We are programmed from a very early age to “reach for the toes” when we bend forward to stretch. So, when we come to the mat and practice “Uttanasana” (standing forward bend), most of us focus in on our toes. It’s as though we think something wonderful will happen if we can reach those toes.
The problem with this toe-reaching obsession is that we aren’t focused on the real point of Uttanasana – to lengthen the back body, including the hamstrings. And, for most of us, touching the toes requires us to abandon healthy alignment and forgo the hamstring stretch.
Whether you sit all day or exercise with regularity, you can probably benefit from a hamstring stretch. Traditional yoga wisdom also teaches that it is a cooling pose that quiets the mind. But, to receive the maximum benefit and ensure the health of our body (especially the back) it is important that we practice with healthy alignment.
If possible, stand with your side-body facing a full length mirror.
Begin in Tadasana (mountain pose) with the feet about a foot apart.
Imagine a line down the middle of each foot. The imaginary line down the middle of the left foot should be parallel to its counterpart on the right foot. Most people need to move the heels out slightly to accomplish this.
There are three primary points of alignment to consider in this pose.
First, it is important that you bend forward from the hip joints (the place where your top thighs meet your torso) instead of the waist. As you exhale, begin to fold forward and keep the spine in its neutral curves, resisting the temptation to round the spine or to overcompensate by arching the spine.
Second, to maximize the hamstring stretch in this pose, keep the legs straight and do not bend the knees. If your hamstrings are tight, you might want to practice with a block, standing on its shortest side, placed on the mat in front of your feet. Instead of lowering the torso all the way to the legs (and bending the knees), lower about halfway down and place the heels of your hands on the block. The block should be under the shoulders and the arms should be straight.
Finally, resist the temptation to push the hips and legs back. Take a look in the mirror beside you. Make sure that your hips are directly above your ankles and that the legs are in a straight line, perpendicular to the floor.
Take about three breaths in the pose before inhaling back up to neutral.
P.S. This post is part of a series on the basics of many of the most common poses. Look here for additional posts in this series.
Are you toe-touching obsessed? How does it feel to shift your awareness to a deeper level? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.