Uttānāsana is pretty much just bending over. Sound too simple? Don’t worry, it is simple. Essentially, it’s the same action people use when you ask them to touch their toes. Of course, that action yields different results for different people. So the simplicity has a few different layers.
I’m a pretty flexible person, so naturally I am already “good” at yoga? Not exactly. One of the things my yoga teacher pointed out in class is that yoga is usually harder for flexible people. I know that sounds crazy. The flexible people are the ones who most resemble the pictures as they gracefully fold in half and extend their appendages accordingly. Obviously that’s better than the person hunched over, arms hanging in mid-air, looking longingly at their toes, right? I suppose it depends on what your goal is.
In Uttanasana, the final pose involves folding in half so the back of your body is stretched out, particularly the spine. That’s why the Sanskrit name is translated as “deliberate, intense stretch”. No matter how flexible you are the stretch is there and involves the whole length of the spine.
It’s easier for someone less flexible to find that stretch because it’s the point where they stop bending over. Their legs or hips or back stubbornly refuse to stretch any farther. So clearly that’s where that person needs to focus their work in the pose. Stretching and relaxing tight muscles is hard work, especially for people who are just starting to try. It’s pretty straightforward feedback from your body.
However, when flexible you can just bend right over and put your hands on the floor. My hips easily let me reach my feet. That deceives me into thinking I’m successfully in the pose. But when I fold over at the hips, I am just hanging there like a towel over a bar. There’s no intensity. Hardly any stretch past where I’m already flexible. And of course, that’s not at all the point. Getting my hands to touch the floor is not the goal of the pose. If it was, it would have a Sanskrit name that means “touching the floor”.
I recently realized that this entire time my upper back and shoulders have remained tight every time I’m in uttanasana. I was so focused on the bending I forgot the stretching.
I was relying on gravity to do the work for me. And gravity, while powerful, is not going to put much of a dent in the muscles and fibers holding my spine in place. It’s doing it’s job just to to keep me from falling off the Earth. I’ve been missing out on all the benefits that Light On Yoga espouse, like toning the kidneys and removing depression. I have to put more personal effort into my yoga get the real results of this pose.
To work on this, I’ve started practicing utannasana while sitting.(which is shockingly similar to a pose called Paschimottanasana.) When I’m sitting down with the back of my legs on the floor I don’t have to worry about silly details like keeping my balance or hyper-extension of the knees. I bend forward and put all of my attention on my upper back. Then I just wait.
After about 30 second or so, the knotted areas under my shoulder blades start to ease up a little. After about a minute, I can feel the longer muscles that connect my neck to my back growing longer. I begin to realize how tense the small muscles in my upper neck are. With some deliberate, mindful relaxation techniques I am eventually able to feel those muscles relaxing their grip. And that’s just around the spine. By about 2 minutes, the softness has cascaded across the rest of my back and, sometimes, all the way into my shoulders. It’s a delightfully liberating feeling.
After that, I reluctantly sit up straight for a while to make sure I’m back in my legs. Then I can stand with my feet a little bit apart and try to recreate that mix of stretch and relaxation that I just had while sitting down. I put my hands on the floor and push down, feeling through every vertebrae as I use my muscles to re-lengthen my back. At that point, gravity gently pushes down on my head and my neck can finally relax.
It’s a longer process than just imitating the pictures from a book. Totally worth it though.
Instead of trying to do as many poses as I can in 30 minutes, this is what my home practice looks like. I warm up, spend a little while just standing and then I’ll work on one simple pose. It’s not that impressive to someone just watching. But I feel like I’m improving my practice on a new level. That’s energizing all on its own. Toning my kidneys is pretty cool too.