A forward fold is any time the front of our thighs gets closer to the front of our torso – which means many very basic yoga poses qualify as forward folds.
A forward fold is the most basic stretch that is characterised as yoga. If someone wants to see how flexible you are, they will usually say, “Can you touch your toes?” For this reason forward folds are sometimes obsessed over and overdone.
Although forward folds seem simple enough, there are many fine points to them as well.
There is a tendency to crunch when we do a forward fold. Unfortunately getting our heads to touch our legs so we can “look” and “feel” flexible will not get us anywhere. Overtime this kind of crunching can be hard on our spines, and may even cause injuries. In actuality, we want our forward folds to resemble a back bend. Instead of crunching our heads toward our legs, we elongate our spine.
The key to a proper forward fold is to fold at the waist. The torso should make contact with the legs first and foremost. Remember to keep your knees bent if you can’t make contact with the torso yet. It’s important to let go of what a forward fold ‘should’ look like. Your head may not touch your knees, but as long as the spine is kept straight, your hamstrings and back will elongate gradually.
The body consists of many layers. Every muscle group has some muscles close to the skin, and others close to the bone. To get to the deeper tissues requires time and warm muscles. The hamstrings are commonly known as the tightest muscle group, and will need sufficient warm up prior to stretching.
In your sun salutations, it’s best to keep the knees slightly bent during a forward fold (Uttanasana), as this will help keep the spine long without lengthening the hamstrings prematurely. Most injuries occur without a proper warm up, so don’t skip your sun salutations!
Gravity can be a useful aid when stretching. Hanging from our waist in the beginning of class and later on in the practice is a great way to open things up. The body doesn’t like to be wrenched and torqued beyond its capacity. Use gravity as a gentle aid, and allow the tissue to change gradually, especially when cold. Later, when you are warm, you can go deeper into the poses and use more strength-based tactics.
Often we only think of the hamstrings when doing a forward fold. In fact, it affects the entire back body, including the glutes and calves. Because we are upright walkers, our calves do a ton of work every day. Due to this, they tend to be hard and tender. It might take sometime for them to open to the level of our back and hamstrings. You can use your hands to pull back on your feet, or you can modify stretches with your feet at a 45º angle, like side angle pose (Parśvottanasa), to target them specifically.
Once we have gotten over the hump of stretching our lower back, we can begin opening up the deeper tissue in our glutes (butt muscles). These muscles tend to be tight and dense to stabilise our hips, so it might take some time. Poses like cow face and pigeon are great in releasing tight glutes. Be sure to be thoroughly warmed up before going in too deep.
If you are just starting your practice and feel stiff, you may want to wait before attempting seated poses. Seated forward folds take longer to develop because we don’t have gravity on our side. You may want to master the standing varieties of the seated poses before embarking on that quest.
Yoga takes time. Enjoy the process.
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