Uttanasana - Standing Forward Bend

This Yoga Pose shows up in a classic conversation about doing Yoga:

- You should do Yoga, it will do you good!
- But I'm so stiff, I can't touch my toes!

Is this familiar to you?

If you look up this pose online, you will see many pictures of someone who is completely flat in this forward bending Yoga pose, which means they are performing a very deep forward bend. Now look at a picture of how I'm doing the pose, I'm not as ¨flat¨ folded. And then look at the picture of a normal beginner man doing Yoga: to him, this is very intense stretch. He can't stretch more or go further. He's even sweating.

There are two reasons why we can't forward bend deeper: tight muscles on the back and tight muscles on the legs. And these two are also why we DO Uttanasana: to stretch the tight muscles on the backside of our body.

To modify the pose for stiff people, the easiest way is to bend the knee to take away some tension on the spine. Don't assume you will get less stretch as you bend your knee because actually you get more. If you lock your knees (make them completely straight), you could be stretching your back more than your legs. The pose has hips flexion and spine flexion, try to do the hip flexion to the maximum your body can do before flexing your spine. Try doing the pose with your knees bend, but titling your sitting bones up to stretch the hamstrings even when your knees are bent.

You can do Uttanasana with your leg straighter, then if you can't bend so much, you don't need to force yourself to bend deeper. You can hold a pair of blocks to add some space and balance in the pose. You can do as I do: walking the blocks behind to guide the body to bend deeper. A very large muscle group on the backside of the legs is the hamstrings. Hamstrings cover the whole backside of your thigh and knee. They are very tight, and Uttanasana with its forward bending feature can help stretching the hamstrings effectively. But not only the hamstrings are stiff, but the CALVES are also very stiff too! We use them every day in walking, running, biking, doing sport or exercising, and especially if you wear high heels, your calves are extremely and chronically tight. This is how I use Yoga blocks to stretch the calves:

In this variation, if you can't touch your hands to the ground, you can grab your fingers to the blocks, or put your hands on your thighs or shin bones.

And one more way I use the wall to forward bend deeply. I'm forcing myself into this pose, and I only do it when I'm already warmed up thoroughly, ready to take a deep stretch.

Starting away from the wall, keep the knees slightly bent so that you can put the backside of your head into the wall. Just keep your knees micro bent, don't lock them, actually if you are stiff, you can't do that anyway. You can start moving gently like bend each knee at one time alternatively, and when your body gets used to it. come closer into the wall, slide your head down deeper toward the floor, or maybe even straighten your knees more.

Personally, I love this very deep stretch. With the help of the wall, I can feel the stretches that I can't feel when I do Uttanasana without the wall. When I do this forward bend against the wall, very much pressure on the belly but I still try to keep deep breath to gain more space in the backside and on both sides of my torso.

Urdhva Hastasana: Standing with Arms over Head

This very simple pose - Mountain Pose or Tadasana is with standing up straight with all joints in the neutral position. I think most anyone who can make it to a Yoga class can do this pose Tadasana. If for some reason, someone can't do the pose, they probably won't join a Yoga class. However, when you stand here in Tadasana and bring your arms up to over your head to make Urdhva Hastasana, there are a few problems.

In the past, we humans had a variety of activities or tasks that require bringing the arms over the head such as climbing, picking fruits, hanging clothes, etc. However nowadays in modern time, we have less and less of such movements. Instead, we sit most of the time in front of something: a desk, a computer, a phone, steering wheel, etc. We are so limited in our everyday movement that there are people who can't raise their arms over their head due to tightness and tension accumulated around their side torso, arms, shoulders, neck and back.

The pose - Urdhva Hastasana, looks very simple and easy. But neck-shoulder problems are now surprisingly popular among us. Some people don't have neck-shoulder problem by sitting and slouching too much over the desk, they are just stiff. For example men with thick muscles or work hard with their shoulders, or sporty men who train hard but without stretching enough and lose their mobility in their shoulders.

When you can't raise your arms so high up to over your head, let's accept it for now and make it easier by either:

  1. Make your arms wider apart into a V shape, probably bending at the elbows as above.

  2. Only raise your arms to your limit, as high as you can still keep your spine neutral (¨straight back¨) and still have space at your neck.

Starting from here and raise your arms higher and straighter bit by bit every day, after a few weeks or months, you will get back your full range of movement and can raise your arms over your head.

Just as Lao Tzu said:

A thousand mile journey starts with one single step

Use Yoga Strap To Open Shoulders

It's very nice to use a Yoga strap to stretch the sides of the torso, shoulders and arms as shown above.

Moreover, you can use the strap to stretch your chest muscles - front shoulders by holding the strap and bring it over and behind you. It is a very simple stretch, but many people struggle with it because the stretch feeling is intense. I use this shoulder-opening pose with the Yoga strap to prepare the body for deep backbend - chest opening such as King Dancer, King Pigeon. I will tell you more about how to do these deep backbends for beginners in the Backbend Chapter.

Adho Mukha Svanasana - Downward Facing Dog

The way I often do Down Dog in Yoga is already modified. I tend to be rounded in my low back (lumbar spine) due to short hamstrings and posteriorly tilted pelvis. If I try to straighten my knees and bring my heels down to the ground, I will be rounded in the low back.

In Down Dog, I look for neutral spine and not rounded, therefore I need to bend my knees and lift my heels up. When I teach this Asana, the biggest benefit of Down Dog is not to stretch hamstrings, but to create traction in the spine.

Our spine is not one long bone, but a lot of vertebrae - smaller bones stacking on each other with jelly discs between them to absorb shock as we move. In every single activity during the day that we do, we tend to be in an upright position and the spine is affected by the gravity of the Earth. The gravity of the Earth compresses the vertebrae down into each other. There's no daily activity that can reverse this process, and even in Yoga, even if you do inversions, your spine is still compressed. But Decompression is something Down Dog can do: with the spine hanging kind of upside-down, hanging from the pelvis and all the vertebrae are free to fall down toward the floor. This reverses the gravity impact.

With that being my main goal in practicing Down Dog, I strengthen my legs so that my hips can ¨hang¨ from them, letting loose of the spine in a neutral position for the spinal traction. I'm interested in making the spine neutral, which is very difficult, and then hamstring stretch comes secondary. It's actually very hard to keep neutral spine in Down Dog. To stretch the hamstrings, there are plenty of other Yoga poses that can do a better job, more simple and effective. But Down Dog is the only Yoga pose that can reverse the gravity impact on the spine.

Sometimes we need to bend the knees and lift the heels very much to keep neutral spine in Down Dog. You can see my post about Ardha Uttanasana, variation with the wall, to see the relevance.

I don't use props for Down Dog in my Yoga class because there are so many Down Dogs that it would take so much time and effort putting the props in and out throughout the whole class. Moreover, the best modification is to bend knees, lift heels. But if you want to try it, put blocks underneath your heels and press the heels down towards the blocks, making your legs stronger and therefore pushing the hips up higher and more backward.

¨But then when will I ever get my legs straight in Down Dog?!?!¨ Be patient, in Yoga Asana practice, we do a lot of Yoga poses and among which, a lot of hamstrings stretching poses such as: Pyramid Pose, Triangle Pose, Uttanasana, Paschimottanasana, Hand to Big Toe, etc. After a period of practicing Yoga Asanas, your hamstrings will gain flexibility and lengthen - it's a result of your persistent practice, and then, you can straighten your legs in Down Dog!

Bhujangasana - Cobra Pose

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana - Upward Facing Dog

Personally I prefer Cobra Pose than Upward Facing Dog, and I rarely teach Up Dog in Yoga classes for beginners (most of my Yoga classes). I think Cobra pose is a very effective backbend Yoga pose. Up Dog is more complex for adding the arm strength and shoulder strength into the backbend. Especially in a Vinyasa Flow, moving the shoulders through Chaturanga, Up Dog, Down Dog can be way too much for Yoga beginners.

A common modification for Cobra Pose is the height of the pose. Above is high Cobra.

High Cobra, low Cobra or medium Cobra or whatever, you can modify your Cobra pose in different ways so that every time you do Cobra you are bending your spine in a new way and therefore gaining flexibility throughout your spine. That's better than doing 100 Cobra poses that hit into one bendy spot on your spine. For Yoga beginners who haven't figured out their range of movements, you can start with a low Cobra Pose. However, that doesn't mean a High Cobra is more advance than a Low Cobra. Many healthy bodies can only backbend to a limited extend.

Wrists problem, or weak wrists and shoulders in general, which shows in shrugged shoulders when you do Cobra Pose. Then you can do Sphinx Pose instead, with your forearms on the ground. Forearms are stronger than hands, so now you are more stable. Notice that even in Sphinx Pose, we are still opening the chest forwards as we press the forearms and hands down to the ground to find more space in the chest and extension in the upper spine.

One modification is to hold the pose with your fingertips. This pose is also called Seal Pose. This pose gets rid of the force on your wrists, and make your back and shoulders work harder to hold the pose. When you straighten your arms in this fingertips variation, the backbend becomes deeper and you stretch more in your front body.

To many Yoga beginners, pressing the hip bones down to the hard ground is painful. We can fold a blanket and support underneath the pelvis. Probably a bolster under the rib cage to lift the pose up, bend yourself a bit more and still being soft and safe, no suffering. The arms are working less, and you can even lift your hands from the ground to only use your back strength for the backbend.

Upward Facing Dog is very strong, you need your whole body strength here to lift up. However, not everyone has this much strength, and in many cases, even when they can lift their body up, they can't control the engagement of the legs and belly, which make it too much bend in the low back, or shoulders lifting up to the ears.

When I teach Upward Facing Dog, I would put my toes down to the ground (the first image). Then, the leg muscles are stronger to hold the pose better. Moreover, I can move directly to Plank and Down Dog without relocating my feet.

Or we can come back to the soft bolster under the hips to help to lift us up into Up Dog. Instead of sinking down to the bolster, try lifting yourself away from it (even though it is still supporting you) to create more strength in legs and hips.


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