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Ardha Utkatasana ( Half Squat ) - Issues and solutions

Some General Comments :- The half squat is one of the poses for which there are many different interpretations and adaptations. In these notes, I am limiting myself to versions where the feet are in a Tadasana position. Even with this limitation, there are at least 3 distinctive types of variation. Horse pose : where the trunk remains upright and unbending (compared to Tadasana); the degree that the knees bend is also quite small. Lighting bolt variations (body in the shape of zigzag lightning blot when viewed from the side): where the trunk remains essentially straight, but inclines to allow hips to move backwards so as to allow a deep half squat. (Here I use the word ‘deep’ to refer to how low the hips go or, equally, how close to horizontal the thighs become). And back-bending variations : where the shoulders stay essentially above the ankles, and the pelvic girdle tilts forwards to allow the hips to move backwards, again allowing a deep half squat.

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Ardha Utkatasana Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Head

            · Upper Trunk

            · Lower Trunk

            · Legs

            · Feet

            Pregnancy





Head

For many, the half squats are very challenging from a balance point of view. Sometimes the best way for making this aspect of the pose less challenging is to decrease how challenging the pose is in other ways. For example, one might choose to practise with arms lowered, instead of moving or held raised. And, very commonly, people find placing a rolled-up towel under their heels greatly aids balance – this is to do with flexibility in the ankles decreasing how far forwards the knees move and thus how far forwards one’s body weight as a whole is. The rolled-up towel thus reduces the feeling that one is likely to fall backwards and also reduces the effort required in the shin muscles to keep the weight pulled forwards. However, it should be noted that in the “Horse” version of half squats, this use of a rolled-up towel in addition to aiding balance, also allows the knees to move forward more, making the resulting pose much harder work for the quadricep muscles (front thigh muscles). This pose lends itself very well to practising with the aid of a chair or wall to help with balance. A hand can be placed on a wall or chair and one can also practise horse pose versions with one’s back against a wall.

Those with high blood pressure – especially if it is high enough that they have been told they have an elevated risk of stroke – do need to be careful with this pose. When one holds this pose statically, the quadricep muscles (amongst others) have to contract strongly to keep the body weight from falling down. This on its own would cause blood pressure to rise, as the heart has to push blood though contracted and hard-working muscles. With the full version of lighting-bolt and back-bend versions, the arms are lifted and held overhead – another thing that on its own tends to raise blood pressure. (This time due to the heart having to pump blood to a high level relative to the heart). So those with high blood pressure issues would do better to explore moving into and moving out of the pose, rather than holding. And they should definitely avoid holding the pose with the arms lifted overhead.


Upper Trunk

For all three versions of the pose, the heart is encouraged to beat harder and faster to supply hard-working muscles. This effect is least strong for horse pose versions and strongest for back-bending versions, and is increased by having the arms held lifted overhead. Obviously, for healthy hearts, this is great – as it gives the heart a strengthening workout. For hearts that have started to become weak or dysfunctional, however, one needs to work within the limits of one’s heart’s health and capacity. Moving in and out of the pose will tend to be safer then trying to hold for a long time. I would suggest moving in and out of the pose, and then observing how one feels for a couple of breaths and then, if all feels well, trying to hold the pose for a couple of breaths: then observe how you feel after that. Gradually, over time, one’s heart strength and stamina may well increase to the degree that is quadriceps muscle stamina that limits how long one can hold the pose – but this would be something to explore and discover slowly. Similarly, practising with arms lowered, or with moving arms, will be safer than practising with arms lifted overhead.

Because some muscles work very hard in this pose, one’s body’s need for oxygen increases. This will increase the depth and strength of one’s breathing. The degree of this is least strong for the horse pose version compared to the other two, because the squat is less deep, leading to less work for the quadriceps muscles. With the back-bend versions, the chest is held in a somewhat sprung open position, leading to somewhat restricted breathing – increasing the effort of breathing. For most people, this is great as it gives one’s breathing muscles a good workout. Similar issues apply with holding the arms lifted overhead. Those who find this aspect of the pose challenging can either hold the pose less long to reduce the degree great oxygen debt they get into, or hold a less challenging version that requires less effort.

With the back-bending versions of the half squat, the upper back is ideally taken into a significant degree of backbend. If one is restricted in the upper back with regard to bending backwards or if one has weak upper back muscles, the back bend will end up localized in the lower back – potentially to a degree that is unhealthy/damaging for the lower back. This is not a problem for those who are generally stiff throughout their spine – but those who are very mobile in their lower back, yet still mobile in their upper back, might do well to explore other methods of mobilizing the upper back (e.g. some forms of cat breathing/movements).


Lower Trunk

In both the horse pose and the lightning bolt version of the pose, muscles are engaged to hold the lumbar spine in a stable, close to neutral position. So, these poses should be OK for those with vulnerable lower backs. But with the back-bending version of the pose, the lower back is moved through a significant degree of back-bending. Those with very mobile lower backs, or a strong tendency to excessive lumbar lordosis, will tend to find this aspect of the pose very accessible – to a degree that they may take the lower back deeper into a back-bend than is healthy. The solution (that works well for me) is, once I have reached the deep squat, to then press down through my feet and draw my tail bone downwards. This has the effect of pulling my lower back into a lengthening traction that pulls the lower back straighter (often completely out of the backbend) and moving much of the backbend up the spine. This of course makes the pose much harder work – but it also makes it safer for my lumbar spine and much more beneficial for my body as whole. Those with highly mobile lumbar spines but who lack either the body awareness or the upper back mobility to take this approach to the back-bend versions of the half-squat would do better to practise horse pose or lightning blot versions of the half squat.


Legs

A key area of vulnerability with the half squat is the knees. In this semi-flexed position, the knee joint is at its least stable and most likely to be damaged due to poor alignment – and there are large forces acting across the knee joints. It is thus very important that the knees bend in the same direction as the feet. Many people tend to allow their knees to move inwards – in which case, making a conscious effort to press down through the outside edges of the feet will usually solve the problem. Less commonly, some people tend to allow their knees to move outwards – in which case, consciously pressing the pads of the big toe joints downwards usually solves the problem. Poor knee alignment commonly goes hand-in-hand with finding the balance side of the pose difficult – so, if one makes the balance side easier, then keeping the knees pointing forwards usually also become much easier. The other thing is that, the deeper the half squat, the more important the knee alignment is good and the harder most people find it is to keep good knee alignment. Given this, those who struggle with keeping their knees pointing over their feet should work with shallow versions of the squat until they develop better and easier control of where their knees point.

There are three groups of leg muscles that tend to be limiting for the half squats. The soleus and long flexor muscles in the calves will be what limit how far forwards the knees can move. The antagonistic muscles (tibialis anterior, peroneus muscles and the long extensors of the toes), which act to dorsiflex the feet, may be noticeable in that they have to work hard to help keep the knees drawn forwards and thus keep one’s weight sufficiently pulled forwards. If these muscles are weak, balance may well feel difficult, as they may well micro-vibrate in their struggle to do the work that is being asked of them. For this reason, placing a rolled-up towel under the heels usually either makes the pose feel easier or increases how deep into the squat one is able to move.

The other group of leg muscles that are typically limiting in the half squat is the vastus part of the quadriceps. These muscles usually have sufficient strength for one to move into and out of the pose without holding – and, where they don’t, one simply moves less deeply into the half squat. Where these muscles are usually limiting is in their stamina for static contraction. These muscles have evolved to be very strong and powerful in dynamic actions like walking, running, jumping, kicking and so on. But holding a static contraction is much more demanding for them – and, for most people, how long they can hold a half squat is determined by the stamina of these muscles.

Because of the degree of static contraction of muscles in the leg in this pose, it is very important to follow the practice of this pose with something that either drains (e.g. leg inversion) or pumps (e.g. knee flexion/extension) surplus blood and tissue fluid out of one’s legs if one want to avoid oedema or varicose type problems.


Feet

If one practises half squats with poor attention to the feet, there is a strong tendency to allow the weight to be either too much on the inside or too much on the outside of the feet. This is bad news for the feet as it tends to crush the inner or outer arches and exacerbate and encourage problems such as achy feet and plantar-fasciitis. Such poor feet care also has implication higher up the pose, most especially at the knee joints. Both the pads of the big toe joints and the outside edges of the feet should be pressed firmly into the floor – if you find this difficult, I recommend working with a less deep version of the pose.

Anyone already with significant feet problems will probably find using an alternative exercise that also strengthens the quadriceps (e.g. up-down kneeling) a sensible option.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

In the later stages of pregnancy one of the issues that needs to be borne in mind is that the womb starts to press against the inferior vena cava (main vein in the trunk) and the aorta  (main artery). This has implications for blood circulation to and from the legs. It is thus unwise to stand in static poses for more than a very short period - with risks of discomfort, tiredness (in legs) and an increased likelihood, over the long term, of getting varicose veins or tissue fluid issues (oedema) in the legs. With regard to this pose, this means that one wants to avoid holding any of the half squat poses. Horse pose and the lightning bolt versions might be comfortable for moving in to and out of with the breath.

Personally, I would advise against using the back-bending versions of the half squat, because of the danger of the lower back becoming pushed into a too strong back-bend. This is a particular issue for the spine of ladies in the later stages of pregnancy. This is in part due of the naturally changing shape of the spine (due to the weight in the womb). And because the softening and weakening of protective ligaments (due to hormones preparing the pelvic girdle ligaments to be able to stretch enough to allow child-birth).

Full squats and wide footed squats often are recommended for pregnancy – but these sorts of squats offer one’s body a very different set of challenges/effects/benefits compared to the half squat.

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