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Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) may be one of the very first postures a new yogi learns. It’s also one of the most misinterpreted or misunderstood.
“Contrary to popular belief, Standing Forward Bend is not about touching your toes. Nor is it about squeezing out all the length you can muster from your fingertips,” says Cyndi Lee, founder of OM Yoga Center in New York City. Many beginners are surprised (and a bit skeptical) to learn that Uttanasana is not actually about the relationship between fingers and toes. It is about almost everything in between.
Let us explain: The Sanskrit word uttanasana is made up of “ut,” which means “intense,” “powerful,” or “deliberate,” and the verb “tan,” meaning to “stretch” or “lengthen.” Uttanasana is a purposeful extension of the entire back body—including the territory from the soles of the feet and up the backs of the legs.
“This [stretch] 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,” says Lee. When you fold forward in Uttanasana, you stretch this entire sheath of muscles and connective tissue, from the fulcrum of the forward bend, the pelvis.
That movement is a big job. In order to facilitate a deep and satisfying stretch (not one that overextends your hamstrings, or is hyper-focused on toe-touching), it’s valuable to enter this pose with care and intention.
Standing Forward Bend basics
Sanskrit: Uttanasana (OOT-tahn-AHS-ah-nah)
Pose type: Forward bend
Targets: Full body
Why we love it: “Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) continues to teach me a lot about the process of practice,” says Iyengar teacher Chrissy Carter. “I love the process of building the architecture of this pose because I can absolutely feel the difference in my physical and energetic body when I tap into a more integrated approach.”
This pose prompts her to examine her stance carefully: “Where is the weight in my feet? Am I attempting to straighten my knees by pushing them back, or can I extend my knees by pressing my calves forward into my shins and then lifting the tops of my thighs up? Am I balancing the effort of tipping my pelvis over the tops of my thighs with the oppositional effort of drawing my outer upper thighs down towardsmy outer knees? When I find the relationship between all of these actions, I find the pose—and then it’s no longer about the pose itself, but rather how I’m connecting to the experience of being in the pose.”
Standing Forward Bend calms the brain and helps relieve stress. This pose also stimulates the liver and kidneys, and stretches the hamstrings, calves, and hips.
Standing Forward Bend: Step-by-step instructions
- Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the front of the mat with your hands at your hips.
- Bend your knees slightly and fold your torso over your legs, hingeing from the hips, not the lower back.
- Your hands may land next to your feet or on the ground in front of you.
- Inhale and extend your chest to lengthen your spine.
- Exhale and gently press both legs toward straight without hyperextending. Lift the kneecaps and gently spiral your upper, inner thighs back.
- On an exhalation, extend your torso down without rounding your back. Lengthen your neck, extending the crown of your head toward the ground, while you draw your shoulders down your back toward your hips.
Hinge forward from the crease at the front of the hips, moving the pelvis and sacrum together, to protect the lower back.
These tips will help protect your students from injury and help them have the best experience of the pose:
- Remind your students that this pose is not about eventually touching their toes or the mat. You may need to say this every time you teach, as it is one of the most common yogic misconceptions. Mastery of Uttanasana is in no way about “reaching” that goal of touching the mat or touching the toes, or about stretching the fingers ever longer.
- Invite your students to grab each elbow with the opposite hand. In a standing forward bend, this can help this pose feel more natural, and also allow students to go deeper as gravity pulls their weight down toward the mat. (This move also prevents students from obsessing about whether their fingers are nearing their toes.)
- Invite a focus on aligning the ankles, knees, and hips. Getting centered here can help prevent students from leaning forward or backward, or shifting to their heels.
- If you have students suffering from back injuries, advise them to do this pose with bent knees or perform Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend) with their hands on the wall, legs perpendicular to their torso and arms parallel to the floor.
- For students looking to further extend the muscles on the backs of their legs, advise them to stand in the forward bend with the balls of their feet elevated an inch or more off of the floor on a sand bag or thick book.
Variation: Half Standing Forward Bend with blocks
Try using blocks to bring the floor closer to you. Feel free to slightly bend your knees.