Standing Forward Bend
After years of nudging my parents to try yoga, they surprised me one day by telling me that they had been practicing some of the poses I showed them. "We can even touch our toes!" they bragged. They stood really tall, stretched their arms overhead, and with a whoosh, dived over their legs. They cranked their necks a bit to locate their feet, and then, with a last bit of oomph, they superstretched their fingers and tapped the tops of their shoes. Having achieved success, they flew all the way back up, hands to the sky, and finished with a dramatic "Ta da!"
You can imagine how adorable this was to me, their proud yoga teacher daughter. Of course, I didn't tell them that the pose they'd just done, called Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), was not about touching their toes. Nor was it about squeezing out all the length they could muster from their fingertips. Fortunately, I didn't have to, because after that brief episode of inspiration, they forgot all about yoga and started collecting frog statues.
It turns out that my parents were pretty typical. Not about the frogs, but about the pose. Many people are surprised to learn that Uttanasana is not about their fingers or toes—it is about almost everything in between.
The Sanskrit word uttanasana comprises ut, which means "intense," "powerful," or "deliberate," and the verb tan, meaning to "stretch," "extend," or "lengthen." Uttanasana is a stretch of the entire back body, a yogic term that covers the territory from the soles of the feet and up the backs of the legs; spans the lower, middle, and upper back; rises up the neck; and circles over the scalp and back down the forehead, finally ending at the point between the eyebrows. When you fold forward in Uttanasana, you stretch this entire sheath of muscles and connective tissue.
This is a big job. In order to facilitate a nice juicy stretch and avoid tugging at your tight hamstrings, it's helpful to know how to move into the pose. So, instead of just reaching for your toes, I suggest that you warm up for Uttanasana by bringing your attention to the fulcrum of the forward bend: the pelvis.
Tilting and Tucking
Let's explore the tilting and tucking movement of the pelvis in Cat-Cow Pose. Come onto your hands and knees. Make sure your wrists are aligned directly below your shoulders, and your knees are directly below your hips.
On an inhalation, lift your sitting bones up, creating a nice backbending arc in the lower spine (Cow Pose). This is what a tilted pelvis feels like. As you exhale, reverse this movement by dropping and tucking your tailbone and drawing the abdominals toward the spine to round your lower back (Cat Pose). This is what a tucked pelvis feels like.
Repeat this warm-up a few times, focusing just on the pelvis, and then expand into the full expression of Cat and Cow. Inhaling, tilt the pelvis and then let this action ripple through the spine, leading to an opening in the chest as you look up. On your exhalation, reverse the movement by tucking your pelvis and drawing in your abdominals. Let that movement continue through your spine until you have completely rounded your back. Let your head release toward the floor.
Repeat these alternating actions 8 to 10 times, moving with the inhalation and exhalation. Pay close attention to how it feels to do this. What is happening with your back? With your front body? Does it feel easier to tilt or to tuck? Whatever you notice is fine and interesting. Breathe slowly and fully, and try to make your actions last as long as each breath.
Finding Length in the Spine
The next warm-up is Downward-Facing Dog. It's helpful to practice the pelvic-tilting action in Downward Dog before going into Uttanasana, because Downward Dog doesn't require as much length from your hamstrings.
From your hands and knees, breathe in, tilt your pelvis, and stay in that position. On your next exhalation, keep your sitting bones pointing up while you press your hands into the floor and lift your hips into the air, finding Downward Dog. This pose looks like an upside-down V, but don't worry if you feel more like an upside-down U. That probably means your pelvis is tucking rather than tilting. With practice, your U will eventually become a V, and this short vinyasa sequence can help you work toward that.
In Downward Dog, inhale and lift your heels as high as you can. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, gently pressing the shoulders and chest back toward your legs. Remember the feeling of the tilted pelvis in Cow Pose? Try to re-create that position here by shooting your pubic bone back through your thighs and reaching your seat up, up, up. This will help create length in your spine and make space between your ribs and hips. Inhale and straighten your legs, trying to keep your hips high. As you exhale, lower your heels toward the ground. Repeat this sequence five times, and then come to the floor and rest in Balasana (Child's Pose).
By now, you've done lot of work discovering how your pelvis naturally moves as well as how you can increase its range of motion. What does all this have to do with Uttanasana and stretching the back body? The forward bend position is created by the action of the pelvis tilting, which allows the spine to pour out over your strong legs, almost like a waterfall.
To get a feel for Uttanasana, try this supported modification first. Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Place a block to the outside of each foot. Place your palms flat at the very top of your thighs. As you exhale, begin to tilt your pelvis. This action—the same one you did in Cow Pose and in Downward Dog—initiates the release of the spine into a forward-folding motion.
Maybe that cascading waterfall feeling isn't available to you yet. If you feel more like you're bending at your belt, it means your back body lacks flexibility somewhere. It might not be where you expect. Perhaps you feel tightness in the back of your neck or on the soles of your feet.
Don't worry. This is where your yoga blocks and your knees can help. As you bend forward, keep your hands on your thighs until you can touch your blocks. If you feel any strain in the hamstrings, low back, or neck, bend your knees. If your hands do not reach the blocks, keep them on your thighs. Bend your knees a bit more. Let your head drop and relax your neck. Stay here for five breaths. Try to stay connected to your physical experience.
As long as this pose is not hurting you, experiencing an intense stretch is fine and natural. Everyone has some poses that are out of reach and some that are completely available. You might find that folding in half with your hands on the blocks is easy. If that is the case, then you are ready to try the full pose.
Take it step by step. Lower the blocks one level and begin straightening your legs. Notice your experience. If your chest is still open (the upper back is not rounded) and you don't feel any strain, lower the blocks to the lowest level. Continue this process until your fingertips touch the floor, your legs are straight, your spine is long, and your head is dropping toward the floor. Relax, but stay engaged. You don't want to become a Raggedy Ann doll, just flopping over. The tilting action of the pelvis should still be what releases the spine. The release should include your neck, but your arms and hands should be active, shoulder blades firm on the back. Watch the space between your ribs and pelvis grow as you take several breaths.
According to B.K.S. Iyengar, the many benefits of this asana include slowing down the heartbeat; toning the liver, spleen, and kidneys; and rejuvenating the spinal nerves. Since they were so excited, I didn't tell my parents that Mr. Iyengar has also said that after practicing Uttanasana, "one feels calm and cool, the eyes start to glow, and the mind feels at peace."
If you visualize a waterfall, you can think of the splashy, iridescent water on the surface as your back body actively stretches. The underbelly of the waterfall is like your front body, the quiet—and equally important—part of the pose.
Uttanasana reminds me of the famous hidden falls of Brahmaputra, in a remote region of Tibet. Many teams of explorers have searched for this waterfall because legend says that behind it lies a land of bliss and nectar, a Shangri-La. OK, that might be pushing the limits of the delights we typically experience in our daily forward bend, but quieting the front body and the mind is a wonderful benefit of Uttanasana, and it balances the deliberate stretching activity of the back.
Maybe this is the meaning we can take from the legend—yoga is not about reaching the toes! It's not about superbig stretching or even discovering a secret magic cave. It's not about attaining a goal that quickly loses its thrill (see above re: parents and frogs). It's about unlocking your ideas about what you want, where you think you can go, and what you will achieve when you get there. This common pose, Uttanasana, which is done in almost every yoga class, will be different every time you do it. Opening to that experience is the biggest stretch of all.
Cyndi Lee is an author, an artist, and a yoga teacher, and the founder of OM Yoga Center.