Pronounced: utt-HEE-tuh AH-stuh PAH-DAHN-goo-St-HAH-suh-nuh
Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose
So much of yoga’s origins are clouded in mystery. Beyond the fact that the original yoga posture was the seated meditation pose, we don’t know how, when, where, or why the first “non-seated” pose occurred. What we do know is that it’s linked to India’s Ascetic Tradition and the practice of Tapas. The word “tapas” literally means “to burn,” and refers to burning impurities out of the body, mind, and soul through rigorous practice. Therefore, “tapas” has come to simply mean “discipline.”
Guided by the idea that when we are attached to our senses we are driven by them, ancient yogis performed rigorous tasks of discipline. When we feel discomfort, it’s all we can think of and so it rules us. But if we’re able to experience the discomfort and not be attached to it, then we can be the master of our own experience. This gave way to intense ascetic practices such as lying on a bed of nails, meditating in the blazing sun surrounded by fires, and standing on one foot for long periods of time. And we mean LONG. There are tales of yogis standing this way for years at a stretch. The practice was to feel the discomfort, but not allow it to dominate. These yogis believed that this was the path to liberation (moksha).
And so, one of the oldest images in the yoga tradition is of the dedicated practitioner standing on one foot, awaiting liberation. Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, literally meaning “extended big toe pose,” evokes this image. Requiring flexible hamstrings, open hips, and steady balance, all these pale in comparison to the mental rigor it takes to hold it all together. While the full expression of this pose can feel like quite an accomplishment, the true task is to find ourselves standing unwavering in our strength as yogis, honoring the tradition and forging the future.
How to practice Utthita Hasta Padangustasana
- Begin standing with your toes spread. Lean your body weight into your right foot as you draw your left knee up into your chest, hugging it in tightly.
- Take the middle and index fingers of your left hand and hold your left big toe, or wrap a strap around your left foot, placing your right hand on your right hip.
- Keeping your spine tall, begin to extend your left foot forward, straightening your left leg (or leaving it slightly bent).
- Maintain for 3-10 breaths, then keeping your hips level, rotate your left leg out to the left as far as it will go with level hips. Hold for another 3-10 breaths.
- Bring your left leg back to the centerline. Gently release the pose. Repeat on side 2.
Modifications and variations
If your hamstrings are tight, please do use a strap. This is not a time to push your flexibility, but rather to focus on balance. If your flexibility is limited, use the strap so that balance can be cultivated.
This pose can also be practiced with your standing hand (the same hand as the standing leg) holding onto a wall or chair for stability. This can be very helpful in getting you up into the pose itself. Once the pose is found, you can begin to wean yourself off the support.
You may get to a point where you can get your leg straight, but your spine may hunch or you may need to round over to get your leg straight. Please avoid this. When choosing which line of energy is the most important, always choose the line of the spine. That is your priority: keep your spine long. People who have knee or low back issues should practice with caution as well as anyone experiencing any kind of vertigo or unsteadiness.
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