The benefits of forward folds are plentiful. To list just a few, they help to create length and space and counteracts the compression of the spine; they can help to bring your gaze and focus back inward; stretches hamstrings and calves; helps to alleviate anxiety; relieves headaches; improves digestion.
There are a couple of variations that I would like to share with you. I will start with the full expression of the pose, and expand from there. The main focus of this pose is to stretch the calf and hamstring muscles, with a secondary stretch of the back. Some may think that the idea is to touch your toes, and it’s not. So if you were feeling too inflexible for a pose like this, let that go, and know that the set up and alignment will help bring you into the pose in a way that fits your body.
Variation #1: To bring yourself into the full expression, stand tall and bring your feet together – with your big toes touching and have a slight space between your heels. This aligns your heels with your center toes, and gives you a stronger base. If your hips are really tight, and bringing your feet together is uncomfortable, wiggle your feet apart until you do feel steady, just not wider than hip-width*. Set your arms, palms forward, down by your side, and take a few breaths. Then inhale and reach your arms overhead, exhale fold yourself in half – more specifically, as you fold, press your feet evenly into the floor, engage your quadriceps (and keep them flexed for the whole pose), activate your core (to help control your folding action), maintain a long spine, and then bring your hands to the floor. You can choose to bring your hands together through heart center, or swan dive your arms out to the side and down, but move slow and deliberately, resist allowing yourself to just fly or flop down. Spread the weight evenly throughout both feet, and resist letting your weight rest all in your heels, and stack your hips over your heels. Don’t be surprised if you feel as though you may fall forward. If you keep your weight in your heels, you will lose the stretch of your hamstrings. Press your navel in to fold a little deeper, round through your spine, walk your shoulder-width apart hands closer to your feet – if your hamstrings have the length, walk your hands along the pinky-edge sides of your feet – press your palms into the floor towards the back of your mat, and bring your forehead to your shins. Resist forcing the fold, ease into it, let your breath release the tension and guide you deeper. Remember, less in more. As you can imagine, this sounds like I am instructing you to make your torso and head parallel with your legs, and in a sense, yes, this would be the full expression of the pose. But there is more…
A few modifications to consider, depending on your body:
- Bring your hands to a block, or even better, 2 blocks, one for each hand at shoulder-width. Blocks are great because they help fill the extra space between the floor and your hand. This helps relieve strain and tension created if the floor is just a bit too far away.
- Bring your feet hip distance apart. This is a great option to help give a little extra room for your hip flexors to engage to cue your glutes to relax into the stretch. The feet being a little wider can also allow for more balance.
- Remind your quadriceps to stay flexed. This flexion cues your hamstrings to let go and relax into the stretch.
*Hip-width – make fists with your hands, connect the fists together thumb to thumb, and place them together between your feet. That will be right about hip distance.
If going upside down isn’t your thing today, or you need more time to ease into it, try doing a seated forward fold, or paschimottanasana. Essentially doing what I just explained, but from the comfort and support of the floor. I will delve deeper into seated postures in another week, but if you just can’t wait… check out this link: http://www.yogajournal.com/pose/seated-forward-bend/
A modification is to walk your hands down your thighs to help ease more slowly, and with more support down to the floor. You could even keep your hands on your thighs, and let your breath and time ease you down deeper. Please remind yourself to keep your quads and core activated, soft knees (not locked or hyperextended), back flat, and your feet pushing into the floor to help keep you balanced and strong in the pose.
Variation #2: Another idea is to find a chair, estimate the distance from your hips to the top of your head, and place the chair that far away in front you. Bring your feet hip distance apart, bend forward to a 90 degree angle at your hips, grab opposite hands to opposite elbows (like you’re framing your head), and bring your forearms to the top of the chair. You may have to play around with the distance of the chair. The nice thing about this variation is that you don’t have to bring yourself upside down to still get the same hamstring and calf stretch. Keep your hips over your heels, keep your core engaged, long spine, and gaze down straight to the floor to keep your neck long. Reengage your quadriceps to help your hamstrings relax, and lift your hips to help deepen the stretch. Also, keep your arches lifted, try lifting your toes up to help. I personally remind myself to lift the arches when flexing my quads because the movements go so well together. If you find that you want to move deeper, slowly and safely bring your hands to the floor – I find that bringing my weight back into my heels is a helpful tool.
Variation #3: Ragdoll pose, this is Uttanasana with an arm variation, and is possibly one of my most favorite poses ever. My students get to have this pose in every single class. Why? Because it just feels good. To get into this pose, bring your feet hip distance apart in your forward fold, then grab opposite hands to opposite elbows, like you’re creating a picture frame over your upside-down head, and bring your weight towards the front of your feet – feel the stretch deepen a bit in your hamstrings, hips, and maybe even your low back. Bend your knees as much as you need, you can even rest your stomach on your thighs. Keep your quadriceps engaged to help support you, but also to cue your hamstrings to relax into the stretch. Let your head hang heavy, down towards the floor, let some space be created in your neck, release some tightness, and feel free to gently nod your head “yes”, and then “no”. Stay here for a few breaths, then switch the cross of your arms. You can remain staying still and hanging, or nodding, or add a sway of your whole torso side to side. Swaying side to side is such a nice release, stretching deeper by focusing on one side. Also, remember to resist holding your shoulders in tight, let those breathe and hang down towards the floor as well.
In practice, it is wise to warm up a bit before going right into uttanasana, or any forward fold variation. If you read the last blog about side bends, start with that mini sequence to help warm your body up, and to ease into the fold, using modifications and variations that suit you best.
There are a lot of reasons why going upside down is good for you. As a horn player, the one obvious reason to me is the relief and length your spine gets when its allowed to let gravity pull it down in the opposite way. We spend so much time holding ourselves and our horns up against gravity that, just like the side bends from the last post, we need to give our bodies a break and let some space be created in our upper bodies. There are several other perks to going upside down, such as: reduced back pain; improved leg and core strength; increased flexibility; better posture; improved focus, balance, and brain function; natural anti-depressant; reduced stress. Plus, going upside down changes your perspective for a bit, might help you let go of a stressful thought, or a tense practice session, or maybe helps clear your head to help find that creative solution you’ve been looking for. That is a long list of benefits, and you might be asking can one pose really do all that? Well, you will find the need to be patient to experience all of these benefits, so please do not stress if you experience none of these to begin with. As your practice grows you will be exposed to and ready to experience the different benefits. It can be stressful to go upside down, remind yourself where you are in your body at this moment, and ease into each pose mindfully. Test it out, get upside down, and change your perspective. I would love to hear from you about how this pose, or anything I introduce here, affects you!
Thank you so much for reading! I will be back in a couple of weeks with another pose, and an introduction to the 8 limbs of yoga!