"Bend over and touch your toes." A simple instruction right? This is the misleading litmus test for laypersons to measure their readiness for yoga. I can't count the number of times I have heard someone tell me that they can't do yoga because they can't touch their toes or they try to demonstrate how they can't touch their toes while they bend from the waist and mimic a T-Rex trying to tie its shoes. Sigh. If we can let go of how yoga looks, we can get to the "how it feels" part of the program. We can get to where we can put the pleasant Ahhhh into UttanAHHHHsana. We can follow the feel good.
Uttanasana is the counter to the feel good of reaching into the universe of Urdhva Hastasana. It can feel like a swan dive into the unknown of the backs of the legs - hamstrings. It can feel like a swing back into our present state of 'self' after a glimpse way upward into the heights of potential. It can feel like a wrench thrown into the machine of movement. Youch! If we remember that every pose, every movement and every breath is in pursuit of the 'feel good,' Uttanasana is no exception and doesn't have to derail your practice or keep you on the bench.
Mechanically, when you bend, you stretch your legs, which in turn stretches your back from the low body. The gift with purchase in this pose is that the weight of your head coming forward also helps to traction your upper back and neck.
So let's look first at the roots of this pose - tadasana. To find the tadasana of this pose, you must be rooted equally in all four corners of the feet. Sounds simple, but most of us shift weight onto the heels when the upper body folds forward. That taxes the hamstrings and bypasses the stabilization of the core and glutes. It gets us closer to the "look" of Uttanasana, but is that the most beneficial way to be in this pose? Maybe not. If we think about the template and balance the weight of the body in all four corners of the feet, we build stability and isolate the hamstrings. So find equanimity in the feet and if you can think about grounding your big toes, you will get out of your heels and headed back into balance.
A controversial point in the mechanics of Uttanasana is whether or not to bend the knees. Personally, I think it depends on the condition your condition is in and what you want from your practice. Yes, you need to know what you want from your practice so you can make the best decisions in EVERY pose. Yoga is blessed with the "maybe buffet." This buffet is the constant offering and availability of tweeks and modifications to help you practice with compassion and wisdom. Maybe bend the knees if your legs are tight and you want to relieve tension in the low back. If you bend your knees and let your belly meet your thighs, you can release some tension from the low back through the forward weight of the head. Maybe lengthen your legs to explore stretching the legs to, in turn, stretch the low back. David Williams advises that you will never improve your hamstring flexibility if you bend your knees in Uttanasana. I agree. But, you must create the causes and conditions for ideal/safe stretching and if your low back is tender or tight, you need to make choices that will foster the conditions for getting there. The knee bend can be as subtle as a micro bend to avoid 'locking' the knees and as deliberate as a folding chair like position. The range of possibility is yours to choose from. Go back to your intent. If you are intent on getting a certain look in this pose, good luck to you. You may tear muscles in the process and make your body hate Uttanasana and take you further back than forward. If you are intent of following the feel good you will play with the length and space behind the knees until you get to the right place.
There are many Uttanasanas in an Ashtanga practice and you will realize progress if you make the right choices. Consistency and frequency matter. David also advises that if you practice stretching compassionately, consistently and frequently for two years and you have ceased to get any further, you have reached the limits of your architecture. Our muscles are only so long and can only stretch so far. Two years may be arbitrary and doesn't take into consideration injuries and other conditions... What is intrinsically means is that not everyone was meant to be in Circ De Soleil. But that's ok because yoga doesn't care if you're stretchy or stiff. Yoga welcomes everyone equally. Stretchy folks have their own dilemmas. Stretchy doesn't = enlightenment. Tightness doesn't exclude you from enlightenment.
Bending Forward means hinging at the hips and not rounding from the waist. If you bend from the waist, of course you won't be able to touch your toes! Not only will it put you further away from progressing in the pose, it will likely put undue pressure in the discs of your spine. Word of Caution: if you are a westerner and have been sitting most of your life (desk job, drive everywhere, watch TV, sit on upholstered furniture always…) you have likely developed or could be developing degenerative discs in your low back and neck. The load on the spine rounding forward puts a lot of pressure at the "bend" of the spine. Hinging forward at the hips facilitates maintaining space and integrity in the spine. It also recruits the gluts and core abdominal muscles to build strength and stability. AND it keep you in the integrity of the template of all yoga poses - Tadasana - so you can find Samasthitih. Bend forward at the hips keeping balance in the feet. Pro tip: When your torso is parallel to the floor, see if you can lengthen the spine a smidge more before you release your upper body weight into gravity.
Stabilizing in this forward fold is key to finding the feel good. As David Williams says, "tighten your butt and soften your shoulders." That stabilizes the pelvis and allows the weight of your upper body to relax and let you ease down to where you can be a feel good.
Where do you put your hands? Let them be where they are. If you are easily able to touch your finger tips to the ground, line them up with the toes - maybe or start them in that direction. If you aren't on the ground - place your hands on your shins or blocks. If you are there at the ground with your hands, you may place your palms on the ground with your fingers and toes lined up. It's all dependent upon what is available without hustle and force - feeling good doesn't come from that and puts you into adrenaline and not the feel good chemical of endorphins.
In Ashtanga, Uttanasana is an exhale. In your personal practice, you may choose to hang out there. Maybe even take your opposite elbow into each palm and let the weight of your upper body influence the stretch. Just remember to keep breathing deeply. It will guide you to the tension so you can monitor it with compassion AND it will massage you on the inside.
While you are in there, look for the ahhhhh of Uttanasana.
Next time a little info on Ardha Uttanasana - half way there.