In yoga, Uttanasana or forward bending posture helps lengthen the hamstrings while providing a sense of peace. The key to getting all the benefits of the forward bend is in the legs. Here's how it's done.
Mechanics of the Forward Bend
Begin by standing with your feet side by side. The balls of the feet should point straight ahead. Your heels may touch or be slightly apart, depending on what feels more balanced.
Before you bend forward, make sure you have a firm foundation. Spread the toes slightly, straighten the legs, firm the thighs and glutes, and lift the kneecaps. You should feel as if your legs are working hard--they're not passive in this pose.
Now, raise your arms overhead and touch your palms together to help bring your shoulders back and align the spine. Firm your core muscles. Bring your arms out to the side as you begin to bend forward from the waist, keeping your back straight.
The Full Posture
Eventually, you will bring your hands to the ground so that your palms touch the floor to either side of your feet and your head hangs gently from your neck, just in front of or touching your shins. You will be hinged from the waist, with your spine straight and your elbows bent just slightly so that they are in line with the sides of your knees. Some styles of yoga also practice this posture with your fingertips inserted under the heels and the forearms behind the legs, pulling your face against your legs and the top of your head toward the floor.
If you are just beginning, it's likely that you won't be able to immediately fall all the way into a perfect forward bending position. Be patient with your body. Accept where you are now but test your limits every time you practice, so that you find yourself becoming more flexible and more determined over time.
As you begin to practice the forward bend, keep your back straight to get the greatest benefits for your spine and hamstrings. You may place your hands on your knees and look at the floor or slide your hands down behind your calves, then eventually behind your ankles.
Additional Benefits and Changes to Forward Bend
If you have stiff shoulders, you may also find it useful to practice this posture with a rounded back and the head hanging down to alleviate tension in the upper back. Rest the hands behind the knees, allow the elbows to fall out to the sides like wings, and pull with your hands so that your shoulders come closer to the knees with the back rounded. Make sure your neck stays absolutely relaxed and legs firm with lifted kneecaps in this adaptation to protect the neck and knees, as well as the bones, joints, ligaments and tendons in between.
As a gentle stretch to start or end your yoga series or if you have been injured, you can do the same pose from a seated position. Lift your arms overhead, then lower them in front of you to your furthest reach--behind the knees, under the calves, holding the ankles, or under the feet. Round your back to open up the shoulders and neck, or keep your back straight and hinge from the waist for a deep hamstring stretch that also loosens and aligns the hips.