The Sanskrit word Uttanasana literally translates to “intense stretch” (ut: intensity, tan: to stretch, extend or lengthen). What does intensity mean in a healthy yoga practice? How do we manage our ego that easily shows up on our mat, seeking more intensity than is required? How do we ensure we are not disassociating from the challenge a pose presents?
The answer lies in sukha-sthira, a core principle of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In sukha-sthira you learn to be alert and receptive in each moment, finding a balance between being relaxed and focused, neither stressed nor spaced out. When your mind is quiet in sukha-sthira, it is neither dull nor agitated, but sparkling and clear. You are in an active, yet surrendered state. You are present for the possibilities of the moment, and able to engage with them, without imposing your will.
Sanskrit is a complex language, in which each word can be translated in multiple ways. As such, we can also understand uttanasana to mean the experience of profound expansion.
As your head lowers below your heart, the deep forward bend helps you cultivate humility. The inversion also allows your spine to lengthen as your body experiences the effects of gravity in a new way. Vertebrae that were compressed while standing, now can release. As the fluids in your cardiovascular and lymphatic systems flow with refreshed vigour, your mind can pause in a rich quiet. Uttanasana provides you with an opportunity for profound expansion, while helping you perceive life from a whole new perspective.
As you approach all asanas, remain aware of sukha-sthira. Practice yoga as the joining of your whole self with this moment. Welcome the asana as a means to support the release of your human tendency to push at or pull from anything.
Do no more than 80% your maximum in any given pose. Uttanasana is not about flexibility. It is a way to allow yourself to experience deep expansion and remain grounded. While rooted, feel vital, sensing your energy return from the ground to support you. You develop greater openness, ease of being and inner spaciousness. Your perfect asana in the here and now is one in which you feel rooted, vital and expansive, while cultivating breath awareness and remaining present within the whole.
- Stand tall, your feet hip width apart, arms alongside your body. Feel your shoulder relax, as your shoulder blades slide down the back of your body. Allow your chest to flower, keeping your ribs in neutral, that is, not protruding forcefully.
- Bring your awareness to two-way moving energy. Inhale, draw life-force energy through your whale spout at the crown of your head. Still on that inhale, sense or visualize life-force energy descending through your spine, through your body/being and into the ground. As you exhale, feel that life force energy travel in two ways: up your spine to go out your whale spout towards the heavens, and out your feet into the Earth.
- Do this a few times, and sense or visualize your body/being as a neutral conduit for life-force energy.
- When your breath feels focused and relaxed, slowly allow your neck to roll forward. Feel each vertebra move one by one, as though you were walking down the rungs of a ladder.
- Move through your neck, shoulders, upper back. Move slowly, still breathing in and out, remembering to use two-way moving energy. Let go of tension in your shoulders and arms, as you allow them to respond to gravity as you roll forward.
- Continue to roll down vertebra by vertebra through your middle and lower back. Keep your knees relatively straight, just slightly bent, so they are not locked, which would cause undue strain on your lower back.
- Continue to breathe in two-way moving energy.
- As you exhale, let your whole upper body, like a rag doll, roll forward and over your thighs.
- Let all the tension through the shoulders run out the arms, hands, fingers, right to the ground.
- Let your spine respond to gravity, releasing vertebra by vertebra towards the ground. As the crown of your head releases towards the ground, feel more space and ease between each vertebra.
- If you feel any pressure in your head, you may be experiencing too much upward energy. To balance this, bring more awareness into your belly and to the energy running down the legs, towards the feet into the ground.
- Let the soles of the feet broaden into the floor on each exhale, as though you are extending roots into the ground.
- When you feel you have had enough, you will roll up as slowly and mindfully as you rolled forward, vertebra by vertebra. As you do so, remain aware of the two way moving energy. Growing up like a tree or flower from the ground, exhale, as you feel your roots in the ground. You are stacking your energy up from the roots, through your feet, ankles, shins, knees, thighs, hips, lower vertebrae, middle vertebrae, upper vertebrae, neck and head. As you roll up, feel as though you are arising over a new axis. Keep breathing two-way moving energy. Feel the effortlessness of your rooting, which you continue to grow up from the ground. You feel taller, while more rooted and vital.
- Return to a neutral standing position. Take a few long, deep, natural breaths here before you move on.
Parvati is an award-winning musician (I Am Light, Electro Yog, Yoga In The Nightclub), yogini (YEM: Yoga as Energy Medicine), author (Aonani of Avalon, Confessions) and founder of the not-for-profit Parvati.org. All her work is dedicated to protecting all life on Earth by establishing the Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS). More info: parvati.tv; parvati.org.