“. . . according to the Yoga Sutra (3.1), the term [Bandha] refers to the ‘binding’ of consciousness to a particular object or locus (desha), which is the very essence of concentration.”
Georg Feuerstein

Monday, January 24, 2011

How to Use the Abdominals to Release the Back in Uttanasana

I used to quote the writer, Emily Dickenson, as saying, “See the world in a grain of sand…” Then a friend of mine explained that, actually, the quote was by William Blake.
So much for this surfer dude acting cultured . . .

Anyway, the point is that many of the things we learn in one pose can be applied to another.  Similar muscles work in Paschimottanasana as in Uttanasana (with variations).  Physiological principles, such as reciprocal inhibition between agonist and antagonist muscles, also apply across the board for other skeletal muscles. I find that when we approach learning in this way, it makes what appears to be a daunting subject like anatomy more manageable.
reciprocal inhibition in uttanasana
Abdominal muscles contracting to produce reciprocal inhibition of the erector spinae.

For example, let’s look at using the abdominals in Uttanasana. The abs are composed of four muscles. Moving from the surface inward, we have the rectus abdominis in the front and the external obliques on each side. Deep to these are the internal obliques, with the deepest layer being the transversus abdominis. Contracting these muscles flexes the trunk forward and increases intra-abdominal pressure (by squeezing the abdominal organs). Bending forward from the trunk stretches the erector spinae of the posterior kinetic chain. The erector spinae comprise three columns of muscles that lie parallel to the spine. From medial to lateral, these are the spinalis, longissimus, and iliocostalis.

The erector spinae and abdominal muscles are an antagonist/agonist group, i.e. when one contracts the other stretches. As I explained for the quadriceps and hamstrings in the first blog post for this thread, the nervous system signals the antagonist muscle to relax when the agonist contracts. This physiological Ying/Yang is called reciprocal inhibition.

Engaging the abs thus has two effects. It has the biomechanical effect of flexing the trunk and deepening the pose and the physiological effect of inhibiting the back muscles from contracting, relaxing them into the stretch.

Take a look at the image above. This illustrates an excitatory signal being sent to the abdominals, causing them to activate, and an inhibitory signal to the erector spinae, aiding them to release. When you consciously engage the abs, the reciprocal inhibition happens automatically (unconsciously).

Gently contract the abdominals in forward bends like Uttanasana and feel the effect. A cue for isolating the transversus abdominis is to draw the navel towards the lumbar spine. Feel how this cue gives an added support to the low back. Combine these actions with firming the thighs to release the hamstrings, as described in our first post.

An excerpt from "Yoga Mat Companion 1 - Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses".

An excerpt from "Yoga Mat Companion 2- Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends".

Thanks for checking in. We look forward to seeing you for the next post when we’ll illustrate how tight hamstrings affect the lumbar spine (and some tips on how to use physiology to release them).


Ray and Chris


  1. Great Post Ray,

    One really interesting effect of contracting the Transversus Abdominus (TA) is the 7th movement of the spine. Axial extension.

    Contracting the TA pushes the abdominal contents into the pelvic floor, diaphragm and back. Careful use of this contraction can actually mechanically lengthen the spine and bring some space in between the lumbar vertebrae, thereby keeping the disc's from receiving too much compression along the front edge where the vertebrae are squeezing together.

    All of this work does put "Eternity in an hour"

    How the heck do you find the time to put out all of these posts :-)

  2. Absolutely right on the details of the TA Byron! I feel the same effect when I use it. Thanks for this addition to the post.


  3. Thank you for this post. My yoga teacher once mentioned that engaging the abs helped her in forward bends, but I wasn't quite sure what she meant. This post makes it clear. I'm looking forward to trying this out during yoga tomorrow. :-)

  4. I want to use Abdominals to realize the back in Uttanasana. But I don't know the proper way. So it is very difficult for me. Now I am very pleased to know that How I can Use the Abdominals to Release the Back in Uttanasana. Please provide more useful way which I can use. Thanks for your excellent post.
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  5. esta en español esta pagina

  6. Yoga is a gift given to the world by India. Yoga is technique of controlling the body & the mind. If you want to lose weight Paschimottanasana is best .This asana is best for arms, hands & spine.

  7. This person appears to be stealing your content - FYI. http://artesanato1.com/2015/05/26/how-to-use-the-abdominals-to-release-the-back-in-uttanasana/

    1. Thanks anon--we're on it. They hacked our Facebook page and blocked our access and are posting the content all over. We're working on it. I appreciate you letting me know~Ray

  8. Hi, I love your books and they are a very very good source of knowledge; I already have all your books in spanish from Spain, but I couldn't find Backbends and twist and arms balance and inversions, do you have it in spanish?