Strengthen and balance your entire body with this powerful standing pose.
Cobra pose (also called serpent pose) is a prone backbending pose which invigorates the body and tones the muscles of the back. Learn how to practice, along with functions, precautions and modifications for bhujangasana.
Utkatasana, or chair pose, is a standing forward bend that lowers the hips toward the heels into a low squat. This pose asks for a lot of strength and flexibility, which makes it challenging for most students.
Stretch the Lower Back and Hips
This low squat pairs gravity with full hip flexion to completely lengthen the lower back, especially in the classical form of the pose, in which the legs are together and the arms are extended overhead, which prevents the legs and upper back from compensating for any stiffness in the lower back.
Strengthen the Legs
The legs, especially the gluteal muscles, use a lot of power to press the body back up to standing. This makes utkatasana a good choice for building strength to prepare for staying in difficult standing poses.
Finding the Pose
- Begin standing in samasthiti, with legs together and hands by your side. Set jalamdhara bandha.
- Interlace the fingers and turn the palms out, away from your body.
- Inhale and raise the linked arms overhead so that arms are outside ears and the palms are facing the ceiling.
- Exhale and begin to sit hips down toward heels, maintaining jalamdhara bandha and keeping spine as vertical as possible. Arms remain extended overhead.
- Inhale and extend upper back and arms as you return to standing.
- Exhale and lower arms. Release hands.
Tips and Modifications
Utkatāsana is very physically demanding. Most students won't be able to begin to lower the hips into a squat without bringing the feet wider (up to hip-width apart) and having the arms either in a wide "V" shape or lowering the arms as they exhale and lower the hips.
Many students will also need a folded or rolled blanket under their heels to compensate for lower back tension, especially in the beginning.
If students are straining in this posture, I often give them uttanāsana or vajrasana forward bend as an alternative that will lengthen the lower back and still build some leg strength without being quite so demanding.
In Ashtanga yoga, utkatāsana is often practiced with a back arch and on an inhale. This is referred to as ardha utkatāsana and considered a backward bending posture in the Krishnamacharya/Desikachar tradition.
Primary Muscle Actions
- Erector Spinae, Gluteal and Leg Muscles are strengthened.
- Lower Back erector spinae and gluteal muscles are lengthened.
- Depending on arm movement chosen, arm and shoulder muscles may be strengthened to maintain extended position.
- Lengthens lower back.
- Strengthens entire back and legs.
- Compresses abdominal area (apana region) and can help balance this region if not too intense.
For students who have knee, hip or lower back injuries, and especially if these joints are inflamed, stiff or causing pain, utkatāsana is too intense. I suggest uttanāsana, vajrāsana forward bend (child's pose) or apānāsana as a safer option. For pregnant and menstruating students, I would suggest the same alternative.
Ankle injuries seem to be aggravated by this posture as well. Proceed slowly and with caution.
Uttānāsana is a standing forward bend that stretches the entire back of the body, from the bottom of the feet to the back of the head. It is a deceptively simple form--bending at the hip with the hands by the feet--but it's simplicity lends it to many adaptations.
Primary Functions of the Pose
Lengthen back of body
Flexion of hips and spine gently elongates the muscles of the entire back as well as the hips and legs. Lifting the arms also lengthens muscles around the chest and shoulders.
Strengthen the upper back
A lesser known benefit of uttānāsana is the incredible upper back strength the posture builds. This makes it a great preparation for lengthy seated practices like chanting, pranayama and meditation.
Compression of the lower abdomen while exhaling has a soothing, lightening effect as it moves the apana region, the area responsible for elimination. This can help digestion, elimination of waste and quality of breath.
Finding the Pose*
1. Begin standing with feet together and hands at your sides.
2. Set jalamdhara bandha,** in which you lengthen the back of the neck by inhaling, then setting the head slightly back and dropping the chin a bit toward the chest.
3. On an inhale, raise arms up from the front, so that arms come up alongside ears with palms facing forward.
4. On an exhale, draw lower abdomen toward spine and fold upper body over legs, maintaining jalamdhara bandha and length in spine.
5. Inhale, lift the arms and the upper back, extending through the spine as you return to standing with arms overhead.
6. Exhale, lower your arms by your sides.
*These instructions are the "classical" version of the posture, and they require a lot of training, flexibility and strength. Almost all students will need some of the modifications below, especially when starting out.
**I'll post more on jalamdhara bandha next week!
Tips and Modifications
Students will often need to modify this posture to compensate for tightness in the lower back by bringing their feet up to hip-width apart and/or bending their knees as they fold forward. On the other hand, very flexible students may need to keep their feet close and concentrate on drawing the belly in on the exhale to help lengthen the lower back. Teachers should look for movement happening in the lower back (the lower back arch should round out), and little to no rounding in the upper back.
Especially in the beginning, most students will need to bring arms quite a bit wider (in a "V" shape) as they inhale to allow more movement in the upper back. There should be a feeling of spaciousness as the arms lift overhead. If students feel strain when lifting the arms overhead, another option is to let the hands slide down the legs toward the knees or ankles as they fold forward. For students with neck strain, I often have them use one arm at a time, or keep arms by their hips, with fingers extending away from the head, to gently build some upper back strength without agitating the trapezius muscles.
Uttānāsana is often taught with the arms sweeping in a wide arc out to the sides on the way up and down. This movement of the arms removes some of the upper back strength and flexibility needed to do the full posture, which is often useful. But it also takes away some of the length in the lower back, and students may not achieve as much benefit from the posture.
One of the tricky but critical parts of this pose is coming back up with the upper back in extension, rather than rounding forward. Rounding in the upper back puts strain on the lower back and hips, and also misses the strength-building piece of the pose which makes it such a good preparation for standing and seated postures. It also restricts breath capacity on the inhale, which for me is the most transformative piece of this posture. When there is space for the inhale to really expand, the entire posture seems to just grow from inside. Body and mind are uplifted, and the pose becomes invigorating and refreshing--it's a perfect preparatory movement for practice. Without the extension in the upper back, it feels like slogging through dull work, with a little back stretch in the middle.
Here's a tutorial to highlight the upper back movement in uttānāsana:
I find that practicing the seated version of uttānāsana makes the posture "easy enough" that I can actually experience it, not just push through it. It gives me opportunity to feel the lengthening in the lower back on the way down, and the strengthening on the way up, and to work at a speed and range of motion that is well within my capacity. Then I can apply what I've learned to the standing pose.
Classically, uttānāsana is practiced with a "sthiti", or a short stay, on the way in to the pose, as well as on the way out, as a way to prepare for and to release the posture. For sthiti into posture: Inhale, allowing inhale to extend spine still further. Exhale, and fold forward as much as you can while keeping upper back long and neck in jalamdhara position. For sthiti on the way out: Inhale, letting breath extend the spine (it will lift your upper body out of the posture a bit). Exhale, bending forward, but not quite the entire way.
Primary Muscle Actions
- Lengthens erector spinae, as well as quadratus lumborum, gluteal muscles, hamstrings and gastrocnemius.
- Strengthens erector spinae, gluteal muscles and posterior neck muscles.
- Depending on choice of arm movement, can lengthen pectoralis muscles, trapezius and latissumus dorsi, and strengthens latissimus dorsi, deltoid and rhomboid muscles.
- Lengthens entire back of body.
- Strengthens postural muscles of upper body.
- Compresses abdomen on exhale--moves apāna region.
- Improves quality of exhale, which creates space for inhale, and helps digestion and elimination.
Especially for students with back injuries or recent back surgery, proceed with caution. Students who come to yoga for flexibility often remark that they want to touch their toes, and may push (or pull) into deeper versions of this pose before their bodies are willing. The movement of this pose originates from the breath, and should be strong, but also steady and contained.
If students are not able to do standing uttānāsana with strain or pain, I teach them a seated version. If the seated version is still too much, we focus on floor poses (like apānāsana) and breathing.
Students with hip or knee injuries also have difficulty with bending forward without pain in this posture, and I usually recommend a seated or lying down forward-bend in that case as well.
I have heard that having the head below the heart is contraindicated for students with glaucoma, but I've also heard that the change in blood pressure to the eyes is insignificant when bending over. If this is a concern for you, I recommend talking to your doctor for professional medical advice.
How to bend forward without stressing the spine (by Olga Kabel at Sequence Wiz)
Vajrāsana Forward Bend, more often called Child's Pose, is a soothing and quieting posture for the mind and body. The forward-bending components are relaxing, and the pose can build flexibility in the back to prepare for deeper forward bending poses. It's an excellent counter-pose as well, as the movement of the back, hips, shoulders, legs and and arms can relieve strain and improve function in all these areas.
Functions of the Pose
Lengthen back of body
Flexion of hips and spine gently elongates the muscles that run along both sides of the spine as well as the outer hips, buttocks and hamstrings. Especially for students with chronic low back pain, this gentle movement can gradually relax the back muscles, preventing strain or overstretching in these tissues.
Compression of the lower abdomen while exhaling has a soothing, lightening effect as it moves the apana region, the area responsible for elimination. The apana-pacifying quality also improves digestion, elimination of waste and quality of breath.
Finding the Pose
- First, come to hands and knees, with knees under hips and wrists under shoulders.
- As you exhale, allow your hips to drift toward your heels, so that the weight of your body moves toward your legs and you feel the lower back lengthen.
- As you inhale, return back to hands and knees, using the strength of the upper back and legs to lift, and gradually placing weight back in the hands.
- Move this way with your breath. You can also stay in the exhale position (child's pose) for a breath or more as you warm up to it.
Tips and Modifications
Many students will feel more comfortable in this pose if they bring the knees or hands slightly wider to borrow mobility from the hips or shoulders. This can be especially useful for students with less mobility in the spine. However, students should not bring the spine into extension, curving toward the floor, as that can increase the load on the mid and lower back.
Most students will need some sort of cushion under their knees to protect the joint. Students may need extra cushion or need an alternative to this posture if pressure on the knees is contraindicated. I generally utilize vajrāsana forward bend for the lower back and hip movement, and if students need an alternative I have them do uttānāsana in a chair or apānāsana to get a similar function.
Another method of entering and leaving this posture is to begin in vajrāsana, seated kneeling on the heels. On the inhale, stand on the knees and lift the arms overhead. On the exhale, hips move back toward heels as hands move out in a wide arc and meet together on the lower back or on the floor outside the legs in the child's pose position. This method requires more strength in the legs and upper back, as well as more flexibility in the back
I typically use vajrāsana forward bend as a counter-posture, to relieve strain from a long period of standing poses, or after backward-bending postures like bhujangāsana (cobra) and salabhāsana (locust). The hands-and-knees position also makes this pose a great transition from standing to the floor and vice-versa.
Vajrāsana forward bend is part of the vinyasa krama for cakravakasana, a backward-bending posture in which students extend one leg (and possibly the opposite arm) to lengthen the body. The combination of cakravakasana and vajrāsana forward bend is a great preparation for more challenging backward-bending postures.
A note about "cat-cow" pose in yoga: Many styles of yoga make use of a movement called cat-cow, in which the student is on hands and knees and alternately moves the spine through flexion (rounding like an arch) and extension (dropping the waist toward the floor). I have found that this movement has little real benefit and carries lots of opportunity for strain in myself and my students. This movement increases compression of the low back in the "cow" shape and increases the rounding of the upper back in the "cat" shape; most students will find greater benefit with emphasis on lengthening the spine, not just bending it. I teach the above variation of vajrāsana forward bend because I find it brings more movement where needed and doesn't increase the strain on already taxed areas of the spine.
Primary Muscle Actions
- The erector spinae, hamstrings, gluteal muscles and outer hip muscles (piriformis, etc.) are gradually lengthened as the hips settle toward the heels.
- Trapezius and rhomboid muscles relax as weight is removed from the arms, and the lattisimus dorsi muscles are gently lengthened as the hips move back.
- The glueteal muscles, outer hip, hamstrings and erector spinae (especially in the upper back) are strengthened when returning to the starting position.
- Stretches back, hips and legs and provides relief from lower back pain.
- Reduction of stress, tension and anxiety.
- Overall feeling of release, safety and composure.
- Can help relieve menstrual or digestive discomfort.
For some students, including many with disc herniation or spinal stenosis of the lumbar spine, flexion of the spine (and sometimes of the hips) is contraindicated. Apanasana may be more suitable, but students should be certain to move slowly and only at the hip join (their lower back shouldn't curl up off the floor).
Although the knee flexion of child's pose can be therapeutic for knee injuries, students with history of knee problems or recent surgery should take care not to push into the posture. There should be no sensation of stretching or pain on the ligaments surrounding the knee. If full knee flexion isn't attainable, students can think of only moving hips back a bit to lengthen the spine, not down toward the heels. Likewise, students can place a rolled blanket underneath their ankles if extension of the ankle joint is uncomfortable.
During the mid to latter portion of pregnancy, when abdominal pressure is contraindicated and uncomfortable, students can try a wider-kneed child's pose.
"Magic three yoga poses and how they can make you feel better every day" (Olga Kabel at Sequence Wiz)
"Chakravasana" (video includes vajrasana forward bend and adho mukha svanasana, downward dog)
As its name suggests, apānāsana balances the downward energy force apānā, the energy that maintains elimination. This pose is often referred to as knees-to-chest pose or wind-relieving pose, and sometimes as energy-freeing pose.
Functions of the Pose
Promote vitality to abdominal-pelvic organs
Apānāsana is frequently recommended to promote health and optimal functioning of the digestive, urinary, and sexual organs.
Elongate muscles of the back
Drawing the knees toward the chest lengthens the erector spinae muscles which run alongside the spine, the gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles.
Finding the Pose
- Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
- Lift your feet to bring your knees directly over your hips and place your hands on your knees with fingers pointing toward the feet.
- As you exhale, allow your elbows to bend as your legs drop toward your abdomen.
- As you inhale, allow your legs to drift away and your arms to straighten again.
- When finished, return feet to floor.
Tips & Modifications
The hardest thing about this pose is that it should be done in a relaxed, easy way, as though the movement of your breath were directing the movement of your legs toward and away from you. My favorite way to think of the movement is like a boat, rocking on the surface of gently moving water--the back and forth motion is gentle and serene.
For many students that have back stiffness, however, apānāsana is neither comfortable nor gentle. Just bringing their legs close enough to put their hands on their knees may be a strain. For these students, I usually suggest a single-legged apānāsana, either keeping one foot on the floor and moving one knee toward and away from the abdomen several times, then switching; or, alternately bringing one knee toward the chest then returning the foot to the floor with each exhale/inhale.
But for those who can comfortably do apānāsana, it's a wonderfully soft way to bring movement in to the lower back and reduce chronic tension. It calms the entire body and mind. The sacrum should just begin to curl away from the floor toward the end of the exhale. If the lower back is pulling up away from the floor, students are pulling their legs too far in.
During pregnancy, or for students with a larger midsection or who experience discomfort in the inguinal region (the space between the top of the thigh and pelvis), bring the legs wider, keeping knees and feet about the same distance apart.
I have tried apānāsana with a stay before, but I find that holding a position with such great hip flexion can builds too much tension there, so I prefer to have students lie down with bent knees and feet on the floor or to support their legs in a chair or with blocks/blankets/bolsters for a long stay.
Apānāsana is a mild forward-bending pose, and can be used as a counter-pose to back-bending poses like dwi pada pitham (bridge pose) or twists like jathara parivritti. It is frequently used toward the end of class to rest the body and bring students to a more introspective place.
- There is some muscular work, but it is very subtle. It helps most to imagine that breathing is creating the movement.
- The muscles of the lower back and hips are gently lengthened--but not stretched. The feeling is more of relaxation than a stretch.
- Lengthens lower back and hips muscles.
- Because of its work in the apāna region, apānāsana can help relieve menstrual or digestive cramps and other discomfort associated with poor elimination. Should
- Relieves stiffness or pain due to vertebral compression, misalignment or spasm of the low back.
Take care of straining the back for students with limited mobility. Only bring the knees in as far as comfortable with the sacrum just beginning to curl away from the floor. There should be no strain in this posture. If there is strain to lift the legs or hold the knees over the hips, students should be given an alternative movement with a similar function (like eka pada apānāsana -- one leg at a time -- or vajrasana forward bend).