Uttānāsana is a standing forward bend that stretches the entire back of the body, from the bottom of the feet to the back of the head. It is a deceptively simple form--bending at the hip with the hands by the feet--but it's simplicity lends it to many adaptations.
Primary Functions of the Pose
Lengthen back of body
Flexion of hips and spine gently elongates the muscles of the entire back as well as the hips and legs. Lifting the arms also lengthens muscles around the chest and shoulders.
Strengthen the upper back
A lesser known benefit of uttānāsana is the incredible upper back strength the posture builds. This makes it a great preparation for lengthy seated practices like chanting, pranayama and meditation.
Compression of the lower abdomen while exhaling has a soothing, lightening effect as it moves the apana region, the area responsible for elimination. This can help digestion, elimination of waste and quality of breath.
Finding the Pose*
1. Begin standing with feet together and hands at your sides.
2. Set jalamdhara bandha,** in which you lengthen the back of the neck by inhaling, then setting the head slightly back and dropping the chin a bit toward the chest.
3. On an inhale, raise arms up from the front, so that arms come up alongside ears with palms facing forward.
4. On an exhale, draw lower abdomen toward spine and fold upper body over legs, maintaining jalamdhara bandha and length in spine.
5. Inhale, lift the arms and the upper back, extending through the spine as you return to standing with arms overhead.
6. Exhale, lower your arms by your sides.
*These instructions are the "classical" version of the posture, and they require a lot of training, flexibility and strength. Almost all students will need some of the modifications below, especially when starting out.
**I'll post more on jalamdhara bandha next week!
Tips and Modifications
Students will often need to modify this posture to compensate for tightness in the lower back by bringing their feet up to hip-width apart and/or bending their knees as they fold forward. On the other hand, very flexible students may need to keep their feet close and concentrate on drawing the belly in on the exhale to help lengthen the lower back. Teachers should look for movement happening in the lower back (the lower back arch should round out), and little to no rounding in the upper back.
Especially in the beginning, most students will need to bring arms quite a bit wider (in a "V" shape) as they inhale to allow more movement in the upper back. There should be a feeling of spaciousness as the arms lift overhead. If students feel strain when lifting the arms overhead, another option is to let the hands slide down the legs toward the knees or ankles as they fold forward. For students with neck strain, I often have them use one arm at a time, or keep arms by their hips, with fingers extending away from the head, to gently build some upper back strength without agitating the trapezius muscles.
Uttānāsana is often taught with the arms sweeping in a wide arc out to the sides on the way up and down. This movement of the arms removes some of the upper back strength and flexibility needed to do the full posture, which is often useful. But it also takes away some of the length in the lower back, and students may not achieve as much benefit from the posture.
One of the tricky but critical parts of this pose is coming back up with the upper back in extension, rather than rounding forward. Rounding in the upper back puts strain on the lower back and hips, and also misses the strength-building piece of the pose which makes it such a good preparation for standing and seated postures. It also restricts breath capacity on the inhale, which for me is the most transformative piece of this posture. When there is space for the inhale to really expand, the entire posture seems to just grow from inside. Body and mind are uplifted, and the pose becomes invigorating and refreshing--it's a perfect preparatory movement for practice. Without the extension in the upper back, it feels like slogging through dull work, with a little back stretch in the middle.
Here's a tutorial to highlight the upper back movement in uttānāsana:
I find that practicing the seated version of uttānāsana makes the posture "easy enough" that I can actually experience it, not just push through it. It gives me opportunity to feel the lengthening in the lower back on the way down, and the strengthening on the way up, and to work at a speed and range of motion that is well within my capacity. Then I can apply what I've learned to the standing pose.
Classically, uttānāsana is practiced with a "sthiti", or a short stay, on the way in to the pose, as well as on the way out, as a way to prepare for and to release the posture. For sthiti into posture: Inhale, allowing inhale to extend spine still further. Exhale, and fold forward as much as you can while keeping upper back long and neck in jalamdhara position. For sthiti on the way out: Inhale, letting breath extend the spine (it will lift your upper body out of the posture a bit). Exhale, bending forward, but not quite the entire way.
Primary Muscle Actions
- Lengthens erector spinae, as well as quadratus lumborum, gluteal muscles, hamstrings and gastrocnemius.
- Strengthens erector spinae, gluteal muscles and posterior neck muscles.
- Depending on choice of arm movement, can lengthen pectoralis muscles, trapezius and latissumus dorsi, and strengthens latissimus dorsi, deltoid and rhomboid muscles.
- Lengthens entire back of body.
- Strengthens postural muscles of upper body.
- Compresses abdomen on exhale--moves apāna region.
- Improves quality of exhale, which creates space for inhale, and helps digestion and elimination.
Especially for students with back injuries or recent back surgery, proceed with caution. Students who come to yoga for flexibility often remark that they want to touch their toes, and may push (or pull) into deeper versions of this pose before their bodies are willing. The movement of this pose originates from the breath, and should be strong, but also steady and contained.
If students are not able to do standing uttānāsana with strain or pain, I teach them a seated version. If the seated version is still too much, we focus on floor poses (like apānāsana) and breathing.
Students with hip or knee injuries also have difficulty with bending forward without pain in this posture, and I usually recommend a seated or lying down forward-bend in that case as well.
I have heard that having the head below the heart is contraindicated for students with glaucoma, but I've also heard that the change in blood pressure to the eyes is insignificant when bending over. If this is a concern for you, I recommend talking to your doctor for professional medical advice.
How to bend forward without stressing the spine (by Olga Kabel at Sequence Wiz)