Uttanasana: Breathe into Autumn
According to Chinese medical philosophy autumn is the time when nature’s vital life force returns to earth. Trees let go of their leaves and sap flows downward into the roots. This is why fall is a good time to plant perennials. Autumn’s downward-flowing energy helps young plants establish solid roots. It is a natural time of internalization, not only for trees and plants, but also for humans and other animals.
For the human body, the Chinese medical model associates fall with the lungs and large intestine. The lungs and large intestine take in energy and food so that the body can internalize these forms of prana. Both the lungs and large intestines then let go of what the body doesn’t need. When we inhale, our lungs draw in life-giving oxygen from the world around us, which is then distributed via the blood, the “sap” flowing through our bodies. When we exhale, like dry leaves falling from a tree branch, we let go of carbon dioxide.
We practice yoga asanas (poses) to free the body so that it can more easily take in, let go of, and absorb the energy of the breath. In Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga (second chapter of the Yoga Sutras), the practice of asana (the third limb) immediately precedes pranayama, expansion of the breath. Asana relaxes and mobilizes the body’s structures, allowing us to receive and expel the breath with greater ease. Even though all asanas support respiration, some do this with more specificity. Quite often, we think of chest- and heart-opening poses as lung-supporting poses, and this is true. Following autumn’s internal momentum, we’ll nourish our lungs instead with a forward bend, Uttanasana.
Uttanasana expresses autumn’s lung- and root-centered energy in three ways: Back expansion inherent in any forward bending position supports the natural rotation of your lungs as you breathe. Folding forward turns our energies inward. Standing energizes our roots.
In any forward bend, it’s important to make sure that your pelvis bends forward along with your spine. In Uttanasana, your pelvis should tip forward so that the upper body “pours” out of the pelvic bowl and your sit bones are the apex of your pose. When you bend forward from the waist instead of from the hips, the fronts of the intervertebral discs, particularly in the lumbar (low back), sustain unhealthy pressure.
If your pelvis does not easily tip forward in a forward bend, it is likely because your hamstrings and/or abductors are tight. However, most people can do this pose safely—even if these muscles are tight—by bending the knees enough to ensure that the pelvis tips forward. Remember that Uttanasana is primarily a forward fold. It is the forward movement of pelvis and spine and the rooting of your legs—not the degree of bend in the knees—that are most vital to the spirit of the pose.
Begin by standing on a nonskid mat with your feet parallel and hips-width apart. As you stand, plant your feet into the floor. Imagine your feet growing roots. Place your hands on your waist and tip the top of your pelvis slightly forward. On an exhalation relax your head and neck forward, and bend your knees as you fold your pelvis and torso forward together toward the floor, allowing your spine to round on the way down. When you reach the bottom of your forward bend, release your hands from your hips and let your arms hang. Let your hands rest on the floor if they can reach. Relax your neck so that the back of it is long and the top of your head points toward the floor. You can relax into the pose with your knees bent as they are, or you can begin to straighten them gradually, only straightening so far as you can maintain your forward pelvic tilt.
Breathe deeply into your back body. As you inhale, let your breath expand your entire back body. You may feel the torso lift up, away from the floor, as you inhale. Allow this movement. Relax your abdomen and imagine drawing your breath all the way down into your roots. As you exhale, feel your torso settling forward again, letting go of tension and effort.
When we inhale, the lungs naturally expand outward, away from each other, and the outer sides of the lungs rotate forward into the sides of the ribcage. When we exhale, the lungs move back toward one another and settle into the back. Because of this, as you inhale you may feel your back body expand outward and your shoulders and arms round forward slightly on the inhalation. As you exhale, feel your shoulder blades roll back toward the center of your back.
Allowing your body to oscillate—up and down, outward and inward—in response to the internal movement of your breath supports free respiration. Let your pose grow out of the breath, rather than making the breath conform to the pose.
Take five to ten breaths. Then on an inhalation bend your knees to about 90 degrees, root your feet and lift your torso enough so that you are about halfway toward standing. Rest your elbows on your knees. Stay here for a few breaths before pressing down through your feet and rolling your spine up to standing. Resting at the halfway point prevents the dizziness that some people feel when they return to an upright position after practicing Uttanasana.
If you have diagnosed disc disease or uncontrolled high blood pressure, Uttanasana may not be appropriate for you at this time. In the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, try widening your stance to accommodate your growing belly.
In autumn, we naturally internalize the vital life force of the external elements—earth, wind, sky, fire and water—and release what we no longer need. Fall is also a natural time to examine and choose to—or not to—let go of old, perhaps inappropriate, thought forms and patterns as well. Exploring our breath teaches us about the natural cycles of receiving and releasing that balance our lives. Root yourself in the gentle wave of your breath.