These short days and long nights of deep December can bring an inner sense of darkness. Psychologists have even given a name to this phenomenon — Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Exercise is a good way to counteract it.
Considering what yoga can offer as an answer to this seasonal malaise, I think the Chair Pose — an energizing, strengthening pose — might be just the ticket for this time of year. The Sanskrit name for it is Utkatasana, meaning “powerful, mighty pose.” It focuses the mind and tones the whole body.
To get into the pose, you begin by standing with your feet hip width apart (4 to 8 inches depending on your size) and with your arms at your sides. Inhale and stretch the arms forward and up. Keep them shoulder width apart or wider so that you can feel a sense of ease and openness in your shoulders.
Once your arms are raised, adjust your shoulders. Roll your shoulder blades down your back and plug your arm bones into your shoulders. If you are having trouble balancing, step your feet wider apart. This pose can be demanding on the shoulders, so you may opt to keep your hands on your hips or in prayer pose at the center of your chest.
Now, keeping your feet planted and arms and upper torso lifted, bend your knees as if you are sitting back on a ledge. You are bending through the ankles, knees, and hips, yet you want your chest to stay lifted. Now is when, if we were in class together, I might say, “Imagine you are raising your heart to the sky.”
Bend your knees only as far as feels comfortable. In this pose, as in all yoga poses, you want to find your edge. This is the place where you can hold the pose without creating sharp pain, electrical sensations, or numbness. You are working the muscles but not overstraining the joints. One other thing about finding your edge: keep breathing as you do it.
In this pose, you will find it is important to use your core to help you hold the pose. To engage your core, try drawing your navel in towards your spine and tucking the lower ribs in. This is meant to be a gentle adjustment. It is effective at bringing your core on board. A strong core will protect your back and help with your alignment in the pose.
To deepen the pose, you may “sit” a little lower by moving the top of your thighs down a bit more. At the same time, keep lifting your torso out of your waist.
If your ankles are tight, you might find it helps to place a rolled mat or towel under your heels. This little lift will give you greater access to sitting back into your legs.
There are other ways to approach this pose — ways that add support, which can boost your confidence and help you feel the effects of the pose better. One that is useful, especially if you have cranky shoulders, is to place your hands on your knees. Another is to practice the pose with your back against a wall.
However you get there, consider this: you are now in the powerful, mighty Chair Pose. Breathe. And continue breathing as you hold the pose for 10 seconds or longer, up to a minute. You are strengthening your legs, back, shoulders, arms, and core.
Try smiling while you do the pose and imagine that smiling energy passing down through the chest and into every tissue and every cell of the body. Invite a feeling of unconditional friendliness to whatever is there for you.
The winter solstice is meant to be a time of drawing inward for reflection, as well as a time of celebrating the return of the light. We are regrouping for a new year, for new challenges and new adventures. We are celebrating being alive and having the strength to carry on.
May your new year be full of joy and peace.
Jennifer Shannon is a certified Kripalu yoga teacher who lives in Truro.