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Standing Forward Bend: The Complete Guide

Uttanasana is a simple yet effective forward fold that urges you toward greater flexibility along your back body—from your heels to your head.


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Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) is one of the staples of almost all yoga asana practices.  Though it is such a common pose, it warrants deeper consideration.

According to B.K.S. Iyengar, the perks of Uttanasana include slowing down the heartbeat; toning the liver, spleen, and kidneys; and rejuvenating the spine and nerves. Iyengar has also said that after practicing Uttanasana, “one feels calm and cool, the eyes start to glow, and the mind feels at peace.”

It’s true that bending forward turns the world on its head, giving you a different view of life—if only for a moment. Imagine a waterfall as you conceptualize this pose, offers Cyndi Lee, founder of OM Yoga Center in New York City. You can think of the iridescent water on the surface as your back body actively stretches. The underside of the waterfall is like your front body. It’s a more hidden and less splashy—yet extremely important—part of the Uttanasana.

Lee says that Uttanasana reminds her of Tibet’s famous hidden falls of Brahmaputra, which legend says are a gateway to a land of bliss and nectar, a Shangri-La. “That might be pushing the limits of the delights we typically experience in our daily forward bend,” she says. “But quieting the front body and the mind is a wonderful benefit of Uttanasana, and it balances the deliberate stretching activity of the back.”

With a little engagement and focus, Uttanasana—a pose performed so frequently in yoga classes but without great fanfare or thought—will be different every time you do it. Opening yourself up to that experience in a new way can be a huge stretch—physically and mentally— that can yield powerful results.

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Standing Forward Bend basics

Sanskrit: Uttanasana (OOT-tan-AHS-ah-nah)

ut = intense
tan = to stretch or extend

Pose type: Forward bend

Targets: Full body

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Benefits

Standing Forward Bend can improve your body awareness and balance. As a calming and relaxing pose, it can help you manage stress as it activates the relaxation response (your parasympathetic nervous system) and deactivates the stress response (your sympathetic nervous system). This pose also stretches the back side of your body, including your back and shoulders, buttocks (glutes), back of your thighs (hamstrings), calf muscles, and the soles of your feet.

Other Standing Forward Bend perks:

  • May help regulate blood pressure
  • Assists in relieving anxious thoughts and feelings
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Step-by-step instructions

  1. Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the front of the mat with your hands at your hips.
  2. Inhale, lengthen your spine and engage your quadriceps.
  3. As you exhale, hinge at your hip joints, fold forward and reach toward the floor. Place your hands on your shins, on blocks, or on the floor on either side of your feet, fingertips in line with your toes.
  4. Inhale and reach your chest forward and up, rocking your weight forward and pulling your arms straight.
  5. As you exhale, keep your weight forward and your front body long, fold in toward your legs, lowering the crown of your head to the floor.
  6. Draw your shoulder blades away from your spine and toward your back waist.
  7. Keep your weight back into your heels by pressing down with your big toe mounds, and rocking your weight forward so your hips stack over your heels rather than behind them.
  8. Continue to engage your quadriceps to help your hamstrings release.
  9. Hold for 5–10 breaths.
  10. As you inhale, pull your chest forward and up again, extending your sternum away from your navel and broadening your collarbones.
  11. Exhale to place your hands at your hips.
  12. Inhale and root down firmly with your feet. Use the strength of your legs to press down, as you “unhinge” back up to standing.
  13. Return to Tadasana.
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Explore the pose

Beginner’s tips

  • If you have tight hamstrings, try placing your palms or fingertips onto one or two blocks stacked tall and placed several inches in front of your feet, below your shoulders.
  • If you have tight hamstrings, soften your knees as much as you need to in order to fold forward. Imagine that the sacrum is sinking deeper into your pelvis and bring the tailbone closer to the pubis. Then, against this resistance, push the top thighs back and the heels down and straighten the knees again. Practice in the pose to increase the length of the back legs gradually.
  • Be careful not to lock your knees. Check by pressing your hands against the back of each knee to make sure there is some give in the joint.
  • Stand firm. Ground your feet down into the mat by pressing into all sides of the bottom of each foot. Creating a solid yet easeful stance will allow the stability for the top of your body to freely hang forward, letting gravity do the work.

Deepen the pose

  • To increase the stretch in the backs of your legs, lean slightly forward and lift up onto the balls of your feet, pulling your heels a half-inch or so away from the floor. Draw your inner groin deep into the pelvis, and then, from the height of the groin, lengthen your heels back onto the floor.
  • Use the wall to help focus on the details of the stretch. Stand with your heels 2–3 inches away from the wall and lean your sacrum against it. Soften your knees, and fold forward over your thighs. Let your head and arms hang heavy and gently tilt your sit bones up the wall until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstrings. Take 3–4 slow and steady breaths here, then bend your knees enough to plant your palms on the floor or blocks. Return to standing.

Common mistakes

  • Yoga teacher Tiffany Russo reminds students to bend from the hips—not the spine. The motion is more hingeing forward than curling over. Think of your legs as pillars that don’t move. Lengthen in the spine, getting tall, then fold out and up over your thighs to reach the crown of the head toward the ground.
  • It can be easy in this pose to unintentionally hold tension in your neck. Instead, consciously let the head go heavy as you gaze toward your legs.

Be mindful!

  • If you suffer from low back pain, make sure to enter the posture with bent knees. Rather than straightening the legs, keep the bend and place your hands several inches in front of your feet, or hold onto your forearms and allow your head to hang heavy.
  • Avoid rounding your spine forward into spinal flexion in this pose, especially if you have osteoporosis, bulging discs, herniation, or other back pain or issues. With these or other conditions or pain in the back, consult with your doctor for advice on what is safe to practice. Try the gentler modifications with a flat back and elongated spine.
  • Use extreme caution or avoid bringing your head below your heart if you have high or low blood pressure, a heart condition, vertigo, or extreme dizziness, heartburn, or an ear infection. If you have certain eye conditions (glaucoma, detached retina, diabetic retinopathy, recent cataract surgery, for example), ask your ophthalmologist if it is safe to practice forward bends.  Try to keep your head above your heart by using blocks.
  • Avoid Uttanasana if you have a hamstring tear. Consult with your doctor to determine when you may begin to add this pose gently back into your practice.
  • If you are pregnant, try with your legs wide to allow room for your belly. Enter this pose carefully, paying careful attention to how your center of gravity changes as your belly grows.
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Standing Forward Bend variations

Try Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose): After bending forward, slide the index and middle finger of each hand in between the big toe and second toe of each foot. Then curl your fingers and thumb around your big toe. As you inhale, straighten your arms and lift your front torso away from your thighs, making your back as concave as possible. Hold for a few breaths, then exhale and lengthen down and forward, bending your elbows out to the sides.

Or, try one of these creative variations:

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Half Standing Forward Bend with blocks

Blocks can help bring the floor closer to you. You may also want to slightly bend your knees if your hamstrings are tight.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Bent-Knee Standing Forward Bend

Follow the step-by-step instructions above, but bend your knees as much as you need to. Your torso may rest on your thighs. Work to extend the legs gradually.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Standing Forward Bend on a chair

For a more relaxed version of the pose, bring your forearms and head to rest on the seat of a chair.

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Preparatory and counter poses

Standing Forward Bend can be a warmup or a restorative pose to neutralize your hips and stretch your back and hamstrings throughout your practice.

Preparatory poses

Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend)

Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big Toe Pose)

Counter poses

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)

Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

High Lunge

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Your body in Standing Forward Bend | Anatomy

You can rely on Uttanasana as a warmup or a resting pose during your yoga practice. Either way, it neutralizes your hips and stretches your back and hamstrings.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

An anatomy illustration shows a person's body in Standing Forward Bend: Uttanasana
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Train yourself to activate your quadriceps as you bend forward into Uttanasana. The gradual increase in force of this muscle contracting will straighten your knees and stretch your hamstrings.

Engage the hip flexors (the psoas and its synergists) as well as the abdominals to flex your hips and bend your trunk forward. Attempt to squeeze your torso against your thighs to contract the psoas. When you activate these muscles, it signals the gluteus maximums, erector spinae, and quadratus lumborum to relax into the stretch.

The contraction of the rectus femoris flexes the trunk and signals its antagonist muscles, the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum, to relax. When you engage this part of the quadriceps in forward-bending poses, you deepen the stretch of the antagonist back extensors.

An anatomy illustration shows a person's body in Standing Forward Bend: Uttanasana
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

Press the balls of your feet into the mat and attempt to drag your feet apart, which will engage the tensor fascia lata and gluteus medius. This internally rotates your thighs to bring your kneecaps facing forward.

The pelvis tends to drift toward the back of the mat in this pose. Counter this by pressing your big toes into the mat. This engages the big toe flexors and works to bring the pelvis forward, aligning it over the ankles.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses by Ray Long.

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Put Standing Forward Bend into practice

Here are a few flows to try that feature Standing Forward Bend:


About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.