What are our intentions in utthita hasta padangusthasana or extended hand to toe posture?
If there is one posture that I watch beginning Ashtanga students rush through, it’s this one. Why do so many students have the desire to get this one over with so quickly? Because it’s challenging! Early on, this posture takes a lot of effort in both legs while balancing. It challenges our ability to maintain our center of gravity over our foot while moving our leg around. This is difficult, but potentially very valuable work. Although it comes early in the primary series, this is a challenging posture which may take some time to evolve.
Anatomy of utthita hasta padangusthasana
There are three different parts to this pose. In all three parts we are balancing on one leg and changing the location of the other leg and the torso. In the first part, we are lifting one leg toward our torso while at the same time folding toward the leg that is lifted. In the second part, we are abducting the hip joint to allow one leg to reach out to one side while taking our gaze over the opposite shoulder. In the third part we are holding one leg up in space while gazing ahead with our hands on our waist.
Part one: lifted leg in front and forward folding
In the first part, we are challenged by the standing split aspect of this posture. We don’t often think of it like a split because we’re standing up, but it is. What makes this part especially tricky is that the two sides of the pelvis are essentially being asked to move in two different directions.
On the standing leg, the hip flexors must be open enough to allow the practitioner to bring the torso to an erect standing position while keeping the foot in a stable position on the floor. There are hip flexors that cross just the hip joint and there is one quadricep, known as rectus femoris, which crosses both the knee and the hip joint. The action of the hip flexors is working against the other side of the pelvis which is trying to move in the opposite direction, while fighting our old friend the hamstrings. Depending on how open one or both of these are, you will see different effects.
If the hamstrings are more open than the hip flexors, you will often see that the leg lifts high, but the practitioner has a hard time keeping the standing leg straight. If the opposite is true, well, the opposite happens. The standing knee may be straight, but the hamstrings don’t allow the lifted leg to go so high.
Both of these scenarios are exacerbated by the torso folding toward the standing leg, as we would do in a more typical forward bend. But, in a more typical forward bend, we are only working against the resistance of the hamstrings. The dynamic actions of the pelvis, essentially trying to rotate in different directions, is not the only thing that adds to the challenge of this posture. In this posture, we’re trying to do all of that while balancing!
Even the balancing aspect of the standing leg can play into this pattern. Remember (Ha!) from my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga that I point out how the deeper gluteals (gluteus minimus and gluteus medius) stabilize the hip joint when we are walking, running, and balancing. When the deep gluteals are fired up on one side of our pelvis to maintain the stability at that hip joint, they can also stabilize the pelvis so much that it makes it hard for the pelvis to adapt to the opposing movement of the other side of the pelvis that I’ve already mentioned.
Part two: taking the lifted leg out to the side
In this next part of the posture we have to swing the leg out to the side. You could argue about what the name for this movement is. I defer to what we would call this if it were happening in the shoulder joint, which is horizontal abduction. If it were pure abduction, we would have lifted the leg out to the side from an equal standing pose (tadasana/samasthiti). But the leg is already flexed, so the abduction is happening horizontally.
The pelvis gets involved in this movement in a couple of ways, potentially. The basic requirement is that the center of gravity, which is located at the center of the pelvis (more or less), needs to remain over the foot. This represents the line of gravity, or you could say the pelvis and foot are counterbalanced relative to the line of gravity.
Depending on the student and their tensional pattern, we will see different effects. In one common version of this pose, the pelvis tilts sideways, with the lifted-leg-side of the pelvis rising above the other side. This version is technically a movement of the hip joint of the standing leg and not actually a movement of the leg that is swinging out to the side. The pelvis and the lifted leg move together around the other hip joint. This is a more technical abduction of the hip joint. The only difference is that when describing abduction, we typically describe the leg swinging out to the side, rather than the pelvis moving away from the leg.
There are two other versions of this part of the pose that we might see, depending on the student and their particular tensional pattern. Both of these versions involve a rotation that happens at the leg that is swinging out. Beginning students, especially those with tight adductors, will sometimes internally rotate the leg at the hip joint as it swings out to the side. It’s not that they are intending this to happen, but rather that their body is demanding it based on the tensional patterns that already exist. You may see a connection between this happening and a previous posture, utthita parsvakonasana or side angle pose where the knee of the front leg has a hard time getting aligned with the foot and falls in.
In the third version of this part of utthita hasta padangusthasana, we might see the hip go in the other direction of rotation. In this case, as the legs swings out, the hip joint does an external rotation while also doing its horizontal abduction. This is my personal preference for technique, which we’ll talk about more later.
Part three: holding the lifted leg in front
In the final part of utthita hasta padangusthasana we are asked to hold the leg up in front of our body. That’s a seemingly simple thing to do! The anatomy at the pelvis is not so dissimilar from what we described in part one. However, we are not folding forward, nor are we trying to lift our leg higher than it can go under its own strength.
The hip joint itself is being held up primarily by the iliopsoas muscle. By itself, this is a very strong muscle that, in a sense, has no real trouble holding up the leg, even as tired as that leg may be by the time you get to this part of the posture. Really, it’s the dynamics of keeping the leg straight at the knee joint, while also holding it up at the hip joint, that add to the endless fun found in this posture.
Once you try to straighten that knee, you are now lengthening both ends of the hamstrings. In other words, you’re not just lengthening them at the hip joint, but also at the knee end. Of course iliopsoas will not work alone and when you utilize the quadriceps to both straighten the knee and help the psoas keep the leg up, well, it doubles the fun. It shouldn’t be understated how difficult it is to keep the knee straight and lift the leg if you have tight hamstrings. The quadriceps get tired more rapidly, as they do not have the assistance of the leg/foot being on the ground and gravity to help lengthen the hamstrings. Nope, it’s pure muscle strength of the quadriceps as they work directly against the tension in the hamstrings.
It is totally possible to start to feel the quadriceps, especially the rectus femoris, start to cramp while doing this part of the posture. If that is the case, you would feel this just under the bump on the front of the pelvis also known as the ASIS. You may also feel it generally down the centerline of the quadriceps. However, for some students who have legs that have a tendency to externally rotate, they may feel cramping more on the side and very top of the pelvis. In that case, that is the tensor fasciae latae (TFL). Keep in mind, your body is naturally going to try to avoid the tension from the hamstrings. The easiest way for the body to avoid that tension is to externally rotate the leg. Knowing that the leg is supposed to be straight, we naturally fight this tendency by slightly internally rotating the hip joint and activating the TFL.
This additional amount of internal rotation can cause a cramp in the TFL. It’s not to say that your quadricep can’t cramp as well. But, when you feel that cramp up high on your hip, just off to the side slightly, you can bet it’s your TFL working overtime.
Intentions for utthita hasta padangusthasana
There are a mixture of intentions in utthita hasta padangusthasana. The obvious intention is lengthening the hamstrings and looking at the posture as a forward bending posture. Because we’re standing, building strength to do the work of lengthening the hamstrings adds to the complexity and difficulty. Finally, you have to work the length and the strength while developing proprioception and balancing!
Working the technique
The dynamics between the standing and the lifted leg
As we discussed in the anatomy section, you have an opposition of direction (standing leg in extension and lifted leg in flexion) in both legs that intensifies the level of difficulty, as well as the nature of the forward bend aspect of this posture. For instance, in this dynamic, you often find that the knee of the standing leg wants to bend as you raise the leg higher. The work of trying to straighten that leg actually adds to the amount of pressure put onto the hamstrings of the leg that’s up in the air. So, pay attention to the dynamics between the standing leg and the lifted leg.
What if I can’t straighten the lifted leg? It may take some time for the hamstrings to open enough to allow both legs to be straight. If you need to bend the knee, then bend the knee. But, after you’ve picked up the leg, use some small percent of your effort, perhaps 20% to straighten the leg a little bit. Remember that the hamstrings cross the knee joints as well as the hip joints. This means that if you always bend the knees fully, it will change the amount of tension and the way that tension is placed into the hamstrings.
Regarding the intention of developing strength, we have a couple of different ways we can work with this. One is in the standing leg. Strength is required to keep the knee straight that wants to bend in order to give more space to the hamstrings of the lifted leg. The tension of the hamstrings in the lifted leg is working against the strength of the quadriceps and other hip flexors of the same leg. By keeping the leg lifting itself and keeping the knee straight, there is a tremendous amount of strength work in this part of the pose.
Techniques for working on balance
If I can’t lift the leg all the way up or keep the leg straight, should I still fold forward? Yes, at least have that intention. While there can be some benefit to working just the balance aspect of this posture without the forward fold if you are very tight, part of the work of this posture is learning how to move part of your body away from your center and hold it there in space. It may sound obvious, but if you never try to forward fold, then you will never forward fold. That said, having the intention of folding forward does not mean forcing your nose to your shin. If you are very tight, maybe just a small hinge at the waist and a suggestion of reaching the chest toward the leg is enough to begin with.
When you start to take the leg out to the side, remember that you need to counterbalance the weight of the leg that is heading out. The technique I teach for those that have trouble balancing is: one, externally rotate the leg that is lifted, and two, let the hip of the standing leg slowly and equally move in the opposite direction of the leg that is swinging out. In this stage of the posture, you are balancing around the line of gravity that is represented through the foot.
When the leg swings out in the second part of this posture I always suggest that we keep the intention in the leg, and more specifically in the hip joint of the leg, as it swings. As an intention, I recommend that you focus on rotating and keeping the movement in this hip joint by not letting the hip of the standing leg move very much. Without a conscious intention to keep the hip of the standing leg still, it tends to tilt to lift the other leg higher.
Let’s not forget that all of this is happening on top of balancing on the standing leg as it tries to stay as straight as possible. Balancing is a combination of factors that come together. Basically, you are training the proprioception in your body. That is, you are training how your body reacts and responds to where you are in space. The challenges are to work on this proprioception while having the leg in front of you, folding into it, standing back up, swinging the leg out to the side, and then looking in the opposite direction! All of these together are often a challenge for beginners and even for more advanced practitioners.
The development of balance and increased connection to your own proprioception has implications for more advanced postures. The more intentional you are about working with your own proprioception, the more the development of this “system” will increase your ability to do more advanced postures, including headstand, handstand, and other balancing postures.
Variations to explore
When the hips and hamstrings are tight, it can be more difficult to hold most of the body within a line of gravity. The more body weight we move away from our center and try to hold in space, the harder this pose is. Those with very flexible hips and hamstrings can keep the moving leg closer to the body, making it easier to balance in space because there is less need to resist gravity. If you have very tight hamstrings and/or hips, then you might benefit from exploring some modifications of this pose.
Just in terms of balance itself, I find that beginners have an easier time making two basic changes to the full expression of the posture. One, let the standing leg be bent for a period of time. By releasing this part, it will allow the body to adjust more easily because there is less tension around the knee joint. Second, fix the eyes on a single spot on the floor in front of you. Even when you take the leg out to the side, fix the eyes on the floor in front of you. Build up your proprioception and then turn the head as you’re supposed to.
If you are very tight or just beginning to work with this posture, try just balancing on one foot and holding the knee of the other leg. Notice how it feels. Notice what happens in your foot and ankle while you balance.
As you get familiar with the feeling of balancing on one foot, you can add on the challenge of reaching for the toe with your hand, or using a strap or towel to hold the foot if you can’t reach with your hand.
Keep the movements smaller — work within YOUR range of motion — there’s nothing to be gained by trying to yank your leg around if your hips and hamstrings aren’t open enough to allow a big range of motion yet. Work consistently within your range of motion and the pose will evolve over time.
Move slowly while breathing and don’t hurry! I often see students who are newer to this pose trying to move very quickly, as if they can throw their leg up and “catch” a balanced position in space. I also often see them holding their breath while doing this. You will likely have better success with the balance if you move slowly while feeling each shift in space as you pick the leg up to balance.
Move with some bending in the knee joints and then lengthen and straighten when you arrive in your version of the posture. It is not necessary to do a dancer high kick to bring the leg up. Quick jerky movements give you less time to check into your body and see how things are feeling each day and they increase the chances that you’ll over-do something because you’re moving faster than you can feel your body’s response to that movement.
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This month David answers the question: Should you contract or relax the glutes in urdhva dhanurasana? He explains why the answer should always be specific to the student.