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.
Sanskrit: Uttanasana (OOT-tan-AHS-ah-nah)
ut = intense tan = to stretch or extend
Pose type: Forward bend
Targets: Full body
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.
Watch this video tutorial on how to move into Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)—a calming posture that lengthens the hamstrings and activates the inner legs.
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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
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
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
For a more relaxed version of the pose, bring your forearms and head to rest on the seat of a chair.
Standing Forward Bend can be a warmup or a restorative pose to neutralize your hips and stretch your back and hamstrings throughout your practice.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Ardha Uttanasana (Standing Half Forward Bend)
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big Toe Pose)
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
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.(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.(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.
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.