Recently I’ve been incorporating plenty of squats into my personal yoga practice and gym workouts. The squat has to be one of my least favourite poses, which is why I make a point of practicing and teaching it as often as I can. We Westerners often struggle with squatting: whilst young children will happily sit in a squatting position for extended periods of time (my daughters often squat whilst playing or doing activities on the floor, for example) we chair-bound adults tend to lose the ability as we age and do it less. It’s a shame, since squatting is great for maintaining hip flexibility and back strength.
So here are my top tips for all you fellow squat-phobics out there, to help you overcome your fears and embrace the squat!
1) Before you squat
Make sure you warm up the knees, lower back, ankles, hips and groin areas fully before you begin to practice squats. Utkatasana (Chair pose), Virabhadarasana II (Warrior 2) pose and standing forward bends – either with feet together or in a wider stance – are good pre-squat warm ups.
Take particular care if any of these areas are injured or vulnerable; use the adjustments detailed below, and listed carefully to your body to ensure you don’t overwork and strain any joints or muscles. Yoga should not be painful!
2) Try a beginners’ squat – working dynamically
A good, entry-level or warm-up squatting practice is to work dynamically. Ballet dancers may recognise this as a deep plie:
- Stand with the feet in a wide position (about 2 feet/60cm apart).
- Turn the toes out so the feet are at a 45 degree angle.
- On the in-breath: Lengthen through the spine and make sure your pelvis is level (not tipping forwards/or backwards)
- On the out-breath: Bend the knees, ensuring they go directly over the toes – you will naturally lower into a half-squat position as you do this. Aim to keep your spine straight and send your tailbone directly down between your feet. Your pelvis will naturally tilt forwards as the legs bend, but the spine should stay in neutral alignment (i.e. without increasing or reducing the natural curve in the lower back).
- On the in-breath, press through the soles of the feet and straighten the legs (taking care not to ‘lock’ the knees)
- Build up the depth of your squat gradually, try to lower to a point where the thighs are parallel with the floor. Then see if you can progressively build up a stay in this half-squat position: first for 1 breath, then 2, 3, 4, to a maximum of 6 breaths
3) Go for the full squat
Once you can comfortably hold the half squat for 4-6 breaths, you might like to attempt the full squat
Version 1: Narrow squat: Have the feet and knees just under hip-width apart and squat right down onto your haunches, with your inner elbows tucked against the outer thighs. Keep the spine in neutral alignment, as in the beginner’s version, and try to bring the heels flat to the floor.
Version 2: Malasana (Garland pose)
Like the frog pose, but with feet turned out and knees wide. Tuck your elbows in against the inside of your legs – just above/below the knee joint
4) Beat the ‘squat drop’
This is where, as you lower your heels to the floor, you find you lose your centre of gravity and fall unceremoniously backwards onto your butt. It’s embarrassing and potentially painful, especially if you land on your tailbone. I speak from experience here folks. Here are some pointers for overcoming this unfortunate squat side-effect:
- Practice with your back against a wall
- Try holding onto a fixed object for stability, either by clasping it directly or tie a yoga belt around it and hold onto the ends. If you’re comfortable practicing with a partner, this is a great one to do in pairs, holding each others’ hands for support as you take turns to squat.
- Work the upper body forward. You may find garland pose easier than frog
- If all else fails, have a cushion behind you, so at least you won’t bruise any sensitive areas if you do topple backwards.
5) Adapt if you need to
If you feel restricted in the front of the ankle and struggle to get your heels to the floor (without falling backwards onto your butt), you can either place a wedge or folded blanket beneath your heels. Or see if you can work your heels further down if you hold onto a fixed object for support – as detailed above. If you’re comfortable practicing with a partner, this is a great one to do in pairs, holding each others’ hands for support as you take turns to squat.
To improve mobility in this area, try rolling onto the balls of your feet then working heels towards the floor.
Or when sitting on a chair, bring the knees forward over the toes, then work heels into the floor. Don’t do this when bearing weight in the knee joints though.
If you’re challenged in the knees or lower back and find a squat difficult, you could try an adapted version, using a chair:
- Sit on the edge of a chair, with your knees wide apart.
- On an out breath, slowly fold forward, so your arms and torso drop down between your knees.
- Hold for a few breaths, allowing the weight of your torso to release down into gravity, head and neck should be relaxed
- Rise up on an inhale, bringing your hands to legs/thighs to support your body weight as you do so, if the spine is sensitive
Hope this advice helps encourage a few people out there to have a go. Happy squatting!