels nothing, so I am not a personal fan. That said, I think providing options = Big Deal so that the pose is accessible to the widest range of people.
- A one-legged utkatasana that's a balance pose in itself and also sort of hints at where we're going next.
- Finally, a chair variation for partner yoga. I still need to cajole my yoga partner into experimenting with this with me, but my hypothesis is that each person's counterweight of, well, another person will allow them to shift their centers of gravity farther back, putting more work into the glutes and less pressure onto the knees.
So, parting questions:
Can anyone confirm or refute the partner chair hypothesis?
Anyone care to guess where we're going from chair?