Gravity is responsible for keeping us from floating off the surface of the Earth. It is also responsible Earth’s orbit around the sun and the moon’s orbit around us. It is partly responsible for the tides. Yes, there are some who get to play around in anti-gravity environments, and there are yogis who reportedly levitate. But these numbers are small. For most of us, gravity is a given.
Despite gravity’s inevitability, we often seem to invest a lot of energy into struggling against it. I see it a lot in yoga classes—muscles hugging bones, chests and shoulders heaving upward, all in order to raise ourselves up away from the ground. This is incredibly inefficient, and in my experience, it wastes a tremendous amount of energy.
Asanas express both stability and expansion. Most of us seem to find the expansive aspects of our poses much more interesting than the stabilizing aspects. For example, if you look at the photo that accompanies this article, what do you notice first? Most people will answer that they notice the extension of the legs. Few will note the settling of the pelvis into the ground. And yet, it’s that settling into gravity that makes expansion possible.
Urdhva Mukha Prasarita Padottanasana (UMPP) is one of the easiest of all poses to experiment with the relationship between stability and expansion. At 14 syllables, it is also in the running for the longest Sanskrit asana name. Here’s how the Sanskrit translates: urdva=upward, mukha=facing, prasarita=spread apart, pad=toes, ot=intense, tan=stretch.
I usually teach this pose toward the end of a practice, when I want to ground my students’ energy to prepare them to return to the outside world. This is especially important if we have practiced poses that stimulate the upper body (such as inversions), or poses that energize (such as backbends). UMPP simultaneously engages the core, grounds energy, revitalizes the body/mind, and stabilizes and steadies balance.
Speaking of balance, we often think of one-legged standing poses when we talk about balancing poses. These are, of course, essential to developing the skill of balancing. However, it’s important to test our balance in other orientations as well. So practicing poses like UMPP and Parsva Balasana (Bird Dog Pose) can bolster our balancing skills by challenging us in a different way.
You don’t need props to practice UMPP, but it feels nicer if there is something between your sit bones and the floor. You can use a yoga mat and/or a folded blanket. I don’t recommend folding a blanket too thick—more than an inch or so, because a thick blanket can interfere with your balance.
How to Practice Urdva Mukha Prasarita Padottanasana
- Start in Baddha Konasana, sitting on your blanket or mat. Bend both knees and place the soles of your feet together, allowing your legs to release out to the sides. Feel your sit bones resting on the floor, along with the contact points between your feet and the floor and your feet with each other. Settle your weight into your base.
- Take hold of the outsides of your feet with your hands. Lean back on your buttocks so that your feet and legs lift off the floor. Don’t try to stay on the forward edge of your sit bones. Trying to sit on the anterior edge of your sit bones causes your weight to shift forward, making it very difficult to ground yourself in the pose. Settle back enough so that you feel the back edges of your sit bones on the floor as you rest on the fleshy part of your buttocks. This will cause your back to round slightly in the pose.
- Now actively root your rear into the floor. You may feel an upward rebound in your torso. This is the natural result of grounding your base: your body expands upward.
- If you find that balancing is challenging in this position, you may want to practice here and not attempt to straighten your legs just yet. If you feel stable, continue grounding your base and begin to unfurl your legs. If hamstring tightness won’t allow you to extend your legs all the way, bend your knees and hold onto the backs of your knees. Keep your knees bent in a 90-degree angle and balance here. Otherwise, continue extending your legs until they are straight.
- If your legs are fully extended and your balance feels shaky, reground your pelvis. If you still feel shaky after regrounding, bend your knees to 90 degrees and hold behind your thighs. Bending your knees shortens the levers of your legs, making your energy settle into your pelvis more easily.
- Continue rooting your pelvis, allowing your torso and legs to expand skyward. Take five to ten deep, satisfying breaths.
- Bend your knees as you rock forward to settle again into Baddha Konasana. If Baddha Konasana is not comfortable for you, you can bend your knees and place your feet on the floor in front of you and relax your torso over your legs.
Because Urdhva Mukha Prasarita Padottanasana challenges your balance, it also develops your ability to balance. The key, again, is remembering to give your body to gravity. Propping your body away from the ground in this, or any pose, just creates tension and restricts your breathing. Struggling against gravity is a waste of effort. So, root yourself into the Earth, in your yoga practice and in your life. That’s where ease and expansion come from.
Updated article from November 6, 2014.