Pose of the Week
Ut = Intense
Tan = Stretch
Asana = Pose
This week we will explore Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend. If you are doing this as a wide legged stance, it is called Prasarita Padottanasana. If you are doing it while sitting on the floor it is called Paschimottanasana. The mechanics of all three have commonalities.
This is a pose that you will find is part of every sun salutation. It follows Tadasana in the sequence, before moving into Palakasana (Plank), Anjaneyasana (Lunge), or Ahdo Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
There are some terrific benefits of this pose. As with all poses where the head is below the heart, it can be very freeing to the upper spine, releasing tension from the head, neck and shoulders. Do you have any idea how much pressure the cranium places upon the spine when we are upright? From spine surgeon, Michael Gleiber, MD: “On average, the human head weighs about 12 pounds. However, when the neck is bent forward, the weight on the cervical spine can be as much as 60 pounds, depending on the degree at which the neck is tilted.” Some activities that aggravate the upper spine: hours on a computer leaning into one’s desk or work space, sitting, driving, looking at phones and tablets, carrying items incorrectly, carrying heavy purses or bags on one shoulder. The list of all the ways we abuse our backs is long. Uttanasana and Prasarita Padottanasana are wonderful asanas to counter the effects of our lifestyle on our necks and backs.
When we turn our world upside down, allowing all the blood to rush to our face, we immediately feel calm. Why is this? It soothes the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the fight or flight response, lowering anxiety, lowering your blood pressure, and helping you get a better night of sleep. Bringing blood to the brain in this way brings fresh oxygen. It helps clear your mind and allows you to think of things differently. Want to solve a problem? Perhaps a change in perspective is just what you need.
Then there is the whole aspect of spinal extension from the base of the spine all they way to the crown of the head. As we age the discs of our spine dehydrate and lose their moisture. This translates to loss of space between the vertebrae, creating pressure on the nerves of the spine. This can lead to loss of height and flexibility, chronic pain, and weakness. The more space you can create, the healthier the spine. You’ll also postpone the inevitable shrinkage of age.
How about reducing lower back pain? Many aspects of our lifestyle result in the shortening or stiffening of several muscle groups that translates to pain in the lower back: mainly the the hip flexors, hamstrings, the gluteus muscles, and the piriformis. A proper uttanasana can help to loosen up the posterior muscles, mostly the hamstrings.
This pose stimulates the hypothalamus, which encourages the homeostasis and balancing of the hormones. It stimulates the digestive system, which is important for moving food through the body, absorbing the nutrients from our food, and eliminating effectively. It stimulates the kidneys and liver, ensuring that waste and toxic chemicals are moving out of the body and not entering the blood stream.
There are some contraindications. If you have lower back issues, you must enter this with pose with care. If you have blood pressure issues, it can aggravate them. If you are pregnant, this pose can make you feel unbalanced. For all of these circumstances, there are modifications and props you can use.
Let’s go through Uttanasana together:
1. start in Tadasana. I often will cue students to stand very tall and on the inhale raise their hands overhead.
- Start the forward fold, exhaling, bringing your hands out to the side, or bringing them down to prayer pose at the heart center.
- Hinge at the hips and move your weight to the front of your feet and out of your heels as you start to fold, continuing to lead with your heart center. To be able to lead with the heart, you will draw your shoulders down your back, moving your shoulder blades close to the spine (imagine holding a pencil between your shoulder blades).
- Imagine your sits bones are moving toward the sky (the reason for shifting your weight to front of your feet).
- If you have tight hamstrings and/or are feeling tension in your lower back there are two cues to correct this (because you DON’T want to feel this in your lower back): 1) actively pull your shoulders back so that you are not rolling them forward and 2) bend your legs.
- Go as far as feels good to you. If you find you cannot fully fold into this pose, remember that this is not the goal. The goal of this pose is to feel a satisfying stretch along your hamstrings and create a feeling of length in your spine. You should not feel pain. It is TOTALLY okay to lay your torso on top of your thighs with bent legs.
- Be careful not to round your back as you fold. This can place pressure on the facet joints (the joints connecting each of your vertebrae), weakening them, causing inflammation, and leading to potentially more serious problems.
- In its most extended (and one might argue, perfect) presentation, the back will be long and flat pressed against long and flat legs. Imagine this form in your mind as you move into it to remind you to engage the proper muscles to keep your spine in a neutral position as you move your sits bones up to the sky, truly hinging from the hips.
- Draw your belly button into the spine to engage your core muscles to create the forward bend rather than use your hands to pull you into it. In doing this, you may not appear to be folding as deeply, but you will be folding safely.
- Your hands are the last to go to the floor. If they cannot reach the floor, that’s okay. Use props such as blocks or a chair. I always advise to never sacrifice the alignment of a pose in order to reach the floor.
To modify this pose you can bend your legs slightly or even deeply, you can place your hands on a chair, and you can use blocks. If you have blood pressure concerns, rather than fold deeply, aim for a letter “L” shape and draw the crown of your head forward, creating length in the spine, as you lengthen your hamstrings. Props and modifications are smart, the ultimate expression of self-respect and self-care, evidence that you know your body and are willing to honor what your body needs in that moment.
Enjoy this wonderful pose and Namaste.