When talking about forward folds, it is important first that you have a basic understanding of the differences of Flexion and Extension. Flexion is actually a decrease in the joints angle and is used in reference to the forward and backward direction of the body. My goal is not to get to anatomical on you, but to give you a better understanding of the function of the asana as well as the Asana in action.
Let’s begin with a forward fold. Probably one of the most overused, and misunderstood Asana.
What is the intended function of the the Asana? Lengthen the hamstrings and release the back and neck or round the back and draw the nose to the knees? I personally do not see any useful function of rounding the back to get the nose closer to the knees and there is so much evidence out there to back this finding up.
Flexion in regards to the low back may feel good, but can and often does increase back pain long term and in most situations should be avoided. Flexion reduces and often can eliminate the natural curve (lordosis) of the low back needed for proper function, alignment and balance of the upper half of the body as well as the shock absorption and even transmission of force received from the ground up (as you walk, run or jump) thru the discs, and boney matters of the spine. Back flexion, also known as trunk or spinal flexion is the act of curling the spine forward, not as a single joint, but several intervertebral joints all working in unison to curve the spine forward.
We actually spend a good portion of our day in a forward fold and this is contributing to low back pain. Sitting at your desk, at the dinner table, while driving your car, or watching TV. In this position you are flattening your low back increasing the amount of pressure and compression and increase the risk of disc bulge and herniation due to the excessive stress it puts on the discs. Unless you are overly Lordotic, which I seriously doubt many of todays, why then do we need to include it in our yoga practice?
We are going to explore the movement and orientation, the action and function of the forward fold intended to lengthen the hamstrings while maintaining health in the low back.
First thing to remember when dealing with the low back, just because you have been practicing forward folds without pain does not mean damage is not being incurred and that it is safe. You are stressing the low back if you are practicing lumbar flexion, irritating and possibly causing damage to the discs by irritating the joints, and maybe even the soft tissue.
Does that mean no forward folds, ever? No, but it does mean that today’s athlete needs to look at the action and function of the forward fold and find a yoga expression that is going to result in the desired results. That being said…….
What is the function of the Asana?
The function, the purpose of the forward fold is to lengthen the hamstrings and release the back and neck. It is NOT to touch the floo
r or get the head closer to the feet. This often means the legs need to remain bent so that today’s athlete can release and lengthen the hamstrings while engaging the quads to facilitate and allow a release (we will talk about reciprocal inhibition later).
So keeping that idea in mind in regards to releasing the low back, we want to engage and maintain lengthen the abdominal muscles so that we can help create length and space in the low back. We want to maintain a state of extension creating space in the low back, not flexion creating compression and an increase risk of disc bulge.
Asana in Action?
While sitting or standing, slowly hinge at the hips, coming forward with a flat back while actively tipping the pelvic bowl forward as you extend and lengthen the spine. NO ROUNDING of the back!
Something funny happens when we change the orientation of the body to the earth, and this simple action of tipping the pelvic bowl forward often gets confusing. Think opening up the chest and gazing forward as you come down, go as far as you can go while comfortably gazing forward and rest your chest on your thighs. Yes, you just might have to bend your knees to do this. Bring your elbows in front of the knees pressing them into the chins to keep the back and chest long. Slowly you can begin the action of straightening your legs while you maintain contact with the thighs and the knees. DO NOT round the mid thoracic back as you do so.
I asked my class today to gaze forward as tho they were in a football stance prior to the ball being snapped, only the feet were on the same plane. As they maintained the feet hip width apart, contact between the belly and the thighs as well as keeping their gaze forward, each one of them realized that the hamstring is a little longer muscles then they realized as they felt the stretch from attachment to insertion. From sit-bone to behind knee.
I asked them where they are used to feeling the hamstring and they all said right under the glutes. HMMMMMMMMMMMM, I guess next I will need to share with them that there is not just one hamstring per leg, but 3 of those pesky things.
Another way of doing this that I find to be even more effective in effectively stretching the full length of the hamstring from attachment to insertion, is to rest the bum up against the wall with the feet forward 2 feet or so, bending at the knees, resting the belly on the thighs as you use the elbows to press into the shin and lengthen the torso and gaze forward. As you begin to feel the release, actively push down through the feet and slowly explore straightening the knees while maintaining a pain free sensation of release.
So now that you have a little better understanding of the Asana in Action as well as the function of the asana, take a moment and explore your Yoga-Expression of a safe and effective forward fold for today’s athlete.
See you, on the mat!