Brad's Iyengar Yoga Notebook
A good way to prepare for Uttanasana is to begin by squatting (see the section on squatting on the main page).   In the squatting position, your abdominal skin touches the skin of your thighs.   To transition into Uttanasana, place your hands on the floor and begin to straighten your knees to whatever extent you can while still keeping your abdominal skin touching your thighs.   Keeping your abdominal skin (or preferably your front lower ribs) touching your thighs is the "name of this game."   Allowing your abdomen to rest on your thighs helps prevent strain in your lower back.   When you get to the point where your abdominal skin begins to separate from your thigh skin, stop.   This is your "edge."   This is the point where your hamstring flexibility limits you.
You can pause at this point and just hang, holding both elbows in your hands, and relax for a while before adding in more activity.
After relaxing for a while, you can lightly grasp your ankles or calves and begin to place some tension into your hamstrings while being careful not to place strain in your low back.   Keep your knees bent as much as necessary to allow your back to hang without tension.   If your hamstrings are tight and you can only straighten your knees a little, respect that, and do not try to force your legs straight at the expense of placing strain on your lower back.   This is being "honest" in the pose.   Trying to straighten the legs too fast is done either out of ignorance or greed (= pride).   Acknowledge that the back of the body is tight and respect that.   There is no shame.
Eventually, you will be able to straighten your legs fully while still keeping your abdomen resting on your thighs.   When your knees are bent, the backs of your legs and hamstrings are not able to stretch and open fully, though they can stretch and open somewhat.   So this is the initial work in the pose and eventually you want to move on to the classical work in the pose.   But practice this preparatory version of the pose while warming up and also for the first weeks or months of your yoga practice before moving on to the classical straight legged Uttanasana.
Actions of the legs and feet
Have your feet hip width apart for at least the first few months of practicing this pose.   Even after you are able to bring your feet together, it is good to do your first two or three Uttanasanas in each class with your feet hip width and then as you become more warm later in the class, to progress to bringing your feet together.   Note that "feet hip width" should bring your legs into a position that is perpendicular to the floor, this is closer together than most people think for their body.   Check yourself in a mirror.   Eventually, as your flexibility allows, you will want to bring your feet together with your inner ankles touching as in Tadasana.   Generally, if you have your feet apart, you are holding your elbows, and if your feet are together, you are placing your hands on the floor, though there may be reasons why you might choose to do otherwise.
Having your feet hip width helps to soften your groins, it is easier to balance, and it easier to open the backs of your thighs and hamstrings.   Keeping your knees and feet together is more toning for the abdominal organs.   Doing this pose with your feet apart is more releasing for the abdominal muscles and inner organs.
Establish Tadasana in your legs.   Spread all of your toes wide, but do not grip the floor with them.   Lift both your inner and outer ankles equally.   Straighten your knees completely without hyperextending them.   Your weight should be evenly balanced between your feet.
Engage your leg muscles strongly to your bones on all sides.   Draw the flesh of your thighs into your femurs.   Lift the skin on the backs of your thighs and hamstring muscles toward your buttocks.   Tighten your quadriceps muscles and draw your kneecaps both inward into your knees and upward toward your groins.   The bottoms of the knees tend to move inward fast -- they should not draw into your legs any faster or more than the tops of your kneecaps.   Keep your thighs contracted and lifting throughout the pose.   Keep recharging your thigh muscles into your thigh bones (femurs) every time they fall.   Have the feeling of drawing the skin of your thighs into your quadriceps, into your thighbones, and all the way into the backs of your legs strongly.   Allow this action to broaden the backs of your legs, especially the backs of your thighs.
Also keep raising all of the skin and flesh of your legs upward into your pelvis.   Raise both inner knees toward your groins, raise both outer knees upward toward your hips -- all four points raising equally and equally bearing the weight of the pose.   Your legs must move up for your spine to release down.   (This is true even for the relaxing variation of the pose.)
A common mistake in Uttanasana is to press the knees back rather than lifting them up.   "Uttanasana legs" should be the same as "Tadasana legs."   Though the backs of your thighs are moving toward the wall behind you, your upper calves move away from the wall to keep your knees straight and avoid knee hyperextension.   If you don't move your calves away from the wall you will be hyperextending your knees, or "sleeping on your calves".
Balance on the front sides of your heels and shift your hips forward until you feel the balls of your feet taking on some of your weight.
In this pose, we tend to shift our weight into our heels because it is easier to balance that way so we must consciously shift our weight forward into the balls of our feet in order to establish our legs perpendicular to the floor.   Use a mirror until you ingrain the feeling of where your weight should fall because it is often not intuitive.   Incidentally, this is just the opposite from Tadasana where our tendency is to shift our weight more into the balls of our feet and we often need to bring it back into the heels with conscious effort.
This tendency to be slipping back in the hips, allowing the legs to tilt backwards is to counterbalance the weight of the torso moving forward.   Resist it.   Make sure your hips stay directly over your ankles.   The back of your heels should be directly in line with the back of your buttocks.   Move your torso forward as needed to achieve this alignment.   You can use a wall to verify your alignment by placing your heels and buttock up flush against the wall to get the feeling of the pose.
You will probably need to turn your thighs slightly inward to ensure that the front center line of each thigh is facing directly forward, since the thighs have a tendency to turn outward.   This involves internally rotating your legs so that you are taking your inner thighs back more than your outer thighs.   Turning your thighs inward also helps to spread your sitting bones (buttock bones) apart, which is an important action in this pose.   So, both thighs roll from outside inward.   Open the backs of both of your thighs well.   And spread the backs of your thighs away from each other.   Your top inner thighs should move back and your inner calves should move forward to help keep the knees centered toward the front.   This is true not only in Uttanasana but also in such poses as Padangusthasana and Padahastasana.
There is also a tendency not to bring attention or consciousness to the inner thighs.   Take care to lift your inner thighs strongly into your pelvis.   Hit the inner edge of your thighs away from each other as you lift them upward toward your pelvis.   One way to practice this action is to hold a light foam block between your thighs and practice lifting it upward with the contraction of your inner thigh muscles.   Then use the muscle intelligence you have learned from that practice and apply it to the pose.   This inner thigh consciousness is important in all the standing poses, as it is for Adho Mukha Svanasana and other asanas.
Also in full Uttanasana, take your inner calves closer to each other and resist outward with your inner knees.
Actions of the torso, hips, and pelvis
This pose can be dangerous for the lumbar discs so it is important not to bend forward from your low back.   Bend from deep in your groins.   Strive for the feeling of moving from your groin area like a fulcrum.   Don't just sink your upper torso down toward your knees while bending your lower back to give you a sense that you're going deep into the pose.   And don't pull your head to your knees if your torso is not ready, overstretching the back of your neck.
Any forward bend, standing or sitting, is done in two phases.   We always come into and then out of the pose with a concave spine.   So in the first phase, you bend forward and go as deeply as you can with your spine concave and your head up, looking toward the front of the room, and then hold that position for a moment.   In the concave phase, look up toward the front of the room, not just with your eyes, but from your sternum (the "eyes of the chest").   Extend your chest forward.   Lengthen your sternum away from your pelvis.   In the second phase of the forward bend, you move deeper into the pose, into the convex phase of the pose, where your spine rounds and you allow your head to hang and experience the cooling of the forward bend.   After being in the convex position, to come out of the forward bend, always return your torso to the concave position before bringing your torso all the way back up.
Even when you move deeply into Uttanasana, into the second, convex, phase, keep your low back feeling concave as much as is possible for you and your sternum uplifting strongly to maintain the extension of your spine and the length of the front of your torso.   Roll your sternum toward your chin, letting it drop away from your pelvis.   Even though your head hangs to elongate your neck and spine, keep the front of your torso long, separating your pubic bone and your sternum as much as possible.   Strive for this front body elongation in every pose, especially in every forward bend.   Although in a deep forward bend there will be a natural, gentle convex curve in your low back, the feeling of having your spine extended and the front of your torso long must not be compromised.
In the concave position in this pose, have your hands on the floor or blocks if you need to in order to concave your spine.   Draw your inner calves toward each other while still pressing down on the outer fifth metatarsals of your feet (the base of the little toes).   This is part of the "tripod" of each foot, along with the posterior heel, and the big toe mound.   Take your dorsal (thoracic) spine into the body.   Then in the convex aspect of this pose bring the posterior trunk to the thighs.   In full Uttanasana, take your hands back onto the floor behind your legs so the roots of your fingers do not quite touch the floor.   Lengthen your side ribs.   Do not harden your diaphragm.   Then take your hands along the sides of your feet, and return to the concave phase with your head up before inhaling to come up.
If you are unable to take your hands to the floor in Uttanasana without straining your low back, you can place your hands on a brick on the floor in front of you.   If you are able to take your hands to the floor, work toward being able to take your hands to the floor to the sides of your feet.   When you are able to reach the floor at the sides of your feet, then try to take your hands to the floor to the sides and behind your feet.   The heels of your palms will not be on the floor, but stretch into the heels of your palms and take them toward the floor with your arms straight to draw your torso more toward your legs.   If the heels of your palms do touch the floor, then take your hands even further back.
While in the pose firm your shoulder blades into your back to help your chest expand and draw your shoulder blades upward toward your rear pelvis (i.e. "down" your back).   Expand the skin of your front torso toward your chin.   Also lengthen the sides of your torso from your hips to your armpits down away from your pelvis.
Spread your sitting bones wide and lift them toward the ceiling.   Turning your thighs inward will assist this action.   Lift your hips toward the ceiling as well.   Feel as though someone is pressing down strongly toward the floor on the tops of your hips and resist them by pressing upward through your hips with your feet and legs, trying to make your legs grow taller.   As your hamstrings lift and lengthen, your upper buttock flesh is able to release downward toward your lower back more.   Rotate your pubic bone back between your thighs.   Occasionally practice with your sitting bones against a wall and physically them move them up the wall to provide some sensation to this action.   If you press your hands on the floor in Uttanasana, use them not so much to lengthen your arms as to raise your sitting bones higher.
In Uttanasana, as in most forward bends, the rear part of your hips will open naturally as a result of the direction of bending.   This means you have to direct more conscious thought into opening and creating space in the front of your hips where they form a crease (your groins) since they will have the tendency to become collapsed or congested there.
Lifting your inner thighs upward through the sacrum should create a hollowness in your abdomen.   Release your groins.   Relax them.   Hold no tension there.   Feel as though you are raising your inner groins deep into your pelvis from the action of lifting your sitting bones.   Broaden your pelvis so that you have a "smiling" perineum.   Feel your groins move up away from your hands.   This action is important in all forward bends.
Inhale to come up and out of the pose (as with all standing asanas).
There are several ways to vary the classical Uttanasana.   One variation is to use the pose as a resting posture by allowing your torso just to hang rather than actively trying to lengthen it toward the floor.   In the hanging version, remember to keep your knees lifted and your thighs turned inward to face directly forward, even though your torso is relaxing.   This hanging version an interesting pose in that your legs are very active and ascending, while your torso is passive and descending.   As mentioned before, having your feet hip width helps to soften your groins, it is easier to balance, and it easier to open the backs of your thighs and hamstrings.   It is also more releasing for your abdominal muscles and your inner organs.   Your abdominal muscles must be passive in the resting version of this pose.
In a resting Uttanasana, in grasping your elbows (Baddha Hastasana), the point is to relax, release, and cool your brain cells more than anything else (and bring blood to your brain and relax your eyes).   Grasping your elbows also helps lengthen your side ribs.   In the relaxed version of this pose make sure that the crown of your head is facing the floor so you are relaxed.   If you have been working hard in your asana sequence, at some point in your sequence you have to rest your brain cells.   Resting Uttanasana is a good way to do it.   Your head goes down, relax there.   Both sides of your trunk are going downward, release your neck.   Keep the back of your next soft.   Keep the crown of your head relaxing.   Keep the back of your head quiet.   Keep your tongue passive and your eyes quiet.
Another variation exercise, mentioned above, is to practice the pose with the backs of your legs and buttocks pressing on a wall.   This practice is not as easy as it may seem.   Trying to begin with the backs of the legs on the wall and taking the torso forward will cause most people to fall forward.   Instead, begin with your feet a few inches out from the wall, take Uttanasana, and then walk back until the backs of your legs and buttocks make contact with the wall.   Press the entire surface of the backs of your legs and buttocks into the wall strongly.   Learn from the wall what it feels like to have the backs of your legs perfectly vertical.   One goal in this exercise is to be able to lift your hands up without falling.   This requires you to have enough hamstring flexibility to bring your torso (and thus your center of gravity) close to your legs.
You can also practice Uttanasana while standing on a chair, bending forward and lightly grasping underneath the front of the chair seat to provide a light pulling action to lengthen your torso downward.   This is not a variation for beginners due to the possible hazard for the lumbar spine.   This practice is more suited to the end of a practice session than the beginning, when your body and spine are more warm and supple.   If you use this practice, take care to respect your lower back by always using less pull than you think you're capable of managing.   Your hands on the chair seat should provide more of a direction for your torso and an encouragement to lengthen than an actual weight.