Standing Forward Fold — Uttanasana (ooh-tuhn-AHS-uh-nuh) — calms the mind while stretching and rejuvenating the whole body. This pose is an essential element of Sun Salutations and helps to prepare the body for deeper forward bends.
It is commonly referred to as "Standing Forward Fold" or "Forward Bend." However, the literal translation of its Sanskrit name is "intense stretch pose." This comes from three Sanskrit words:
- "Ut" — meaning "intense"
- "Tan" — meaning "to stretch"
- "Asana" — meaning "pose"
When practiced correctly, this pose is an intense stretch, particularly for the hamstrings and back. However, it should also be relaxing and comfortable — be careful not to push too hard, seeking an "intense" experience! The more you relax in this pose, the deeper your stretch will be.
Benefits of Standing Forward Fold
Uttanasana combines the benefits of forward folds and inversions. Dropping your head below your heart calms your brain. This helps to relieve stress, headaches, anxiety, fatigue, mild depression, and insomnia. Uttanasana also deeply stretches and lengthens your hamstrings and calves. It opens the hips and can relieve tension in the neck and shoulders.
Enlightenment does not necessarily occur when the head reaches the legs, so there is no need to get it there soon, if ever.
Practicing this pose stimulates the liver and kidneys, while improving digestion. It is also known to be therapeutic for stress, asthma, sinusitis, high blood pressure, infertility, and osteoporosis.
Uttanasana requires patience and practice to be performed at its fullest expression. It can take years or even decades to reach the deepest variation of the pose, and it is very easy to injure yourself if you push your body to attain it too soon. If you do not have the flexibility to do the pose in proper alignment, practice with a block or with your knees bent until you can straighten your legs without over-rounding your back.
Those with back injuries should practice this pose with bent knees, or only perform Half Standing Forward Fold (Ardha Uttanasana). Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
- Begin in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), with your hands on your hips.
- Exhale as you bend forward at the hips, lengthening the front of your torso.
- Bend your elbows and hold on to each elbow with the opposite hand. Let the crown of your head hang down. Press your heels into the floor as you lift your sit bones toward the ceiling. Turn the tops of your thighs slightly inward. Do not lock your knees.
- If you can keep the front of your torso long and your knees straight, place your palms or fingertips on the floor beside your feet. Bring your fingertips in line with your toes and press your palms on the mat. Those with more flexibility can place their palms on the backs of their ankles.
- Engage your quadriceps (the front thigh muscles) and draw them up toward the ceiling. The more you engage your quadriceps, the more your hamstrings (the rear thigh muscles) will release.
- Bring your weight to the balls of your feet. Keep your hips aligned over your ankles.
- Slightly lift and lengthen your torso with each inhalation. Release deeper into the pose with each exhalation. Let your head hang.
- Hold the pose for up to one minute. To release, place your hands on your hips. Draw down through your tailbone and keep your back flat as you inhale and return to Tadasana. Repeat 5-10 times. Those practicing Sun Salutations should move directly from Uttanasana into Half Standing Forward Fold (Ardha Uttanasana).
Modifications & Variations
Uttanasana is a deeply relaxing stretch when practiced correctly. If your hamstrings are tight, that may sound like an unattainable goal! But with patience and practice, your hamstrings will loosen and lengthen. Take it slowly and be careful not to push yourself in this pose. Try these changes to find a variation of the pose that works for you:
- If your hamstrings or low back are tight, bend your knees. Let your belly come to your thighs. Keep the front of your torso long and make sure you are folding at the hips, not at the waist. If your back is rounding, bend your knees even deeper. Rest your fingertips on the mat. Then, work on straightening your legs by pressing the front of your thighs back as you press your heels down.
- If you’re having trouble balancing, stand with your feet hip-distance apart or wider.
- Women who are pregnant should stand with their feet as wide as necessary to feel stable. Only fold forward as deeply as it is comfortable for your stage in pregnancy, and be careful not to compress the belly.
- To deepen the stretch at the back of the legs, elevate the balls of your feet by placing them on your folded mat, towel, or firm blanket.
- To deepen the stretch even further, clasp your elbows behind your knees. Then, reach down and take hold of the outer ankles of each foot with the opposite hand: Right hand to left ankle and left hand to right ankle.
Though it may seem "easy" to drop your body forward like a rag doll, it’s important to make sure the front of your torso stays long in Uttanasana. Otherwise, it can be easy to injure your back and to hyperextend your knee joints — in addition to learning bad habits that can wear you out over time. Keep the following information in mind when practicing this pose:
- Emphasize lengthening the front of your torso, instead of bringing your head and hands all the way down. Bend your knees as much as you need to, or place your hands on a block or chair to keep this length as you fold.
- Aim to bring your belly to your thighs, rather than your head to your knees or your hands to the ground!
- Be sure to fold from the hips, not the waist. To learn this movement, place your hands directly on your front hip bones. Press your hands into your front hip bones and hinge from that spot, keeping your torso long.
- Come up from the pose with a flat back. This helps to strengthen the back muscles.
- Aim for aligning your ankles, knees, and hips. It’s common to lean back, placing too much weight on the heels. Practice the pose with your back against a wall to learn the correct weight distribution.
Fold into Yourself
It can be easy to push your body too much in Uttanasana, interpreting more "intense" sensations as a sign of progress. But, it’s important to learn that the more you relax in the pose, the more naturally your body will open up. Forcing forward folds will only cause your muscles to shorten and resist. Breathe deeply and settle into the moment. As you let resistance fade away, you might discover that the true intensity of this pose lies within.