Forward folds can be some of the most calming of poses. As we drape the upper body over the legs or over the ground in front of us, the mind draws inward, allowing us to tune out the noisy business of the world. When done properly, they help us to create length and greater breath awareness in the entire back of the body and to find more ease in our posture. However, pushing beyond one’s current flexibility in forward folds and/or practicing with otherwise unsafe alignment are very common causes of the yoga-related injuries I see in my yoga therapy practice. I've worked with many clients who were dealing with injury and discomfort that could be traced back to less-than-optimal forward folding.
The first lesson in “Folding Your Body Safely 101” is to begin with a non-competitive attitude. It’s often the urge to fold as deeply as others fold that causes us to push ourselves too far. The remaining lessons involve the interpretation and application of common cues for forward folding, as well as knowing when to avoid applying those cues. This will ensure healthy movement in yoga class, as well as in everyday forward-folding movements such as sitting and picking things up from the floor.
The first lesson in “Folding Your Body Safely 101” is to begin with a non-competitive attitude.
In yoga class, we may at times hear instructions about forward folds that are unclear, or even unsafe. If we follow these cues in the wrong way (or in some cases, the “right” way), we could end up with back or neck pain as a result.
Let’s look at four common forward-bending errors, and the instructions that often lead to them. And let’s also look at what we can do instead to avoid injury and feel relaxed and pain-free, both during and after our forward folds.
1. Pulling the Head Toward the Knees
I always regret having to translate the pose janu sirsasana into English as “head to knee pose.” As soon as students hear “head to knee,” they often try to force the face or top of the head down to their straight-leg knee, excessively rounding an often already-excessive thoracic curve.
I often wish the pose were called “heart toward knee,” or even “heart in the general direction of the knee pose.” In fact, I think these are useful instructions to give in almost any forward bend. Such a directive shows more regard for the integrity of the spine, as the fronts of the spinal discs can become compressed in excessively rounded forward bends, which creates the risk of possible herniation (as the compression in the front pushes the back of the discs outward). It also allows for more protection of the fragile hamstring attachments that can tear when the body is forced into a deep stretch—particularly when the legs are straight (see mistake 2).
2. Thinking That Your Knees Have to Be Straight
Knee hyperextension (i.e., the joint being forced to bend past its natural range of motion when the leg is straightened) is an anatomical problem that can occur in many asanas. But there seems the unspoken assumption that if we bend our knees in a forward fold we are somehow doing a lesser version of the pose. Uttanasana (standing forward fold) is a prime example of a forward fold in which we may feel we’re not really doing the pose if we bend our knees. However, when individuals with tight psoai and/or hamstrings finally give in to bending the knees in this pose, they tend to exclaim aloud in relief as they experience a uniform lengthening of the whole spine. (The same is true in poses like downward dog: It’s cool to bend those knees!)
When teaching forward folds, I often give everyone in class the instruction to bend the knees. Personally, I find that coming in and out of uttanasana with bent knees provides an added core challenge, and it breaks us out of habit patterns. Poses such as dandasana (staff pose), ardha uttanasana (half standing forward bend), and adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) with feet to a wall at a right angle (“L-handstand”) can also benefit from bent knees. Even when the angle of hip flexion is 90 degrees or less (meaning when the torso is lower than hip level as in “deeper” forward folds), more bend in the knees can help make a posture less of a threat to the lumbar spine and hamstrings. When practicing seated forward bends where one or both legs are extended (such as janu sirsasana or paschimottanasana), a rolled blanket under the extended leg(s) can be helpful for maintaining a bend in the knee(s) as you fold forward (and as a result, a longer spine).
3. Lifting the Chin Too Much and Compressing the Back of the Neck
The drishti cue “Gaze at your big toes” is standard in Ashtanga sequences, given with the intention of moving the chest forward rather than excessively rounding the upper back in forward folds. But often, when students are asked to gaze at their big toes, they lift the chin too much and compress the back of the neck, while still keeping the upper back in an overly rounded position. This compression of the neck can put pressure on the nerves in the spinal cord, which may result in pain, stiffness, or numbness, among other things.
In seated and even standing forward folds, while using the same gaze point (the big toes), it is helpful to lift the eyes rather than the chin toward the toes. Because we tend to be a hypermobile neck culture—pushing our heads forward toward screens and traffic, and twisting our necks around to look behind us (rather than using the whole spine and the eyes)—use of the eyes is highly “overlooked.” Try strengthening those eye muscles by looking up past the eyebrows as you lengthen the back of the spine in poses such as uttanasana or paschimottanasana.
4. Overarching the Lower Back During the ”Swan Dive” Forward
The cue to “Hinge at the hips and swan dive forward” is usually intended to instruct students to fold from the hip creases instead of bending from the lumbar spine, and to maintain a long spine as they fold. And yes, I did just say a moment ago that excessively rounding the back in a forward fold is not desirable. The problem, however, is when those with a tendency toward an excessive anterior (forward) pelvic tilt and excessive lordosis (curving in) of the lumbar spine take this to the other extreme, turning the forward fold into almost a backbend. When we hinge forward with an exaggerated lumbar curve, it compresses the lumbar discs, putting them at greater risk for injury. It can also increase the risk of overstretching or tearing the hamstring attachments—particularly when folding forward with straight legs.
Do bear in mind that “Fold at the hip creases” may still be a useful cue, especially for those who tend to round forward. But students prone to excessive lumbar curving need to realize that this cue is not encouraging them to excessively arch their lower backs as they fold forward. They should instead maintain abdominal engagement, as well as a neutral spine up until the “halfway point” of the fold (about 90-ish degrees of hip flexion). After that point, the lower back will have to round as they descend more deeply into the fold.
For those individuals who tend toward excessive lumbar lordosis, slightly bent knees are also important. The bent knees act as shock absorbers, helping to angle the pelvis in a more abdominally engaged neutral position, and lessening the exploitation of areas of hypermobility in standing folds.
Forward folding can be very healing for our overstressed minds and bodies, soothing jangled nerves and helping us to move within. Learning to fold intelligently, with safe and healthy alignment, allows us to experience the benefits of these poses to an even greater degree. It enhances their stress-relieving power and makes our practice more sustainable—allowing us to peacefully forward fold for years to come!