Last week I posted a photo of a lady in uttanasana. She seemed a bit too hunched and rounded for my liking. That prompted me to write the yoga quiz, to see whether it was to your liking or not as well, and to see if you could think of some ways to improve your own forward bending. And that then prompted me to make a little movie about keeping your spine long in uttanasana--standing forward bend.
Before I start, I just want to put it out there that my tips for uttanasana (or for any poses for that matter) are not the only ways to practice the pose (I also have more tips as well but limited myself for the sake of making a short movie clip that does not gobble up all of the memory in my computer!). What I encourage you to do is try and, in practicing, ask yourself whether your spine feels relaxed, happy, and free. If the answer is no then we need to try something else!
Watch the movie and then read some more of my tips below. In the interests of transparency I have to also add that I was partially motivated to make this film clip this week so that I could show my sister in Australia my new haircut and glasses since my skype camera is broken (Hi Shell!). This is why I turn to the camera at least twice and wave.
Below is last week's photo. I like the peaceful look this lady has on her face. She does look like she is enjoying her pose and that's great. It's my feeling that she is trying to reach her toes when perhaps she is not quite ready though. Why do I say this? Because you can see that her entire spine has become rounded. In particular, see how her spine rounds up from her pelvis to form a peak at her lower back and then rounds down again as it arcs towards the floor? This type of forward bending puts your lower back at great risk, especially if you have any lower back problems.
Hmmm, I have a hunch that something is not quite right here...
What you want to try and avoid in uttanasana is this upward peak that forms around your lower back, or what I call "the hunch". The hunch is very sneaky and likes to creep up on people in forward bends. Hunch awareness is an important thing to cultivate in your yoga practice.
So why is this hunch appearing on this lady's back? Why might it appear on your own back?
The hunch does not appear by magic, landing on your unsuspecting spine. In forward bends such as uttanasana it generally appears when our hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thighs) are not long enough (they are too tight), which means our pelvis cannot tilt forward properly. When your pelvis does not tilt sufficiently any forward bending movement then comes from rounding the spine. This is usually accompanied by some hunching of the shoulders as the arms stretch out to reach the feet or the floor, which you can also see in the photo above.
The hamstrings are really important in forward bending poses such as uttanasana. Let's take a closer look at how they can limit forward bending.
Hamstrings and Pelvis
Your hamstrings are muscles that start on your sitting bones (part of the pelvis). They go down the back of your legs and across the back of your knees where they attach to the bones of your lower leg. The fact that the hamstring muscles are attached to your pelvis and cross your knee joints is an important thing to consider in cultivating hunch awareness and minimising its impact. A picture might help here. Below are some images of your hamstring muscles. You can see how they start at your pelvis and go across the back of your knees.
The picture on the left shows the 'normal' tilt of the pelvis, which is just slightly forward. The picture on the right shows what happens as the top of the pelvis starts to tip forward. This lifts the sitting bones higher into the air. As the sitting bones lift, the hamstring muscles start to get stretched as one end of the muscle (attached to the sitting bones) is getting pulled away from the other end (attached below the knee).
Some people have hamstrings so tight that they cannot tilt their pelvis forward in any forward bends. Some people even have hamstrings to tight that the their sitting bones are actually pulled down in normal day to day life so that their pelvis tilts backwards (as though you are a dog with its tail tucked between its legs). When your pelvis starts to tilt backwards you lose the natural curve in your lower back (lumbar curve) and the hunch starts to form.
You can probably tell by now that being able to move your pelvis freely is key to safe forward bending. In fact, safe forward bending movements should be initiated from the forward tilt of the pelvis. Being able to tilt the pelvis forward will enable your spine to feel free and agile. You can see this clearly see in the film clip I made. At the end of the clip I demonstrate exactly what happens to your spine and lower back when you tilt your pelvis the wrong way in a forward bend and I encourage you to watch this part a few times and feel it in your own body. A good tip would be to imagine the Bat Signal (you know, that light that shone into the night skies of Gotham City to alert Batman that some dastardly plot was unfolding) was shining from your backside as you practice uttanasana. Now, if you really wanted to alert Batman to the perilous ground situation you would need to shine that light as high into the sky as possible. If you sense your light is shining only slightly above the horizon or even down into the ground then you are most likely to be in danger of hunching your spine in your forward bends.
Now this is all well and good if your hamstrings are long. You will indeed be able to shine the Bat Signal high,your pelvis will move freely and your spine will be long. But many people find themselves in the situation that their hamstrings are stretched to maximum capacity, their pelvis is stuck, and their Bat Signal is still nowhere in the night sky to be seen. Fortunately there are some strategies you can adopt to ensure your uttanasana is safe.
Bend Your Knees
First, you could bend your knees. This is a smart option, especially for anyone with lower back issues, and works because once you bend your knees, the distance between the two points where your hamstrings attach (your sitting bones and below your knees) is shortened again and tension is relieved. You will be able to keep bending forward but your knees will be bent and you will be in more of a squatting position. See the image below.
Forward Bend With Bent Knees
Practicing the pose in this way will allow your spine to relax downward, allowing gravity to lengthen it, without the hunch appearing. You might have to bend your knees more, or less, depending on whether the hunch starts to appear or not. Because you cannot see yourself you have to use body awareness to detect if the hunch is creeping up and one way to do this is to feel if your lower ribs start to move away from your thigh bones. If that happens, you can be pretty certain that your lower back is rounding.
To practice uttanasana in this way start in a low squat, connecting your lower ribs to your thighs (as though somebody has tied your body to your legs). Hug the back of your calves or thighs and from there start to slowly press the heels down and tilt the sitting bones higher into the sky, allowing the legs to slowly straighten. Keep straightening your legs until your lower ribs start to move away from your thighs and then hold in place. You can try to deepen your hamstring stretch by actively trying to tilt your sitting bones higher and higher into the sky from this position.
One problem in doing the pose in this way is that if your hamstrings are really tight you will find you have to bend your knees so much that you are practically squatting on the ground. This is really tough on your thigh muscles and they will get tired so you cannot hold the position for very long. Another option, then, would be to use a prop such as a table or chair or block.
Use A Prop
Your next option might be to keep straight legs (or slightly bent knees) and use a prop to rest your arms on, which supports your spine. See the image below where I have used a block.
Doing the pose in this way will probably be a more satisfying hamstring stretch since your legs are straight. Remember that you want to try and tilt your sitting bones into the sky to shine that Bat Signal as high as you can. If you don't have a block you could use a chair or even a table. The main point is that my spine does not start to dome up around my lower back area and that my pelvis is the highest point.
Safer forward bending in uttanasana means cultivating hunch awareness and making sure you do not dome up around your lower back.
Be mindful of the position of your pelvis. If it starts to tilt backwards (as though you are a dog tucking its tail between its legs) you are entering into hunchville.
In uttanasana you need to shine the Bat Signal high into the sky--tilt your sitting bones up!
Don't be afraid to bend your knees. This will ensure your pelvis is the highest point and your spine can dangle down freely from there.
Don't be afraid to use a prop like a block or a chair or a table. This will enable you to keep your legs straight but also to keep your spine long without it starting to hunch.
Although I did not mention this above (so it should not really be a summary point) the ego or our desire to touch the floor is at the heart of a lot of unsafe forward bending in uttanasana. You do not need to reach the floor in forward bends. You need to lenghten your hamstrings and free up your spine. If your hands reach the floor then fine, so be it. If your hands do not reach the floor it does not matter. Don't leave them just dangling in mid-air though. Instead, place them on the back of your thighs or the back of your calves and start to gently draw your shoulder blades down the back of your torso so that your neck remains free (remembering it is also part of your spine).
Finally, I really encourage anyone with back issues to seek advice from an experienced therapist or teacher as they start to practice uttasnasana. If practiced incorrectly it can create pain, however, when practiced mindfully and with proper alignment, you will be able to find a variation to suit you (also watch for my upcoming post on Super Stretches for People with Low Back Pain!).