Picking up where gym class left off, or where it left you hanging rather, and yes pun intended, the standing forward bend uttanasana (meaning intense or deliberate stretch) is how a toe touch/hamstring stretch should be. Operating from the hips, and keeping a level spinal, this inverted pose matches top and bottom energies, stretches every aspect of your posterior, decompresses the vertebrae, possibly improves brain function, and is a tension-relieving powerhouse.
In this guide, we want to go over the right way to do a forward fold so that you can progress naturally, and learn how to use props to increase your flexibility.
Muscles Involved During Forward Bend Uttanasana
You have many muscles that take part in a in a hip hinge movement like the forward bend and its variations. Here are brief descriptions of the groups.
Hamstrings – Forward bend variations ask a lot of the hamstrings muscles. Strategically located on the back of the thigh, where they flex the knee, and extend the hip, this three-headed muscle needs ample elasticity to fold you to the degree of uttanasana.
Hips – What could you do without functional hips? A whole lot of nothing! Crucial for all total body movements, supporting weight loads, and allowing us to hinge forward, these muscles consist of the glutes, flexors, extensors, and rotators.
Forward bends should be a hip hinge focused exercise, not a spine rounding movement.
Erector spinae – As you cannot without pliable hamstrings, neither can you hinge far enough forward if your trunk, and lower back muscles are stiff. The spinal muscles border the vertebrae and are what allow us bending actions like both parts of the forward bend.
Abdominals – An effective forward bend also involves good core control during the lowering and lifting phases of fold over techniques.
How To Do Forward Bend Uttanasana
Commonly taught to practicing beginners, the forward bend is a process that is individual, yet involves the same rules of movement patterns, like moving from the hips. Below is a breakdown of the individual steps involved in performing a forward bend uttanasana.
- Begin in a basic standing or mountain pose with the feet hip width apart. You may use the yoga block and “pouring” technique demonstrated in the video example below.
- Place your hands on your waist, then begin to tip your upper body forward while maintaining a straight back.
- Hinge all the way forward, drawing the inner thighs back, and outstretch your arms toward the floor. From here, you can place your hands down on the floor, but only if you can maintain a neutral spine. If your back rounds, you can bend your knees to keep your torso straight, or stand a block on the floor and place your hands on top to shorten the range of motion.
- Allow your head to relax down toward the floor.
- Stay there for several deep breaths.
- Notice how your hamstrings feel and be mindful to keep them more tensed or relaxed based on their flexibility.
- Inhale, lift up into a neutral back by moving onto the fingertips, or bringing the hands to the shins.
- Press down through the feet, raise the arms up, then exhale and relax your arms down by your sides. You’ve got it!
- If you can’t complete the full pose, come halfway down, and focus on keeping your back straight. Give your hamstrings time to open up over time.
- Utilize a yoga block to increase your range of motion, and use your legs to anchor yourself in a static stretch.
- The “tipping the bowl” technique is a very helpful method to help master your hip hinge.
Benefits of Forward Bend Uttanasana
You wouldn’t think folding in half wouldn’t have any more benefits than making yourself more compact. But oh, there are plenty of worthwhile advantages of this yoga pose.
Among the muscle groups in the lower body, athletes, and highly active people especially, should be stretching their posterior thigh muscles. Highly prone to injuries, the hammies have a distinctive role in explosive, or heavy hitting activities, like sprints, jumping, and big weight lifts. These muscles decelerate, and undergo lots of
According to an article published to National Library of Medicine, hamstring injuries account for 37% of muscle traumas in professional sports injuries (1).
Stretching can maintain healthy muscle length, support, adequate joint range of movement, and help create proper muscle contractions.
When you bend over, blood rushes to the head, and this can oftentimes cause a tingly sensation in combination with the neck being stretched. It’s a great feeling and a good way to loosen your tight upper body muscles. We tend to use these muscles a lot when we’re slouched over on our laptops, texting, or changing between bad sleeping positions.
Perfect the hip hinge
Learning how to hinge at the hips is paramount as it is a foundational, non negotiable technique for exercises in yoga, weight training, and sports. It protects the back and teaches safe spine positioning as to prevent injuries, but also for optimal force transfer, as the core muscles create a rigid torso.
Reduce mental stress and anxiety
Ideally, you perform your yoga routine in a safe, comfortable, and relaxing environment. Using this time to focus on strengthening your mind and body, and releasing built up tension will go very far in reducing mental stress and anxiety.
Proper breathing, and focus are two key habits everyone needs as it teaches you how to maintain self control and awareness. You’re understanding and feeling everything going on.
Common Mistakes During Forward Bend Uttanasana
It’s important that you understand the desired outcome of a pose in order to apply the proper techniques. For uttanasana, the hips, spine, and legs need to be moving in a way that will ensure optimal posture.
Rounding or flexing the spine
While it’s true the lower back and spinal muscles must engage in a forward bend, it’s not where the focus or movement should be. Instead, initiate and continue the forward fold by using the muscles of the hips. Keep the back straight, and if you notice rounding, bend the knees, , use a block, or avoid going any further.
Being too forceful with your stretching
Chances are if you’re serious about practicing yoga poses, you’re somewhat educated on safe stretching technique. But… we can never be too certain. Sometimes when you’re new to trying an exercise, you make mistakes without realizing it.
The forward fold isn’t a simple toe touch but a stance that requires a patient person. Feeling a little discomfort is normal, but you need to know the difference between acceptable and excessive. For example, if your lower back is feeling tight, you don’t want to force a lot more movement right away as it’s a delicate area.
Variations of Forward Bend Uttanasana
Now you’ll get to learn some of the forward bend variations that you can use to build up to a full forward fold, or advanced to a more challenging version.
If uttanasana seems to out of reach (pun definitely intended) for you, then the natural progression is a half forward bend, or ardha uttanasana. The goal is to come just halfway down, and get the hands to the floor far away from the feet even.
Here’s a quick tutorial with some great tips for this half fold variation.
Hands to feet pose pada hastasana
A higher level pose than uttanasana, in pada hastasana, the feet sit on the palms and the fingertips contact the wrists. You’ll probably look like a chimp in hands to feet, and you’ll need the flexibility of one too!
- Start from standing with your feet a few inches apart from each other.
- Inhale, raise both arms overhead.
- Exhale, then slowly fold your upper body over until your head is upside down.
- When you can, slide your palms under your feet so that your toes are touching your wrists. Flex the front thigh muscles, or the quadriceps.
- If your flexibility allows, bend your body further toward your legs, bringing your head in between the legs, and focus your gaze between your lower legs.
- Stay here and focus on 5-8 deep breaths.
- Now slowly raise your head up, leaning your weight forward, and place your hands on the floor.
- Inhale, and come back to the original standing position while keeping the arms raised overhead.
- Exhale, then bring the arms down.
Pro tip: Bend the knees if you struggle to keep the legs fully straight.
Wide legged forward bend
In the wide legged forward bend you want to give yourself ideal distance to tip the crown of your head on the floor. Although, if you can’t it’s okay too. This pose challenges the inner thigh muscles that adduct the legs, and it isometrically strengthens the hips and pelvis.
- From standing, spread your feet wide, roughly 4-5 feet apart from each other. Find a balance between wide stance, and maintaining stability.
- Face your toes forward or slightly inward to activate the inner thighs and glutes, keep your legs straight and engaged, and shift your weight to your outer feet. Place your hands on your hips.
- Now fold forward at the hips, and lower your torso until your upper body is roughly parallel to the floor. Make sure to keep your back straight. Then, slowly stand up straight.
- Repeat step 4, but now stretch your arms down to the floor and touch it with your fingertips.
- Walk your hands back until your fingers and toes are in line, and press your palms flat on the floor.
- Lift your head up and gently stretch toward the sky.
- Then drop your head and body down toward the floor, while bending your elbows. Try to relax your upper body.
- Gently rest the crown of your head on the floor. Hold this position for a few seconds, trying not to exceed 10 seconds at first.
- Now come up onto your fingers, walk your hands forward, and bring your hands on your hips, one at time, then slowly stand up in the starting position.
Spread leg forward fold
Performed on your backside, the spread leg forward fold is another wide legged stance posture. It presses the posterior legs and heels into the floor, creating a stable environment to focus on an intense hip hinge. If you can, remove the hands from the equation, and try to touch your chin on the ground for a crazy good torso stretch.
- Sit on your mat, with your knees bent, feet on the floor, and arms resting on your legs.
- Now straighten your legs out in front of you, then spread them wide.
- Use your hands to gently adjust your glutes by pulling them out to ensure you’re able to maintain an upright posture and lengthened torso without restriction.
- Flex your feet by pulling the toes back toward your ankle, and press the heels into the ground.
- Then place your fingertips behind your butt on the floor, and pull the shoulder blades slightly toward each other, and down. Lift your chest up.
- Hold this position and feel the stretch throughout your body.
- If you’d like a more intense stretch, place your hands in front of you on the floor, then slowly walk your hands forward as much as you comfortably can.
- Now allow your upper body to sink down toward the floor to further the stretch. Remember to maintain a lengthened back, not simply hunching over.
- From here, if you do not have the flexibility to descend further, you can use a yoga bolster and/or stacked blankets for support.
- Gently lie your head down, facing either side, and rest your elbows on the floor with your palms facing up.
- Let your entire body relax and sink into the cushions, allowing your arms to also become heavy.
- Bring awareness to your groin, feeling the wide position of your legs, while allowing your lower body to sink down into the floor.
- Slowly breathe in and out.
- Stay here for about 5 minutes.
- To come out of the pose, turn your hands over onto your palms, then slowly sit up, walking your hands back toward you for support.
- Before you finish the pose, and if you’re comfortable, from the sitting position, place the bolster/blankets on one leg, and lie your head down to that one side for 3-5 minutes. Repeat on the other side.
The standing forward bend uttanasana is a no frills pose, but one that sets a foundation for many postures. It’s a basic necessity, as you should be able to demonstrate hip hinge proficiency, core control, full body awareness, self control, and adequate flexibility. But you’ll want to take your time as you descend into intense forward fold variations, and use progression techniques such as a yoga block prop, your arms and legs, and even straps.