Asana Breakdown: Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

Forward Bend
Uttanasana is one of the first poses you will learn in a yoga 101 class.  It looks pretty simple right? Just bend over and touch your toes.  But looks can be deceiving, which is true for the standing forward bend.  The goal of this pose is to fold the body in half, bringing the chest to touch the thighs, and resting the balms of your hands flat on the mat.  To achieve this, you need to have flexible hamstrings, hips and spinal muscles; the three areas that tend to be tight for most people, and therein lies the challenge.  The good news is, with regular stretching and the right combination of yoga poses, you can open up the hip joint and lengthen the hamstrings, as well as the muscles of the spine.  The other good news is that gravity is on your side.  It’s role is to pull you down, allowing you to go deeper into the pose.  Props can also come in handy when doing the forward bend.  Blocks are a great way to bring the ground to you, if your hands don’t quite make it there on their own just yet.

These are the muscles that are used in the forward bend, as illustrated in this diagram:

  • hamstrings
  • quadraceps
  • gastrocnemius (calf)
  • piriformis
  • spinal muscles

There are many ways to come into standing forward bend, the most common of them is from tadasana (mountain pose):
1. Begin standing on your mat in Tadasana (mountain pose).
2. Inhale, circle the arms up overhead.
3. Exhale, open the arms and bring the chest and head down towards the ground, hinging at the hips to fold over the legs. Balms flat on the mat.
4. Legs are straight, and weight is evenly distributed between both feet, with most of the weight on the balls of your feet. Bring your chest to rest on your thighs, your forehead to touch your shins, and both balms to lay flat on the mat next to your feet.
5. Inhale through the nose, feeling your back expand with air. Exhale through the nose, and relax the back muscles, letting gravity pull you deeper into the pose.
6. If your hamstrings are tight, slightly bend your knees to release the spine.
7. If your hands do not reach the mat, just let the arms hang, along with the spine and head, allowing gravity to slowly pull you down with each breath. You can also bend your arms and grab opposite elbows with your hands, gently swaying the upper body from side to side, releasing any tension in the back and hips.

How to use blocks:
For some of you, the floor may not be so easily accessible for your hands, and just letting your upper body hang out in mid-air causes tension for your lower back and hamstrings.  Blocks can help relieve that tension by providing a more supportive way of easing into the pose fully.  They act as raisers, bringing the floor closer to your hands and giving them a place they can rest on.
– Place a block, or two, in front of your feet and rest the balms of your hands on them.  Slightly press into the block(s), and straighten your legs by contracting the quadraceps and grounding down through the calves and feet.
– Choose the block height that you need, progressing to the lower height levels as you gain flexibility, and eventually to no block at all when your hands finally reach the floor on their own.  Stand the block vertically for it’s highest height, horizontally on the slender side for it’s mid height, or lay it flat on the broad side for it’s lowest height.
– Use a block in between your thighs to keep the quadraceps, adductors (inner thighs) and pelvic floor fully engaged throughout the pose.  This is especially helpful for those who are not sure how to isolate these muscles for contraction. You will not be able to keep the block from falling if you are being lazy with your leg muscles.  Once you get the sense of how to activate these muscles, you can perform the pose without the block.

The standing forward bend is great for stretching the muscles of the spine, hips, hamstrings and calves, stimulating the liver and kidney, calming the mind and helping to relieve stress, strengthening the thighs and knees, improving digestion, and providing relief for headaches and mild insomnia.

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