Sunday, May 1, 2016

Roots and Wings: Extended Hand-to-Toe Pose

I love the wonderful juxtaposition of expansion and rootedness that is called forth in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Extended Hand-to-Big Toe Pose is an intermediate yoga posture that stretches the backs of your legs while challenging your balance.

First, let’s break down the the Sanskrit name for this pose, to fully understand it’s meaning:
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana comes from five words:
“Utthita” — meaning “extended”
“Hasta”— meaning “hand”
“Pada” — meaning “foot”
“Angusta” — meaning “big toe”
“Asana” — meaning “pose”

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana strengthens and stretches the legs and ankles. It deeply stretches the hamstrings while gently opening the hips, shoulders, and arms. This pose challenges and improves your balance, while developing greater concentration and focus.

Warm up and prepare for this pose by starting with Supta Hasta Padangustasana (essentially the same pose, lying on your back). The supine version allows you to assimilate the mechanics of the pose into your mind and body.  By first practicing the pose on the floor with the pull of gravity working in your favor, you can open the hamstrings and the work with the hip flexion and neutralization of the pelvis in a more easeful way.  There are three main variations of this asana as well as its standing counterpart. 

The first directs simply the lift and extension of one leg while the other acts to strengthen and stabilize:

The second version abducts and externally rotates the lifted leg:

The final version realigns the lifted leg at the midline then revolves the torso:

All of the above can be performed with straps placed around the instep of the raised foot. This allows you to keep your shoulder relaxed while reaching for your foot:

To perform standing:

Begin standing in Mountain Pose with your feet together and arms at your sides. Breathe deeply and draw your awareness to the present moment. Let your mind be calm.

Shift your weight to your left foot. Very slowly, draw your right knee up toward your chest. Bring your right arm to the inside of your right thigh. Then loop your index and middle fingers around your right foot’s big toe. Place your left hand on your left hip.

Straighten your spine. Strongly engage your abdominal muscles and the muscles of your left leg. Straighten your left leg, but do not lock your knee. On an exhalation, extend your right leg forward. Straighten your right leg as much as possible, perpendicular to the body and parallel to the floor.

Keep both hips squared forward and keep your spine straight. Do not scrunch your neck or shoulders; keep them soft and relaxed. Drop your right hip slightly so it is in line with your left hip. Bring your awareness to your midline — the line that runs directly down the center of your body.

Hold for 5-20 breaths. To release, draw your knee back into your chest, then slowly lower your foot to the floor. Come back to Mountain Pose. Then repeat on the opposite side for the same amount of time.

Remember: It’s more important to keep your spine straight and your shoulders relaxed than it is to straighten your lifted leg. You can keep your lifted leg bent, or use a strap if you need to, but be sure your spine stays tall and upright throughout the pose.

For help with balance, try this pose with your free hand against a wall, or stand with your back close to the wall.

If you cannot straighten your lifted leg while keeping your spine straight, try using a strap instead of your fingers. Wrap a yoga strap around the ball of your foot. Hold the strap in your same-side hand and then straighten your leg.

If you cannot reach the toes of your raised leg, another option is to practice Standing Knee Hug until you have gained more flexibility.


Once you are comfortable with this first stage of the practice, you can begin adding an external rotation of the extended leg for a deeper hip and thigh stretch.  Allow your opposite arm to extend to the side for balance, and enjoy the openness and expansion. This is where you really get to grow your roots and spread your wings!

For a more advanced practice you can move into Parivrtta Hasta Padangusthasana:

Inhale your left foot back to center, grab the outer edge of the foot with the right hand, bring your left hand to your hip, and exhale as you twist to gaze back over your left shoulder.  If you feel steady, extend the left hand.

These standing balance poses invite us to dig in deep, rooting into our core, our center. The more deeply we root both femurs into their hip sockets, them more we ask our standing leg, our spine, our pelvis and our core to support us.  In reaching for the fullest expression in any variation of this pose, we are met with multiple observances of our own weaknesses and an opportunity to gain more and more strength the more we willingly stay steady with what we uncover.  

May you enjoy the many gifts of balance and rootedness, expansion and core strength, power and grace as you explore Utthita Hasta Padangustasana and its beautiful variations. 


Poetry, readings & words of wisdom from modern and ancient sources