Yoga & Fitness

The Chair Pose Hack You Haven’t Tried

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Let’s be clear about one thing: Chair Pose isn’t easy for any of us.

Not for students held at the mercy of someone else’s whim. Certainly not for teachers, who are witness to all manner of drama the moment we even hint at what pose we’re about to cue. Sighs, glares, pouts, complaints, exits for bathroom breaks, and threats of bodily harm typically ensue. The silent screams are loud in this pose.

So sometimes teachers, whether out of empathy or exhaustion, toss in distractions to make the time spent in stillness pass less excruciatingly. We ask you to try a prayer hand twist or a figure four or come onto your tiptoes. Or we engage your curiosity by cueing you through the transition that follows, whether Eagle or Warrior 3 or Revolved Lunge. Or we talk. (May you never take class with someone who launches into a personal story when you’re already three breaths into Chair.)

Or maybe, rather than ask students to suffer in stillness, we could incorporate a dynamic movement that distracts you both physically and intellectually, corrects a common misalignment, and actually reminds you to breathe.

We recently happened upon a move that does exactly that. The rendition of Chair Pose (Utkatasana) basically asks you to interlace your fingers behind your head and, while keeping your knees bent, find the familiar arching and rounding in your upper back commonly known as Cat-Cow. And it’s sorta brilliant.

To be clear, the Chair Pose hack doesn’t make the posture easier. But it can make it more tolerable, more strengthening, and even more aggressively truth-telling in terms of reminding you, in case you aren’t already exquisitely aware, of exactly how you tend to show up to challenging situations in life.

How This Chair Pose Hack Makes It More Tolerable

Sometimes the most brilliant things are the simplest of things. Here’s what makes the merging of Cat-Cow with Chair so inspired.

1. It Distracts You

Yes, Chair Pose is challenging. Yet we’re guessing much of the the challenge inherent in Chair Pose is exacerbated by you telling yourself that it’s a challenge each millisecond you’re in the posture.

There’s something to be said for sitting in stillness with discomfort and breathing through it and somehow managing to get yourself to the other side of it. But when that feels truly intolerable, bringing some movement to the challenge, quite simply, draws your attention someplace else. Someplace more pleasant, if only in your thoughts. Your quads are still screaming. You’re simply choosing to place your attention elsewhere.

2. It Corrects Your Alignment

One of the most common misalignments in Chair Pose is a pronounced and exaggerated arching in your lower back from lifting your arms alongside your head. Teachers tend to try to correct the tendency by cueing “engage your core” or “draw your navel toward your spine.” But keeping that same engagement and alignment as you lift your arms alongside your head is easier said than done.

If your teacher explains the outward appearance they want in your pose, you may turn to try and catch a glimpse in the mirror along one wall, but it’s difficult to see exactly what’s happening when you’re rotating your upper body. Instead, you need to develop trust your felt sense.

By taking your body into a full backbend followed by its opposite, Cat-Cow reminds you what the extremes of back extension and flexion feel like. As you transition from one to the other, you experience a neutral space in between the two. That’s the feeling you want in Chair Pose. The movement allows for discernment and muscle memory.

3. It Forces You to Breathe

When we experience tension of any sort, including intense yoga poses with our arms lifted, we tend to hold our breath. The brain registers holding the breath as a sorta dire situation, and in an instant, it incites a cascade of neurophysiological responses that exacerbate the physical tension as well as the psychological drama. This makes the teacher’s well-intended cues to “breathe” or “relax” seem laughable at best, warranting retribution at worst.

Taking yourself into the familiar pattern of Cat-Cow during a more intense posture allows you to default into a well-established breathing rhythm. One that’s slow and steady and calming. One that’s probably second nature to you. Inhale as you arch your back. Exhale as you round your back.

By defaulting into that breathing pattern, you create a different narrative for your body, one that literally makes it less physiologically likely to be in a state of nervous system overwhelm. You also train yourself to find ease within the intensity. More on that in a moment.

4. It Challenges You to Distinguish Effort and Ease

If you’re thinking, “Cat Cow is simple, so it’ll be a cinch to do Cat Cow in Chair Pose,” try it before drawing that conclusion.

If anything, the movement makes the pose even more challenging. It asks you to fall into this seemingly effortless movement and breathing pattern you’ve done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before in your upper body. And yet your quads and the rest of your lower body need to remain intensely engaged. The contrast is a little like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.

Understanding where to maintain intensity and where you can ease up is one of the traditional teachings of yoga. It’s referred to as sthira and sukhum, and it becomes easier with practice. Once you become aware of this interplay of ease and effort on your mat, chances are you’ll start to become aware of it elsewhere in your life. (Spoiler alert: How you do yoga is how you do life.)

Chair Pose With Cat-Cow

Start in Chair Pose as usual. (Photo: Thomas Barwick | Getty )

Start to come into Chair Pose by bending your knees and sinking your hips back. Bring your arms alongside your ears in traditional Chair Pose. Stare forward and keep the back of your neck long.

Women on a rooftop practicing yoga with their hands behind their heads and their fingers interlaced.
Keep your legs exactly the same as you focus on bringing your hands behind your head. (Photo: Thomas Barwick | Getty )

Then bend your elbows and interlace your fingers behind your head. You’ll feel your back arching more but don’t fight it. Pause and breathe. (If you need to steady yourself by resting one hand on a wall or chair, please do and simply place one hand behind your head.)

Woman practicing Chair Pose in yoga with her fingers interlaced behind her head and her back arched in Cow Pose
This will feel familiar. Inhale as you lift your sternum and arch your back. (Photo: Thomas Barwick | Getty )

Press the back of your head into your hands just a little as you inhale and arch your back even more, lift your gaze, and draw your elbows toward one another behind you. You might not experience a lot of movement here.

Woman practicing Cow Pose in her upper back and Chair Pose in her legs
…and exhale as you round your back, release your neck, and sigh it out. (Photo: Thomas Barwick | Getty )

Exhale as you round your back, bring your chin toward your thighs, and release your neck.

Inhale as you lift yourself into another backbend. Repeat. Notice if you start to straighten your legs and lift yourself out of Chair Pose. Sink your hips a little lower. Keep going.

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