Collection of Articles: Anatomy of Forward Bends
The Safe Way To Forward Fold In Yoga
By Paisley Anne CloseSeptember 25, 2013
In almost every yoga class today, we practice Ardha Uttanasana (Half Forward Fold). It’s a key posture of the Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), where it’s inserted on the inhale, after Uttanasana (Forward Fold) and before jumping back to Phalakasana (Plank) or Chatturanga Dandasana (Low Plank). We do it so often, yet it’s regularly misunderstood or done with poor alignment. Yoga teachers have a whole slew of ways to describe this asana, some of which surely help, and others that probably cause more confusion. Here are some you may have heard:
inhale, half way lift
inhale, extend your spine
inhale, arch your back
inhale, look up
inhale to a flat back
None of these descriptions are necessarily wrong, but they don’t exactly describe what is being asked of us. It’s difficult for teachers to describe it in the one breath we get in the middle of our flow, before we fly back to Plank, so let me break down what’s important in this pose and why we do it.
Why We Do It
Ardha Uttansana is an elongation of the spine. It’s also meant to be a back bend. When we inhale and lengthen, it’s to create an arch in the low back that restores lordosis.
This natural curve — that moves the low back into the body, rather than towards the posterior — is one way that the intervertebral discs of the lumbar region are protected.
When we lose lordosis, it’s dangerous. The discs, which act as cushions and spacers between the bones of the spine, are more prone to slip, rupture or pinch a nerve.
To keep your spine safe, it’s crucial to get the low back into a back bend in Ardha Uttanasana. The pose is not about simply lifting up or just looking forwards with your head and face.
Landmarks of Safety
Begin with Uttanasana. Your sacrum (the bony plate at the back of your pelvis, at the base of your spine) needs to tip down towards your head. Your sitting bones and bum will look higher than your spine when you do this. Use your hand to feel, or look at it in a mirror.
Modify your Forward Fold first (read below for tips on that) as Half Forward Fold increases the stretch and requires even more flexibility to do in good alignment. The lordosis needs to be created in Half Forward Fold by working your legs and the muscles around the pelvis and low back. In effect, it should feel somewhat like you are sticking out your bum.
What You Can Do About It
Tight hamstrings and sitting for extended periods of time are two of the major contributors to loss of lordosis and increased risk of injury. Flexible hamstrings (or bent legs if they aren’t loose) alleviate this pull and restore the natural curve of the low back. It’s for this reason that doctors and OSHA videos tell you to lift heavy objects with your knees bent. If folding forward rounds your lumbar region up, towards the sky, you need to modify your pose.
Here are three easy solutions:
Separate Your Feet
Classically Uttanasana and Ardha Uttanasana are done with the feet together, but separating them will make the pose safer. Over time, as your legs and back become more limber you can move your feet closer together.
Bend Your Knees
You may need to bend your knees, a little (or a lot), in Ardha Uttanasana to create lordosis in your lumbar spine. Work to lift your sitting bones up and get your spine in while you do this. If you are particularly tight, you may even have to bend your knees in Uttanasana; just make sure to keep them parallel.
Place Your Hands On Blocks
If your lumbar region is rounded up higher than your pelvis, never let your hands and spine dangle unsupported. Place your hands on blocks to bring added support and increased safety. If you are moderately tight, a good intermediate step is to put your hands on the floor in Forward Fold, then move them up on blocks, or to your shins, in Half Forward Fold.
Refining Your Forward Bends With The TFL
"God is in the Details"--Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Attention to detail integrates mindfulness meditation into your Hatha yoga practice, enhancing the benefits. This blog post illustrates a detailed tip for engaging the TFL in the forward bend Upavista konasana, its biomechanical basis and the benefits of utilizing this important muscle in your forward bends.
Here’s the anatomy…
The tensor fascia lata originates from the front part of the iliac crest and outer surface of the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS). It inserts onto the iliotibial tract (IT band), which continues on to the front outside of the tibia (lower leg bone). It is considered a polyarticular muscle because it crosses both the hip and knee joint. Thus, contracting the TFL can influence both the hips and the knees, as we illustrate below.
Here’s the cue…
I always begin by taking the general shape of the pose. In the case of Upavista konasana this means taking the legs apart (abduction) and extending the knees. Then I actively engage the quadriceps to straighten the knees. This initiates reciprocal inhibition of the hamstrings, preparing them for the stretch. Next, I bring in the tensor fascia lata (TFL). The cue for this is to press the heels into the mat and then attempt to drag them apart (abduction). This causes the TFL to contract, which you can feel by placing your hands on the sides of the hips as shown below. Pressing the sides of the feet with your hands augments this cue (see figures 1 and 2 below--click on image to enlarge).
Attempting to drag the feet apart with the heels fixed in place on the mat uses the primary action of the TFL (hip abduction) as a cue to access its secondary actions—knee extension, and hip flexion and internal rotation. Knee extension synergizes the quadriceps and helps to align and protect the knees. Hip internal rotation counteracts the thighs rolling outward as a result of the pull from stretching the gluteus maximus. The TFL synergizes the psoas for hip flexion and contributes to femoral-pelvic and lumbar-pelvic rhythm. You can learn more about the concept of joint rhythm and its effect on the spine from our blog post “Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains in Yoga”. Figure 4 illustrates these actions in Uppavishta konasana.
Once you get the hang of this cue in seated angle pose, try it in other forward bends like Janu sirsasana (figure 5). This illustrates the concept of “portability” for these cues. For many more similar tips, check out the Yoga Mat Companion book series. Learn about the individual muscles in the context of yoga from The Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga (you can use the "page through" feature to see the entire books).
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