What goes up must come down, and the hardworking forward fold is the pose that generally links mountain, chair, and downward facing dog in sun salutations. Thus, it is often treated as a bit of a throwaway—a quick stretch of the hamstrings before moving on. Fold, lift, step back into plank or chaturanga, or lengthen into lunge without pausing to give your fold much consideration, variation, or intention.
The ubiquitous uttanasana, however, can indeed benefit from more attention. Changing up your forward fold gives you the chance to explore specific objectives, target different muscles, and achieve a spectrum of results.
Here are five variations you might consider adding to your practice. You can insert them into a flow or, if time is tight, practice one or more of them on their own. Make sure you have two blocks and a wall handy before you begin.
1. Side-Flexion Forward Fold
Place two blocks at their medium setting, centered at the top of your mat—so that when you fold forward, the blocks will be right under your hands (about shoulder-width apart). Begin in mountain pose behind the blocks with your feet grounding into the mat. Inhale and reach your arms out and up. Exhale, bend your knees, hinge at your hips, and fold forward, keeping your spine long. Your hands or fingertips may reach the floor—otherwise simply place them on the blocks, bending your knees as necessary to do so. Stay for five breaths, extending through your legs to experience a stretch but not pain.
Then, walk your hands/blocks over to the left until they’re about six inches away from your left foot and your fingers are pointing to the left. Take five breaths here and feel a deep stretch along the right side of your body.
After five breaths, walk your hands/blocks back through center and over to the right until they’re about six inches away from your right foot and your fingers are pointing to the right. Stay for five breaths, opening up the left side of your body. Keep your spine and neck long. Then walk your hands/blocks back to center and hold for another five breaths.
Come back to mountain pose by rooting your feet into the mat, inhaling your arms out and up, and lengthening through your spine as you return to an upright position, reaching the crown of your head to the ceiling and lowering your arms alongside your body.
2. Cross-Legged Forward Fold
Begin in mountain pose. Start to shift more of your weight into your left foot, decreasing the amount of weight in your right foot until it feels as if it is floating. Then lift your right foot and cross it in front of the left, planting it on the far side of the left foot, several inches away. The feet don’t have to be exactly parallel—in fact, the right will probably be slightly ahead of the left. Now try to equalize the weight between the two feet. Then bend your knees, hinge at your hips, and fold forward, letting your fingertips or hands rest on blocks or the ground. Lengthen through your spine, and allow your forehead to approach your legs without compressing the front of your neck. Extend through your legs to experience a stretch. You’ll probably feel more of a stretch on the left side than the right. Notice if you feel the stretch in your left calf as well as in your hamstrings.
Stay for five breaths, and then uncross your legs, and root down into your feet to rise up to standing, keeping your spine long as you return to mountain pose. Then switch sides.
3. Open-Twist Forward Fold
From mountain, bend your knees, hinge at your hips, and fold forward, allowing your hands to rest on blocks or on the ground. Place your left hand or fingertips (on the floor or a block) between and in front of both feet (so that your wrist is under your shoulder). Bend your left knee and extend your right leg. Inhale and reach your right arm straight up to the ceiling, opening your chest as you do so. Exhale to twist more deeply, keeping your collarbones broad. The spine is more extended than rounded here to allow for greater chest and shoulder opening. Direct your gaze up to the sky (if that feels comfortable for your neck). Stay for five breaths and then lower your right arm and switch sides.
After five breaths on the second side, lower your left arm to return to center; then root down through your feet, engage your core, and lengthen through your spine as you return to mountain pose.
4. Forward Fold With a Bind
From mountain, bend your knees, hinge at your hips, and fold forward. Bend your left knee and thread your left arm through your legs, allowing the back of your hand to rest on or near your left buttock. Bring the back of your right hand and forearm to rest on your low back, then try to clasp your hands (or grab clothing or hold a strap between both hands). Open your heart to the right; you can gaze down, straight ahead, or over your right shoulder, depending on what feels best for your neck. Lengthen your spine, soften the tops of your shoulders, and take five breaths here.
Release your arms and return to your forward fold before switching sides and then returning to mountain pose.
5. Forward Fold at the Wall
(This one is a favorite for my students and for me!)
Start in mountain pose with feet hip-width apart, facing the wall, about three feet away from it. Bend your knees and hinge at your hips to come into a gentle forward fold. Then, with your hands on blocks or the ground, walk your hands/blocks and feet forward until the back of your head and upper back/spine come into contact with the wall. Gently press into the wall and lengthen through the backs of your legs—“gently” being the key word here. The wall can feel a bit hard against your vertebrae, so go slow and easy. You’ll likely experience a bit of a neck and back stretch as well as a hamstring stretch.
Once your back is positioned, you can move your feet a bit closer to the wall to fine-tune the hamstring stretch. Some people may find that they can melt their foreheads closer to their knees and that the back of their heads move away from the wall, with the upper back being the main point of contact with the wall.
Stay for five breaths (or longer if you like!) and then walk away from the wall. Make sure you have clearance for your head, and then inhale your arms out and up as you lengthen your spine and return to mountain.
There you go—five ways to jazz up the stalwart standing forward fold. While uttanasana may not be as flashy as some of its posture pals, its versatility in achieving so many different stretches and outcomes always makes it an asana all-star to me.
Photography: Andrea Killam