We practice Uttanasana (standing forward fold) and Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) in almost every class we teach. Hence it is very important to practice these poses correctly.
Benefits of forward folds:
Forward folds stretch the entire backside of our bodies, from our heels to carves; to hamstrings, hips, spines and all the back muscles. Folding forward helps to calm the mind and soothe the nervous system; helps you to release stress and find a sense of groundedness. A perfect posture to cool the body down and get in the mood for relaxation. Bending forward helps to improve digestion as the shape compresses and massages the internal organs and improve blood circulation to the abdomen.
Why do we struggle in forward folds?
When we struggle in these poses, the first reaction we usually have is "I am not flexible enough!". While tightness in the hamstrings and other muscles can contribute to this, flexibility is not entirely the only reason. It is also because sometimes we lock our joints that limits our range of motion. Let's look at the knee joint in this context.
Photo credit: @maryochsner
Understanding forward folds.
Before we go into looking at the knee joint, let's understand a little bit more about forward folding. If you look at me in this photo, I had the full expression of Uttanasana (standing forward bend ) where my upper body folds over my legs at the hips. In other words, forward folding is a hip flexion movement. Hence if we want to improve our forward folds, our hip flexors muscles must fire to help us to achieve this. There are many muscles of the hip flexors, we will look at rectus femoris as this is the only muscle that crosses the hip and the knee joints.
Why do we bend the knees?
Because we can better recruit the rectus femoris to assist in hips flexion.
Rectus femoris is one of the hip flexor muscles (to bring the legs closer to the body) and one of the knee extensor muscles (to straighten the knees). Rectus femoris's function as the hip flexor weakens when the knee is fully extended, because it is already shortened, hence it suffers from active insufficiency. Active insufficiency refers to a muscle that crosses 2 joints being shortnened at both joints simultaneously that it no longer has the ability to produce effective tension.
To rephrase it, the shortening of the rectus femoris limits full hip flexion when the knee is fully extended. In other words, rectus femoris optimizes as a hip flexor muscle when the knee is flexed. If you are very flexible and know what to do, you can always straighten the knees while folding forward. But if you struggle in this pose, no matter how much you practice, it will be helpful to bend the knees first before you fold forward. This will help you to find a better range of motion at the hips and eventually you can go into a deeper forward fold with straight knees as you continue to practice. The knees should only be straightened without the upper body leaving your legs. When folding forward, don't think about "touching your toes", think about "belly to thighs, chest to knees and forehead to shins", in that order.
2. Because we can take the tight hamstrings out of the equation, and the hips can tilt forward.
When we teach forward folds in our practice at Yoga Peace Australia, we always use the cue "hinge from the hips, bend your knees and fold forward". When we keep the knees straight or locked, if we have tight hamstrings, the hamstrings will pull the pelvis backward (posterior tilt) , instead of allowing the pelvis to go forward and down (anterior tilt), hence most of the forward fold with the straight knees will not only put pressure on the hamstrings, it would also create more of a spinal flexion (rounding from the lower back or upper back) instead of hips flexion (folding from the hips). We don't need any more rounding of our backs in our yoga practice because we do a lot of that action in our daily life.
When we allow a gentle bend in the knees, the hamstrings will not pull the pelvis backwards, the pelvis has a chance to move forward (anterior pelvic tilt) in the same direction of the movement load - ie: forward and down. This creates lots of space in the lower back and allow the entire spine to fold forward from the hips with less pressure on the ligaments and muscles surrounding the hips and the lower back.
Be aware of the two reasons above will help you to understand your body better and help you to achieve a deeper version of your forward folds . The right techniques are very important in our practice to keep our practice safe while we go deeper into our frame. Once you are aware of the right techniques, keep practicing because flexibility won't come knocking on our door over night but you will find flexibility with a regular and consistent practice.
If you like us to help you to find better alignments in your postures, come and join us in our practices and experience the difference. We hope these tips help you find freedom in your movements and create more space in your body and know that folding forward is not about touching your toes, it is about what you learn about your body on the way down.