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Cultivating a J-Spine with Chair Pose (Utkatasana)

February, 2020

As a student and teacher of yoga and practitioner of the Gokhale Method, I choose yoga poses that make good use of my time. “Chair pose” is well worth the time investment. In fact, it has become one of my favorite strength-building postures. It is useful for cultivating a J-shaped spine. It helps increase gluteal tone. It helps to pattern healthy hip movement. It is strengthening for the legs and spinal stabilizers. And, last but not least, it allows a yoga practitioner to smoothly transition between a standing forward fold and mountain pose — without compression of the intervertebral discs.

Cecily Frederick in chair pose with J-spine visible, overlaid with SpineTracker™ snapshot.

Detail of Cecily Frederick’s spinal shape in chair pose, overlaid with SpineTracker snapshot.

SpineTracker snapshot of Cecily Frederick’s spinal shape in chair pose.

Chair pose is also Esther Gokhale's favorite way to cultivate strength in all the muscles needed to tallstand well. She recommends it to students who tend to park in their joints (locking the knees and groin, flattening the feet, arching the back and introducing extra curves throughout the spine). After practicing chair pose, the small amount of muscular effort it takes to stand well becomes easy to access.

To practice chair pose, stand with your feet about hip-width apart and kidney bean shape your feet. Reach your arms forward and up as you simultaneously bend your knees, hips and ankles as if you were sitting down and back into a chair. Hold for a few seconds and then press down through your feet (and especially through your heels) to come back to standing while lowering your arms.  

A couple of practice sequences you could consider: 

  • Transition from tallstanding (“mountain pose” or Tadasana) to chair pose and back to tallstanding 4-6 times.

  • Transition from tallstanding to chair pose to an upward forward fold (Urdhva Uttanasana) to chair pose (Utkatasana) to tallstanding 4-6 times.

Cecily Frederick in upward forward fold (Urdhva Uttanasana or hip-hinge).

Five refinement tips

1. Strengthen your butt / spare your knees
To help develop gluteal strength and avoid knee strain, don’t let your knees come forward over your toes as your knees bend. Think about pulling your butt back behind you. Consider using a stool that you position in front of your shins while standing, and don’t let yourself push it forward as you move into chair pose.

Cecily Frederick using a stool to cue chair pose, with help from a friend.

2. Save your discs
To help avoid swaying the back and compressing upper lumbar discs, don’t reach your arms up vertically. Instead let them reach forward. 

3. Settle your pelvis
To help the pelvis to settle well, you might not want the feet and knees too close together. Experiment with different widths between your feet. Remember what you learned in the Foundations Course or Pop-up Course about hip-hinging.

4. Less is more
Don’t force yourself into a deep knee, hip, or ankle bend. Allow your chair pose to begin where it begins. Less is often more in a yoga practice. 

5. Break it down
If you have an injured shoulder you can lower your arms, bring them to your hips or press the palms together in prayer position in front of the sternum.

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Dear Cecily,

Thank you so much! This is very clear and concise. Just yesterday, I spent some time searching the website for chair pose. The timing is magic!

The stool is a great idea, likewise the wisdom to refrain from overdoing it. 

Robert Ferguson

Yay! I'm so glad this is what you were looking for.

Hi Cecily,

This is an outstanding lesson. So precisely written and illustrated.

I have been healing from a stress fracture to the head of my femur. I have about 2 more weeks of limited weight bearing and crutches. When I am given to OK to start using my hip normally and strengthening, I will definitely be re-visiting this article and folowing your clear guidance and instruction.

Thank you so much.

Ellen Turgasen

Sorry to hear about your stress facture, Ellen. Take good care of yourself!

Important movements,information and photos; but there was no mention of the importance of keeping your core braced vs. "dropped" as these movements are being done.  As a personal trainer, I feel it's important to keep your core braced in essentially all exercises; otherwise it puts undue pressure on the back/spine .... or am I missing something?

Thank you :)


Thanks, Barbara.  I agree with you.

Cecily...Thanks, this was wonderful.  I love having your spine tracker superimposed to see your j-spine in the pose.  And the placing of the stool as a guide very useful.  Thanks for reminding me that sometimes less is more.   I will be much better off bringing arms to hips and concentrating on getting the lower body correct.