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