Forward Folding seems like such an elementary movement and we all do this to some degree in our everyday routines. However it is also the key to many advanced postures in yoga and thus learning how to do it correctly has implications for advancing your practice as well as ensuring your safety as you proceed.
Benefits of Forward Folding
Yoga postures that require forward folding generally speaking stretch all of the posterior muscles or the muscles of the back from the shoulders all the way down to the ankles. One of the principal muscles targeted in forward folding is the hamstring muscle (located behind the thigh). When this muscle is tight, it has a tendency to drag our posture down thus forcing the pelvis to tuck in resulting in a flat back. Lower back pain is also a common outcome of this situation. Forward folding postures also encourage the spine and the muscles along the back of the torso to lengthen and stretch. Often hamstrings are highlighted as a feature muscle stretched in forward folding. Tuning in to the back muscles however will assist in improving the dynamics and alignment of your forward fold in the long run.
Forward folding postures can be done standing such as in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) or in the Prasarita Paddotanasana Series (Wide-legged Forward Fold). They can be done whilst sitting either in symmetry such as in Paschimottonasana (Seated Forward Fold) or asymmetrically as in the Janu Sirsasana series (Head to Knee Series) and it can be practiced whilst lying down on the back such as in the Supta Padangusthasana Series (Reclining Hand to Big Toe). I especially love Supta Padangusthasana with straps for those with limited hamstring flexibility as the reclining position helps protect the back from unnecessary arching and poor back alignment whilst the strap helps deepen the stretch of the hamstring. I talk more about alignment and safety below in the next heading. The level of difficulty can increase with forward folding when it starts to integrate other elements such as leg – balancing as in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Standing Hand to Big Toe) or arm balancing such as in Lolasana (Pendant Pose) or Astavakrasana (8 Angle Pose) and even inversions such as Ardha Sirsasana (Half Headstand). Dynamic transitions in Ashtanga Yoga such as jumpbacks and jumpthroughs at the heart of it integrate forward folding but also demand other strength components to accomplish and as such an understanding of the fundamental mechanics of how to forward fold will benefit a practitioner looking to get into more advanced postures.
From a mental and emotional standpoint, forward folding postures are said to be introspective and calming for the nervous system. Yin yoga sequences often incorporate forward folding postures which is an indication of the restorative qualities of forward folds.
Safety and Alignment: How to Approach the Forward Fold
My general observation of yoga practitioners when it comes to forward folding is the emphasis placed on getting one’s head to the legs. This is sometimes an outcome of forward folding but not necessarily the aim. The key aim in forward folding is to encourage the stretching of the posterior muscles of the legs and torso. However the key safety consideration in this movement is protecting the intervertebral discs of the middle and lower back which can become compromised with excessive arching. This can result in a condition known as herniation of the spinal discs where the inner gel-like nucleus of the disc pushes out of the disc due to a rupture and presses onto adjacent nerves that run along the back and legs, causing pain. The tilt of the pelvic bowl is at the heart of this conundrum. A healthy lower back has a slight inward curve which is consistent with an anterior tilt of the pelvic bowl (if filled with water, the liquid would spill forward). When hamstrings are tight, the more pliable lower back overcompensates by rounding and coming into posterior tilt to accomodate forward flexion. This causes the gel-like nucleus in the discs to push backwards into the stretched ligaments which may tear thus resulting in the said substance leaking out and pressing into adjacent nerves.
Understanding this, a practitioner should always be mindful of maintaining a “neutral arch” in the lower lumbar when coming into a forward fold. This might mean stopping at a 90 degree angle and having a forward fold that resembles more of a half forward fold in order to mantain a neutral arch of the lumbar when coming into a pose like Uttanasana. This is also consistent with one of the key aims of yoga in forward folding asanas – the lengthening of the spine and the stretching of the back muscles of the torso. Of Uttanasana the Great One has this to say:
”In this asana [Uttanasana], the spine is given a deliberate and intense stretch” ~ Iyengar in Light on Yoga pg. 65.
Nowhere are the hamstrings even mentioned in relation to his description of the benefits of this asana. Furthermore, I note with interest, that he prescribes a half forward fold stance in Padangusthasana (Standing Hand to Big Toe) and it’s sister pose Padahastasana (Hand under Foot) for those suffering from “slipped spinal discs”. Rather than drawing the head to the knees, the practitioner maintains what is described as a “concave back” position (see photo below). Fundamentally this is a neutral spine position where the practitioner dials back on the angle of the forward fold and doesn’t go all the way. Iyengar says of this modified positioning that:
”I have experimented with persons suffering from slipped discs and the concave back position proved a boon to them.” ~ Iyengar in Light on Yoga pgs. 63 – 65
Thus the golden rule in forward folding – “Always respect the neutral spine when moving into a forward fold and avoid bringing the pelvic bowl into posterior tilt.”
Secondly, make the lengthening and stretching of the spine and back muscles a goal of your forward folding postures. This is also consistent with the golden rule of maintaining a neutral spine as arching of the upper back (kyphosis) will only encourage posterior pelvic tilt.
Thirdly, it only follows that the throat should not be locked in as you enter into the movement of forward flexion. By keeping the chin lifted and eye gaze forward, the practitioner will discourage spinal rounding which I often see happening as soon students tuck their chins in as their gaze shifts inwards when coming into forward folding. This is a natural response given the introspective nature of forward folding but a reminder to lift the chin and keep the eye gaze forward is essential in encouraging the cervical spine to stay neutral and thus send a signal to the rest of the lower spine to do the same.
Fnally, the powder keg in this conversation which revolves around the bending or not of the knees (in relation to standing forward folding poses) needs to be considered. I will explore this in the next heading below.
Sound fundamentals leading towards more advanced postures
Whilst ensuring your safety, working with good alignment in forward folding will serve a practitioner looking to undertake more advanced postures. Over time, forward folding postures can help create flexibility of the posterior muscles that can have a real impact upon one’s arm-balancing and handstand practice. The majority of arm-balances integrate an element of flexion. Think about it – Bakasana (Crane/Crow Pose), Astravakasana (8 Angle Pose), Titibhasana ( Firefly – see video below), Koundinyasana Series ( Sage Series ), Lolasana (Pendant Pose), Bhujapidasana (Shoulder Pressing Pose), Uppluthi (Scale Pose) – these all incorporate forward flexion at its heart.
Even when it comes to handstands, you only enter into the pose from a forward fold position first. Nowhere is this more significant than in a press to handstand where by stacking the hips close to over the top of the shoulder girdle the practitioner puts herself in the best position to accomodate a lift off. What position do you think that pelvic bowl needs to be in when you are upside down when setting yourself up to enter into a press? Anterior or posterior tilt? Bingo if you said anterior – you were paying attention!
Flexibility in the hamstrings developed from good alignment in forward folding postures starts to play a crucial role in these advanced postures. Of course there are many other important factors influencing the execution of these types of advanced postures including core strength and stability both of the posterior and anterior muscles of the torso but even with that, without hamstring pliability, you’re behind the 8th ball with arm-balances and handstands. This allows me to conveniently segueway into that powder keg of a conversation in the yoga world of forward folding – to bend or not bend the knees when performing standing forward folds.
Why do teachers tell students to bend their knees when their hamstrings start to hamper their forward fold? I suppose it is to relieve the intensity of the stretch as well as to accomodate a deeper fold which would not be possible if the knees were not bent? However I question the logic behind this since by bending the knees you are taking away one of the key goals of the pose – stretching the back muscle fibres of the legs. Also try supporting a fully outstretched torso at 90 degrees or more with bent knees? Not easy right? That’s two strikes -by bending the knees you now can no longer accomplish the other significant purpose of forward folding – supporting the spine to safely fully lengthen and stretch without risk of strain to the lower back. My preferred option is to work on keeping the muscles of the legs engaged, quads and knee caps lifted (not locked in but lifted) and to halt the forward flexion of the torso as soon as the lower back wants to arch and the pelvic bowl wants to enter into posterior tilt. If a student is not able to at least accomplish this to a 90 degree angle in Uttanasana then I would be recommending other postures and drills to assist with improving hamstring flexibility and core stability before taking on Uttanasana given how often this posture is repeated in a typical yoga class. It is the responsible thing to do.
Taking the long term perspective
Take the longer term approach and view when it comes to forward folding. When you improve the flexibility of the posterior muscles of the body through consistent practice of forward folding postures, your ability to be able to fold correctly from the hinge of the hip joint will ensure that the lumbar retains a small arch (lordosis) which will assist your entry into more advanced postures in yoga whilst keeping your back safe.