Image: Mike Pace
Last Friday, in the immersion I teach with Claudio, I talked about the anatomy of forward bends in yoga. We checked out the different parts of the body that can limit our flexibility and we discussed how to work with them. The time flew by! Here’s a summary of what went down.
What limits our flexibility?
There’s not a simple answer to this question, rather a variety of different factors to consider, some of which are:
- Genetics. This determines the flexibility of our soft tissues (muscles, fascia and ligaments). It also influences the form of our bones and joints. To give you an idea of how unique our anatomy is person to person, check out these amazing photos.
- Clinical History. This means injury, surgeries and even illnesses that we’ve had which affect our joint mobility and soft tissue flexibility.
- Daily Habits. The movements we repeat on a daily basis have a tremendous impact on the shape of our body and our mobility. What are your most repetitive movements? For a lot of people this would include sitting, and not getting enough exercise.
Photo: Rachel A K
The American College of Rheumatology recommends practicing forward bends to treat lumbar pain (low back pain) especially if it is more acute when standing. Meanwhile, Rachel, the photographer featured above, has this to say about yoga:
2 and a half weeks of yoga and, for the first time ever, I can touch my toes! Seriously, I could barely touch my knees before. I have really (really) long legs and mild scoliosis. I can bend over backward easily, but forward has always been incredibly painful. Yay yoga!
Relief of low back pain and increase in flexibility are just a few of the benefits of forward bends. These postures are also calming and grounding. With so many benefits they’re definitely worth practicing daily.
When you bend forward you flex at the hip joint and articulate your spine. The range of your forward fold depends on the elasticity and length of the soft tissues (muscles and fascia) on the back side of your body. Specifically, I’m referring to hamstrings and lumbar fascia. With a consistent yoga practice we can improve the elasticity of these tissues and increase our overall flexibility.
- Start your forward fold at the hip. The hip joint is the place where the head of the femur plugs into the pelvis. Bringing awareness to this joint helps to create awareness and space between the legs and the low back.
- Bend your knees. This will help you to fold at the hip crease and prevent you from compressing the joints in your low bak. Noelia, a student in the immersion offered a verbal instruction I really liked. It goes like this: sitting on the floors, fold at the hip and rest your belly on your thighs (yes, you have to bend your knees). Slowly start to inch your feet away from your pelvis as you move towards straightening your legs. When your belly comes off your thighs, stop. This is how far you can safely bend forward.
- Once we’ve gained more awareness of the hip joint (and its relation to our low back) we can begin to straighten the legs and work the hamstrings. It’s important not to rush. Sometimes the desire to rest out forehead on our shins makes us skip all the steps that prepare us for the pose. It’s important to cultivate awareness of our different body parts and to explore their interconnectedness.
The interesting part about the “tough” postures is the challenge they represent. To me they’re like a puzzle I have to solve, little by little the pieces fall into place. The process has given me more flexibility, yes, but of even greater value is the body awareness I’ve gained. I encourage you to be patient, take your time and enjoy the process.
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