The world feels unsteady these days. At times like this, I lean on my regular yoga practice for help finding equilibrium and grounding. It works by connecting body and mind. Our bodies are always in the present moment; sensing that can steady the mind.
Uttanasana — the standing forward bend — is good to do after sitting for a long time or at the beginning of a yoga practice. Besides that, it will stretch out your legs and spine; and it is a calming pose, good for stopping a busy mind and keeping it from racing back to the past or into the future.
This pose stretches the calves, hamstrings, lower back, spine, and neck.
But because the pose puts your head below your heart, it is not recommended if you have glaucoma, retinal problems, or untreated high blood pressure.
Start by standing on a yoga mat, or, as you see in the photo, firm ground outdoors. First, step your feet hip-width apart, then interlace your fingers behind you and lift your hands off your back as high up as is comfortable. Roll your shoulder blades down your back and lift your sternum. You want a sense of opening in the chest and shoulders. But gently: you do not want sharp pain, numbness, or an electrical sensation.
In that open position, take a long slow breath in and out. Then release your arms to your sides, keeping your chest and shoulders open.
Now, hinging at the hip joints, begin the forward bend, bringing your hands to the floor or to a chair, or fold your elbows and feel the weight of your arms guide you as you extend down. You may need to bend your knees.
Press into your feet, distributing your weight evenly across the balls of the feet and the four corners of the heels. Lift the muscles just above the knee and pretend you are squeezing a ball between your thighs to activate your inner legs.
Imagine your torso is like a wet towel hanging from your hips down your back and through your neck and head. Continue to breathe and relax where you can.
You are working toward straightening your legs, but rather than just shooting the knees back, try slowly opening the back of the knees. Imagine you are widening them across from side to side and lengthening them from top to bottom. Lift your sit bones towards the sky as you press your feet into the floor. Take several breaths here.
When you are ready to come up, place your hands on your hips and engage your core to come up to standing. If your back feels stiff or achy, place your hands on your thighs to help support yourself coming up.
Uttanasana may be familiar to you as a stretching pose, but I invite you to let go of any preconceived notions or experiences and approach it with “beginners mind,” as if this were the first time you were doing it.
In yoga, we bring extra awareness and attention to details in our bodies as we assume the shape of the pose. That, combined with conscious breathing, is key to its power to calm us. And when we pay attention to the sensations, we can also step back from the stories we tell ourselves — stories like “I can’t stretch” or “this is too hard; why bother?”
A yoga practice allows us to do what we can do without hurting ourselves or getting discouraged. You start where you are and do a little every day, watching your body open up.
Remember, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The Chinese proverb said to be the wisdom of Lao Tzu seems apt for thinking about this pose and for this moment in time, when the journey toward peace seems long.