Strength and Stability: How to Practice Uttanasana
Article At A Glance
While Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) might appear uncomplicated, many yoga practitioners find it to be a challenging pose. In this article, we explore how to cultivate both strength and comfort in this pose.
Uttanasana is the most simple, symmetrical, and ubiquitous of the standing forward bends. By simple, we do not mean easy. Uttansana translates to “intense stretch pose.” By stretching the sides of the trunk from the hips to our armpits, we can create an intense stretch for the spine. The head’s weight helps, but when aiming for a balance of sthira (stability) and sukha (ease) in asana, we must more actively participate in the posture.
The shape has much in common with Mountain Pose (Tadasana). The foundation is the same: the feet are parallel. We place the feet together during Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskara), though we often practice setting the feet hip-width apart otherwise.
Classically, as in Tadasana, the legs are straight in Uttanasana, which might make many of us feel the “intense stretch” in the backs of our legs. Additionally, the muscles of the legs, as in Mountain Pose, are firm to the bone. We can use the power of our muscles to lift the legs into the pelvis rather than feel the weight of the pelvis sink onto the legs. This upward lift (as opposed to the buttocks lifting away from the backs of the knees) is one of the essential lines of energy in the posture. Another line of energy in Uttanasana is the trunk stretching down from the hips to the armpits.
How to Practice Uttanasana
- Place two yoga blocks, at their highest height, at the front end of your yoga mat.
- Stand in Mountain Pose with your feet hip-width apart and hands on your hips. Your blocks should be about 2 feet in front of you.
- Press your hands down into the top rim of the pelvis.
- Stretch your armpits and chest up away from there to lengthen the sides of your trunk.
- Lift the breastbone away from the navel to stretch the front of the torso.
- Lift the back of your ribs away from the back of your pelvis.
- As you exhale, lift your pelvis up and over the fronts of your legs and extend the trunk forward. Bend forward from your hip joints, not your waist.
- Place your fingertips down on two blocks and lift the fronts, backs, and sides of the legs toward the pelvis.
- As you inhale, stretch your arms straight and elongate the sides of your trunk forward, from your hip crease to your armpits. At the same time, press your engaged thighs back away from the head to practice Half Intense Forward Bend Pose (Ardha Uttanasana).
- As you exhale, sustaining the stretch of all the sides of your trunk and the strength in your legs, fold over your legs. Reach your head toward your toes. Your hands can stay on blocks, or if you can maintain the stretch of the sides of your trunk, you can move them to the ground near your feet. Use your hands to pull the floor backward. Of course, the floor won’t move, but you may feel your trunk move further into the pose.
- Press your feet evenly down into the floor, and draw your legs firmly up again. As you inhale, lift onto your fingertips, stretch your arms and legs straight, and stretch your chest away from your legs. Elongate from your hip creases to your armpits and look forward.
- As you exhale, bring your hands to your hips and draw your upper arms back toward one another. This action will engage the upper back muscles to widen your chest from the center to the sides.
- Sustaining the work in your legs, arms, and back, inhale and rise to stand. Exhale, and release your arms to return to Mountain Pose.
Practice Tips for Standing Forward Bend
- Eventually, your face may touch your legs in the pose. However, if the front of your spine is squeezed because you’re pushing your face toward the knees, choose to back off. You have the rest of your life to get your forehead to the legs. Nothing extra special there today.
- You are in a mild inversion, your head below your heart. Inversions should be soothing for the nervous system. If your breath is difficult to control, you’re in too deep. Learn to use your breath as a gauge. The exhalation is long, and the inhalation is unfettered. If you want to bolt out of the pose, take that as a clear sign from within to make some adjustments.
- You can see your legs right there in front of your eyes. As you smoothly breathe, ask them to firm again. When you engage your quadriceps, your kneecaps will look surprised. While lifting the fronts of the legs, do your best to raise the inner thigh, too, from the inner knee to the inner groin. Lift the outer thigh from the outer knee to the outer hip. Most importantly, aim to lift the back of the thigh to the buttock rather than straining to lift the buttock bones away from the back of the knees.
- *Teachers’ note: “Buttock bones away from the knees” is not a universal instruction, though it may help some tighter students understand lines of energy. Universal instructions will not injure anyone. This instruction could move your hypermobile students too far in the wrong direction.
- While softening your gaze and breathing, can you feel your sides and back stretch? If you feel the sensation primarily in one spot, what can you adjust to spread it more evenly throughout your body? Can you allow the front of the trunk to elongate each time you breathe in?
- Where is the weight in your feet? Can you cultivate sama (equal) in the way you press them into the floor? Usually, the weight of the body gets thrust behind the heels. Deliberately shift some of your weight toward the ball of each foot. If you’re like many of us who hyperextend or over-straighten at the knees, it may feel like your legs bend slightly. Rather than hanging in your vulnerable ligaments and joints, unlock the knees to ensure your legs work muscularly. Press the ball and the heel of each foot firmly (and evenly) down into the floor and lift the legs away from there. Root down and rebound up. As the weight shifts to sama over the feet, the legs can do their prescribed action: stabilize and stretch.
Balancing the Work in Uttanasana
Working hard is okay; working in the right direction is more important. Like almost any of the postures, the forward bend “Intense Stretch Pose” has risk factors, but when you practice balancing your stability with your spaciousness, you will create harmony in your body. When the alignment is steady, and you can comfortably breathe, the pose offers insight, inspiration, and release.