Uttanasana

The Magic of Standing Forward Bend

I think most of us experienced a friend of ours asking to perform an asana when they first hearing that we are practicing yoga. At most circumstances, I would quietly fold myself forward to a standing forward bend (in Sanskrit, uttanasana) and surprisingly, this always does the trick and they started to acclaim.

For most people, the long hours of sitting in office or studies have slowly constraints the flexibility of their spine and hip joints, to bend forward and able to touch the toes appears to be an impossible task.

The spine, also known as vertebrae column is a part of the axial skeleton in the human body to maintain the upright posture and to protect the spinal cord, a long, thin, tubular structure made up of nervous tissue. From top, the cervical vertebrae is connecting the skull to the torso, the thoracic vertebrae is the upper and middle back of the torso, the lumbar vertebrae is the lower back, the sacrum is at the hip, and lastly the coccyx is commonly known as the tailbone.

In between the vertebrae, there are intervertebral disc, or disc in short. These are the spongy cushions that separate the bones of the spine and provide shock absorption, keep the spine stable and give the vertebrae ‘gliding points’ to allow movement. Disc changes happen across our lifetime as connective tissues change with age, and the structures of the spine adapt to cope with the physical loads of daily life. These changes happened even in healthy people with no back pain and they are common age-related changes. The changes include disc bulge, narrowing of the disc space (loss of disc height) and disc dehydration. Overtime, the disc would develop from spongy cushion to a harden cushion if the persons are rarely moving their spine. To prevent the disc become harden, regularly exercising and stretching the spine is the key.

Back to the yoga asana, standing forward bend, a pose where we align the long axis of the femur and tibia bones with the direction of the gravity and allow the spine to elongate in a comfortable or effortless position. This asana help us in releasing the pressure on the disc that it sustains from long hours of sitting during the daily activities. It also helps to activate the movement of the spine. An active spine benefits the spinal cord and in result keeping the brain cells active.

     How to get in and out of the pose?
  1. Stand in tadasana, a normal and relax standing position. Feet together or slightly apart.
  2. On inhalation, tilt the pelvis and arch the lumbar. Grab hold on the side of the lower waist to feel the anterior tilt of the pelvis.
  3. Keeping the anterior pelvis tilt and on exhalation, slowly bend the torso forward, belly touching the thigh.
  4. Place the hands on the outer side of the feet, or holding on the back of the calves.
  5. Continue normal breathing in this intense stretch pose. Lengthen the spine in every inhalation and try to bring the chin closer to the knee in every exhalation.
  6. To get out of the pose, place the hands back to the side of the pelvis bone, inhale and slowly raise the head up and bring the torso back to the upright position.
  7. Relax the hands to side of the body and take a few breaths in the standing position to feel the benefit of the stretch.

What are the muscles that we are stretching on while in this position? Mainly we will feel like the pose is stretching on the hamstrings and the external rotators of the hips because these muscles are the factors that normally limit a person from going deeper into the forward bend if he or she has a tight hamstrings or hip rotators. Even so, we shall always try to shift our attention to stretch on the back muscles, such as erector spinae, latissimus dorsi and trapezius because the main aim of the pose is to elongate the spine. A healthy erector spinae muscle will help in preventing the spine from rounding when lifting heavy weights. The latissimus dorsi stabilise the lumbar spine and the trapezius will greatly influence the smoothness of the neck movement because it is an important shoulder mover and stabiliser.

For contraindication, a person who is having slipped disc shall avoid from doing this pose because the herniated disc may pressurise the nerve when bending forward and cause pain.