Welcome to posture three of the 26 postures in the Bikram yoga series. This blog is brought to you from the sunny surroundings of South Beach, Miami, where your intrepid reporter is researching Bikram as practised over the pond and running up and down the beach in 84 degree heat. I hear it's raining in London? Never mind, eh.
Utkatasana in Sanskrit is known as 'awkward pose' in English: Thigh-Burning Pose From Hell would be a more fitting name, but what do I know. It's 'only' the second posture of the warm-up. Yes, the warm-up. The class hasn't even started yet; your body is still loosening up, and this posture is designed to help warm up your quadriceps, hamstrings, knees, calves and ankles. Prepare for serious lactic acid burn in your quads and hams in this pose, and as so often with Bikram, if it's a struggle it means you're doing it right.
Utkatasana: Step by step
1. Stand with your legs apart, feet and knees parallel, six inches apart. Very slightly pigeon-toe your feet so that your heels are not visible in the mirror. Inhale, and raise your arms in front of you, with your elbows locked, palms facing the ground with five fingers together, so you look a bit like a zombie.
2. Keeping feet flat on the floor, and arms raised out in front, inhale and squat down so that your knees are perpendicular to your ankles and your bum is sticking out behind you, with thighs parallel to the floor. Contract your abs so your belly is off your thighs. Bring your shoulders back and down, and keep your chest high. Only sink as far down as you can without suffering joint pain, and if your calves are tight and your heels start coming off the floor, ease off. To exit, inhale, returning slowly to the starting position.
3. For the second part of the posture (there are three parts), remain in the starting position, but this time, raise your heels up as high as possible, so you're on tip toes, balancing on the balls of your feet. Inhale and slowly sink down, as if your back is sliding down an invisible wall. The full expression is to have your thighs parallel to the floor, but keeping your heels raised as high as possible is more important than the depth of the squat at this point. If you're doing it right, your thighs should be burning and shaking. Inhale and return slowly to the start position.
4. For the final part of the posture, bring your knees together to touch, and allow your heels to rise up slightly. Inhale slowly (to the count of 10) and sit down so that your bum is just above (or resting lightly) on your heels. Remember to keep your back straight and try not to lean back or forward. Hover here, and then inhale and slowly (to the count of 10) rise to the starting position, again keeping your back straight and without leaning back/forward.
Utkatasana: The benefits
'This posture is great for your core strength and balance,' says John Elliott, studio manager of Bikram Yoga Miami. 'As part of the Bikram warm-up, it loosens up your knees and ankles, whilst strengthening the ACL and PCL. Knee and ankle pain is very common for runners, and strengthening these joints, which can take ground reaction forces of up to 1.5 times your body weight each time your foot hits the ground.'
'Because the posture is broken down into three parts, with two sets to each posture 60 and 30 seconds respectively, that means approximately four and half minutes of work, which builds stamina and focus. It's a tough posture which really makes you sweat- it's not called 'awkward' for nothing!'
Switching up your warm-up routine may boost your running performance. A 2009 study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that strength-based warm-ups including squats were a beneficial addition to a warm-up before a run, increasing the force generated by the knee extensors. As much as this posture may cause 'the burn' to eye-watering degrees, it loosens up, stretches and strengthens your quads, hamstrings, glutes, abs, ankles and knees. No pain, no gain.
Bikram specialist Olga Allon teaches at London's Hot Bikram Yoga.