Forward bends have somehow become a prerequisite for yoga. When new students come to class, they often tell me they’re not flexible enough to do yoga because they can’t touch their toes.
But I’ve actually found forward bends to be more advanced than one might think. They are especially frustrating for those whose toes seem to be dispiritingly out of reach. This can include people who are just beginning, or even students who have been practicing for a while. Teaching forward bends to beginners starts with changing our perspective as teachers. We often focus on alignment and aesthetics and lose sight of the specific actions involved in forward bending. Are we telling our students to bend from their hips without teaching them how to initiate that fold from their hips? Over the years, I’ve accumulated a few tips that I’ve found to be tremendously helpful in this endeavor, which I’m happy to share with you.
Our language greatly affects our students’ experience. Forward bends can have a cooling and calming effect, as long as the body can rest in the pose (though this may not be true for everyone). For beginners whose hips (and more specifically, hamstrings) create restrictions, forward bends can be quite agitating. In such cases, being told that they’re calming can actually be infuriating. We should not project our own comfort in forward bends onto students, who may feel anything but comfortable. This could lead to them feeling defeated and thinking they are wasting their time practicing yoga.
Though we may be giving them a glimpse of what the future may hold, it’s probably better to get practical about the physical technology of this category of asanas—rather than float some subtle, abstract end goal that they may eventually achieve.
A cue often heard in class is to move into a forward bend by hinging at the hips. But if a student cannot distinguish between moving the pelvis over the heads of the femurs and flexing the spine while reaching for the toes, this cue is lost.
Teaching students how to move the pelvis is monumental for their understanding of forward bends. There are many ways to teach pelvic tilts, but one of my favorites is through cat and cow, focusing solely on the movement of the pelvis and keeping the rest of the spine relatively still. Then, when I’m teaching any type of forward bend, I can refer back to how the student felt practicing a cow tilt of their pelvis (anterior tilt) and a cat tilt of their pelvis (posterior tilt).
Standing forward bends are typically more accessible than seated forward bends because the hips are free to move in space when you’re standing. Students can experience the pelvic tilts more easily, connect with the leg muscles that attach to the hips, and feel the specific positions that may involve more or less restriction in the forward (i.e., anterior) tilt of the pelvis.
By unlocking strategies of forward bending while standing, students will then be able to access them more easily while seated.
Re-envisioning seated forward bends is difficult, especially when you’ve been trained to teach them with a certain notion of how the poses should look. Nonetheless, when you teach week after week without seeing much progress in your students, something has to shift. One strategy I use in teaching seated forward bends is to lead the class through a prop-supported series of pelvic tilts in four different leg positions.
Teachers often suggest placing a blanket under the hips to help the forward fold, but a single folded blanket does very little for the pelvic tilt. So I exaggerate the height and have students sit up high on a firm bolster and blanket. From there I ask them to practice their pelvic tilts in the following positions:
1. With straight legs (staff pose)
2. With bent legs, legs together
3. With straight legs again, but separated about hip-distance apart (or even wider)
4. With bent legs, legs separated
I then repeat this process with the students seated on only the bolster. With each repetition, the height under the hips is reduced so that the students can feel the relationship between the height under the hips and the effect on the movement of the hips and the quality of the fold. Then students have a better idea of where they feel they can work best in their seated forward bend—which may not look much like the traditional photo of seated forward fold (paschimottanasana) or even a wide-legged seated forward fold (upavistha konasana). When we let go of our ideas about the “ideal” pose, we become more open to seeing how we can serve our students’ best interests—particularly with poses that can be rather frustrating for the new yoga student (as well as the seasoned yogi).
The next time you teach forward bends, try incorporating these tips and observe how they impact your students, both physically and emotionally. You may find that yoga suddenly becomes more accessible to them, and they have more interest in their forward bends!