The toughest thing about straightening your legs when you are bending forward is not actually getting your legs straight. It is dealing with the little voice inside of you that says you have to touch your toes or reach the floor while your legs are straight.
That little voice is a bit like the archetypal devil sitting on your shoulder who encourages you to do something that most of us probably know we probably shouldn’t—at least you should know if you have been coming to yoga class for some time.
The thing about forward bending is that sometimes we look too far ahead of ourselves and try to get somewhere our body is not quite ready for. If you have had a back injury you will know this on an intimate level. But even for those of us without back injuries we need to be mindful that we don’t develop awkward habits that could lead to injury down the track.
The angel, if you listened to her as she whispered from your other shoulder, would be telling you lots of nice things as you practiced forward bends. Here’s a potential though not exhaustive list:
· Relax and breathe
· Let go of ideas about where you ‘should be’ and just be where you are
· Please don’t come to yoga to turn yourself into a hunchback
It is the third of these that I really want to focus on.
If you come into a forward bend, either from standing or sitting, with the idea that you have to straighten your legs and touch the floor or your toes you are potentially setting yourself up for trouble if you don’t have enough length in your hamstrings or lower back. What will likely end up happening is that you round your spine and then shrug your shoulders in order to reach wherever it is you want to be. You will end up looking a bit like a hunchback.
This is not a pretty sight. Imagine if I kept my shoulders and spine in exactly the same configuration and stood up. In case you cannot imagine, I demonstrate in the video.
Ok, can you honestly say to yourself that you have come to yoga so that you can re-enforce a hunch in your spine?! Do you want to go home after class and say to yourself, “Gee, I am so glad I spent so much time cultivating that hunch. Feels so gooooood.” My guess is no. But the devil, you see, will encourage you to do exactly that.
So what can you do?
First of all, bring absolute mindfulness to your spine as you practice any forward bend.
Second, remind yourself you are trying to open the whole back side of your body—from your heels to the crown of your head—rather than just focus on that short distance between your bottom and your knees. It might help to think of yourself as trying to fold your body in half like you might fold a towel—you don’t want the bottom half to be smooth and straight and the top half to look like a camel’s hump.
Third, even though you are doing a forward bend, see if you can think a little bit about a backward bend as you come forward. You will not be able to maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine as you bend deeply forward but it helps to feel as though you are trying to do so. To do this it can help to imagine pushing your sitting bones behind you or above you—increasing the distance between your sitting bones and your knees. In the midst of a forward bend this is much easier said than done though, since this action creates a lot of tension in your hamstrings.
Fourth, draw your shoulder blades down your back so that the shoulders are free and move away from your ears. This will free up tension around the neck and the upper back.
Fifth, if you are in sitting, make sure you feel your centre of gravity in front of your sitting bones so you do not feel like you are falling backwards. You might need to use a block to sit on if this proves really difficult, or take option six, below.
Sixth, you can also opt to bend your knees as much as you need so the torso lies on the thighs. I like this one a lot, especially if your hamstrings are pretty tight. This action is very effective as it will release a bit of that tension on the back of your legs and allow your spine to relax forward more so you still get a satisfying feeling of being able to fold forward. You can still stretch your hamstrings by pushing your sitting bones further behind you. This calls for a tilting action of the pelvis so the top of the pelvis comes forward and your sitting bones move backwards. Once you have laid your chest on your thighs you can really hug your chest along your thigh bones and then start to straighten your legs from there, but only so much that your spine still feels relaxed and long and you can keep your chest and thighs roughly parallel (like that folded towel).
In practice this means you might not reach your toes or the floor at all. It does not matter. Reach the back of your calves or thighs instead. Just remember to move those shoulders away from your ears (you can try to press your hands into the back of the calves with your elbows in and then ‘pull’ the calves up under your knees to also free up some tension in the neck/upper back in a forward bend).
A word for the more experienced. Your spine is ultimately going to round a little bit when you come into a deep forward bend so you do not need to keep it stiffly upright (unless you are practicing some particular technique that calls for this). If you maintain this stiff upper back for too long what you will find is that the muscles in your back start to get tired. You need to allow for slight rounding so that your spine can relax. The trick is being able to feel the difference between a nice relaxed and long spine and a hunched and constricted one. In the video you can see my spine is not ramrod straight, but it is long and I can still move it and find little wavelets rippling through it no matter how deep I bend. As soon as I cannot ripple anymore, I know I have come too far.
As always, it pays to listen to what is going on inside your body. “Length” and “Freedom” should be a little mantra that you repeat to yourself when you practice forward bending.
If you feel in your body that you are slumping then this is a good sign that you need to do something to lengthen your spine. If your back muscles are getting tired then you are probably ‘too straight’ and you need to relax them a little. If you cannot move your neck in freedom you shoulders are probably shrugged as you try to reach too far. If you feel any pain at all in your lower back, bend your knees a lot to keep the lower back long or come out of the pose.