How to improve your yoga - forward bends that feel better in your body
Whether you're a beginner to yoga or have more experience, finding variations in your practice is important for so many reasons!
Exploring different pose options can help you:
- know your own body better
- find a more comfortable version of a pose
- figure out an option that best suits what your body needs
- advance your yoga practice
We'll look at uttanasana, one of the standing forward bends as an example, but first, the important context: let’s consider forward bends and how they occur in a typical yoga class.
Forward bends are prolific in the yoga practice
So much of the sequencing in modern day classes has us bending forward in some capacity much of the time, especially if you attend any type of ‘flowing’ yoga class such as Vinyasa Flow or Astanga.
Because the pace of these classes is fairly quick, the sheer number of postures covered in any given class is pretty high. So there is a very good chance forward bending will come up a lot!
For example - during sun salutations - when we move up and down from tadasana; in seated forward bends such as paschimottanasana and janu sirsana; in ardha hanumanasana (half splits); even some positions on our backs put us into a forward bend position - eg supta padangusthasana (extended hand to foot/belt) and plow pose!
So, since we spend a lot of time in these shapes, it’s quite a good idea to understand what is happening in the body and also what your individual body most needs.
For simplicities sake in this blog post we’ll just breakdown uttanasana, as this is probably the most common forward bend.
Firstly I want to highlight that there are many ways to approach forward bends, and some will be better suited to your body and others, not so much.
Just don’t ever let yourself think the shape of your body in a posture has to be a picture perfect way or that it can only be the commonly portrayed image of it!
We are all different and we should embrace our differences instead of thinking it’s something we need to fix or correct. There is beauty and joyful feeling in many different shapes.
Option one - a bent knee practice
A bent knee practice can help you find more mobility in the hips, whilst also lengthening your spine and still giving a bit of a stretch to your legs.
You should bend your knees and think of lengthening your torso down over your thighs, even exploring some contact of the abdomen with your legs.
Gradually, gradually as you stay here (I’d suggest 10-20 breaths to really feel it) you might find that you can move the sit bones ever so slightly higher behind you, and allow the torso to soften ever so slightly further forward in opposition to that. And when I say ever so slightly, I mean it.
We are talking micro-movements! You have to be patient to experience the progress through these micro-movements. The legs might straighten a little, but remember this is not the goal, you are thinking of hinging at the hips and lengthening the spine over the legs.
As always, ensure your weight is more in the balls of the feet than the heels, without going so far that the toes have to grip strongly to hold you in place.
It can also be really nice to do this pose with your butt against a wall and your heels about 20cm away from it. Then you can lean back against the wall, and use the sensation of the wall to help you feel the progression of your forward bend - eg sit bones lifting ever so slightly higher on the wall.
Option two: supporting yourself with props of some description
It might be blocks under each hand, or a belt underneath the feet. Or if you have no props available then hands on shins will do.
The aim here is to lengthen the spine a little more, and ensuring you avoid too much rounding in the lower back (over time, for some of us this can have a detrimental effect on the health of our spines).
With the spine staying more straight/neutral in this version you may find you can straighten your legs a little more to increase the stretch in the backs of your legs.
The idea is to bring your torso up as high as your body specifically needs to to keep the spine in that fairly neutral shape.
Essentially, you don't want to be in this type of shape too often! >>>>>>>>>>
Option three: what if you’re already very mobile?
Ie. you can get your torso in contact with your thighs quite easily with straight legs (as I am doing in the image below), then there really isn’t anything further to be gained by pushing deeper into a forward bend.
You already have plenty of functional mobility in your hips and your spine, so to ensure you don’t go too far, and risk pushing into your ligaments or other non-stretchy tissue, actually try to activate the legs more by pressing your feet a little more actively into the ground, and also actually tucking your tailbone slightly under and hence doing the opposite to the ‘lift your sit-bones’ cue in the previous examples.
One final tip relates to the sun salutation movements
You might have noticed if you come to my classes that I usually demonstrate and verbally cue a bit of a bend in the knees when folding forward into uttanasana AND when coming back up to tadasana.
There are many reasons why this is a good way to practice…
It encourages you not to over extend in the back of your knees (hyper extension), and when we do a lot of yoga practice and this movement repeatedly, it can become easier to ‘hangout’ eg bear more weight than we should around the knee joint in that way. Bending the knees pulls us back from this and helps train awareness of that tendency.
It makes your forward bends more active and useful for your body. When we just lazily fold forward we’re not really using much muscular support, and when we lack that awareness and control we’re not bringing much benefit to our body.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times we definitely want to relax more fully into postures, but these dynamic movements are not that time.
We give can strengthen our hamstrings by bending the knees. There are actually not that many movements in a typical yoga class that strengthen our hamstrings.
Plenty of stretching opportunities of course, but not a fair balance of strengthening to go with that.
Our tissues need a balance of both strengthening and stretching to be at their best, so, it’s great to use those chances to strengthen when we can!
Bend you knees a bit, feel your feet on the ground, and stay active through the legs as you move up and down in your sun salutation transitions to/from standing, it feels really great!
It helps keep your spine long, and avoid too much rounding in the lower back zone.
I explained a bit about this earlier...it's not that rounding is necessarily a bad thing, but repeated often in these movements as well as in other forward bends, then it might not be so great for some of us.
And we often focus so much on the lengthening our hamstrings (eg keeping the legs straight) when we go through these shapes that we forget about what is happening with the spine.
So working with bent knees, even from time to time is a great practice to help you be more aware of the shape of your spine, lengthen it nicely and bring some variety of movement patterns into your practice.
Try some of these out! I hope you find them interesting and useful.