Pain-Free Forward Folds
Deep, delicious forward folds. We all want them, yet the most common contra-indications I see in class are dangerously rounded backs and locked knees in the forward-bending postures. Students seem to have this idea that the forward fold is not complete until the fingers reach the feet or floor, and throw ahimsa right out the window when they strive and strain to go deeper, compressing the spine and straining the joints.
Forward folds are positions of surrender. They offer us the opportunity to turn inward and bow to the truest self. In forcing these important poses, we forgo the deeper, subtle benefits of that these positions have to offer. In moving beyond the point of surrender, we deny the true self and potentially do our bodies harm.
It is important to remember that the action of forward bending is flexion, or contraction of the spine. The vertebrae are compressed when we round our backs, particularly in the lumbar and cervical sections of the spine. Unfortunately, this is something that we tend to do a lot of in our day-to-day lives, hunching at our computers and slumping in chairs. This means that we must be particularly mindful of creating extension in the spine when bending forward, or run of the risk of stressing the vertebrae and causing pain in the neck and low back.
The best way prevent compression is to take a preparatory inhalation before folding forward, using this full inhalation to extend all the way from the base of the spine through the crown of the head. As you extend, lift the breastbone and tilt the sitting bones back, bringing a slight concavity to the curve of the low back. On the exhalation, lead with the sternum as you fold. Envision the ball-and-socket joints of the hip: stabilize the thigh bones and smoothly glide the hollow socket of the hips up and over the heads of the femur bones as you support and extend the low back with the subtle lift of the bandhas. Continue to grow the spine by reaching the heart forward and rolling the shoulders back. Maintain length in the back of the neck. You may not be able to fold as far forward with this extension of the spine, but this approach will build flexibility safely, and support and strengthen the low back over time.
If the hamstrings, hips, or lower back are tight and force the spine into compression, simply bend the knees. This is true for standing and seated forward folds. In my own practice, even though my hamstrings are rather long, I take the first few forward folds with bent knees to give my body a chance to warm and open gently. In Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), for example, it is a good practice to begin by bending the knees enough so that the belly rests on the thighs, and then gradually straightening the legs, little by little, with each exhalation while maintaining the contact of the belly on the thighs. The legs may not straighten fully, but the forward fold is more correct because, in bending the knees, the stretch is directed to the hamstrings and the low back is allowed to extend
Be patient with your hips and hamstrings. Life in a chair-centric society has made them short and tight. With consistent, mindful practice, they will lengthen. In the meantime, bend your knees, lead with your heart, and be joyful in your own unique expression of the folds.
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