Uttanasana, or standing forward fold, is an asana that is good for all athletes. The pose is benificial because it releases the muscles of the low back and the hamstrings. Notice I said “releases,” not stretch.
When I started thinking about what poses could benefit us as athletes, Uttanasana was one that I didn’t immediately include in my list. The reason for this wasn’t because it was too simple, or too well known, (all you do is bend over, who couldn’t do that?). What came to mind as I thought about Uttanasana, or standing forward fold, was the risk of an athlete injuring his or herself in this pose far outweighed the benefits to be had from using it. But then I read something on Lucho’s blog in the comments that caused me to rethink things.
Basically, this boiled down to two things. First, Lucho (in the comments of this post) cautioned athletes about stretching, and yoga in particular, citing the potential for injury. (Lucho, after reading my response to his comment shares it on his blog in a subsequent post). And second was Lucho’s saying he could put his palms on the floor without feeling any pull in his hamstrings at all. Personally, I completely agree with both of these positions. But I have a couple of caveats to add. After having practiced yoga for over 5 years, I’ve discovered there is actually no stretching of muscles going on in an “informed” practice whatsoever. Yoga demands the development of coordinated muscle activity. As such, a pose like Uttanasana is as much a core cultivator as it is a hamstring release. And it is that ability to learn to consciously let go of the hamstrings that allows this asana to bestow its benefits on those who chose to explore it more fully.
In life we spend a great deal of time accumulating things for a variety of reasons. Tension and the illusion of control are among these. The standing forward fold, while a good pose for releasing accumulated stress and tension in the body, also provides a framework to allow us to experience the process of releasing our unconscious hold on the hamstrings which in turn usually results in a tight lower back. Instead of “stretching” the hamstrings, what we are learning to do in this position, is to mindfully release them. By releasing the hamstrings consciously, we deepen the fold and our experience of it, but we also gain access to more direct control of the working muscles in our bodies.
This is the process I feel we go through as we progress as people and as athletes. Each workout provides us with more and more insight into the inner workings of our own bodies and how they respond to various training loads, meals/fueling, and rest patterns. In the forward fold there is a point in the body, especially when the folds are new and your limits seem set in stone, where as you reach your limit, you begin to hold on for dear life. You lock certain muscles in place so that you don’t break, lose your depth or fall over. If you don’t take stock of where you are at this point to see exactly what is going on, how you are using the muscles in such a manner as to actually build a very substantial (albeit mental) wall between you and your goal of moving your nose closer to your shins, you will have reached the limit of expression in the forward fold for you. But if you are able to stand at your edge, breathe, observe, and take stock as to where you are holding on, you will in time begin to notice some of the muscles you have been using in your “fight to maintain” your current depth are actually the same muscles holding you back from a deeper expression in the fold. It is when you realize this, you can begin to consciously release these muscles one by one. It is at the very point you decide to let go of these muscles that have been useful in keeping you at your current edge, you discover you can move deeper and express more fully in the pose.
The same can be said of any other aspect of our lives. Once we realize our own perceptions — fears really — are the only thing between us the realization of our dreams, we are then capable of remarkable things. In yoga, the act of folding forward is a physical “bowing in” to and an acknowledgement of the self.
To come into Uttanasana poperly stand with the feet together, hands on the hips. Bend forward at the hips, using them as a hinge, versus bending at the waist which strains the lower back. Bending at the hips your pelvis should articulate backwards slightly and as you fold forward there should be a small inner rotation of the upper thighs. This rotation will create space for the torso. Once you feel any pull in the back of the hamstrings, this is as far as you should fold. Explore this point either with your arms folded over head, hands cupping the elbows, or hands at the shins, or fingertips or palms on the floor. In time as you explore your individual edge, you can work on relaxing and releasing the hamstrings consciously. By focusing on the role of the core muscles once you have released the hamstrings, you will be able to find a deeper fold.
You can find a picture and more details on the pose here.