Moving into a forward bend is like moving into a comforting, protective hug. It’s the very nature of these poses…folding forward, chest towards thighs, as though protecting our vital organs. Like curling up into ourselves. The very opposite of heart-exposing back bends.
Forward bends are some of the most familiar shapes in yoga. They are poses to linger in, to pause and to let go. Forward bends allow you to be fully present to your physical experience, present to your internal world.
What exactly is a forward bend?
It’s what we call “flexion” in yoga because we “flex” the spine as we bend forward. There is a wide variety of forward bends, they can be done standing, kneeling or sitting.
What are the benefits of forward bends in yoga?
They are wonderful for stretching the entire back of your body, from ankles to hamstrings to hips and back, creating space in the spine.
They can help relieve and release tension in your neck and shoulders. They can also stimulate and tone your internal organs.
Forward bends are deeply calming and restful.
And an important benefit of forward bends is that they offer the opportunity to quiet your entire experience, to let go for a moment of the busyness and the stimuli of the world. Resting in a forward bend you have the opportunity to be fully present to the sensations in your body and tune into your own inner world, to take the time to notice the movements of your mind, to go deeper and deeper.
Tips to move safely and comfortably into forward bends
Be gentle, never strain or force yourself into a forward bend. Keep these tips in mind.
Try any or all of these favourite forward bends.
DOWNWARD FACING DOG (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
This quintessential yoga pose is both a symmetrical forward bend and a gentle inversion, so you get great lymph movement, and decompression of the spine. It opens your chest and shoulders, strengthens your arms, stretches your hamstrings, calves and achilles tendons, and builds body awareness. Feel free to allow some movement; peddle your feet, shift from side to side, experiment with shoulder positions - find your pose from the inside out.
Tip: if you have wrist pain, consider engaging your hands more and pressing through your knuckles, or placing a folded towel under your wrists so your knuckles are still on the mat and taking most of the weight. You can also hold on to cork blocks with your thumbs facing inward, which will help build the forearm and hand strength. As always, practice in your comfortable range and you might want to avoid this pose altogether if you have an acute shoulder injury.
Challenge yourself to try a “one-legged dog” (Eka Pada Adho Mukha Svanasana).
PYRAMID POSE (Parsvottanasana)
This is an asymmetrical standing forward bend. You will need to do this pose on both sides.
From Mountain Pose step one foot back into a wide legged stance. Your front foot should face forward and your back foot can be turned out on a 45 degree angle (or so). Your hips should both face forward. Bend from the hips over your front leg. You may need to adjust your stance making it slightly shorter, to be able to bend forward comfortably.
Tip: place your hands on blocks to allow your hips to remain facing forward while your spine extends and gently curves down. And don’t worry if your hands don’t reach the floor.
STANDING FORWARD BEND (Uttanasana)
This is a symmetrical forward bend and wonderful to release tension.
You might start in Mountain Pose and hinge forward at the waist. Or you might begin in Downward Facing Dog and step forward towards your hands and lift your hips to arrive in a standing fold with your fingertips on the floor (or close to it).
Keep your knees generously bent, especially if you have tight hamstrings, and allow your spine and shoulders and arms and head to drape towards the floor like a heavy velvet curtain; no pushing, no straining - just gravity inviting you to release. If possible, release the muscles in your neck to allow the weight of your head to traction towards the floor. Relax the muscles of your face. Visualize any stress or tension dripping out the crown of your head towards the floor.
COBBLER’S POSE (Baddha Konasana)
This is a symmetrical seated forward bend. It’s really good for external rotation and hip flexion. In fact this pose is great for hips. It’s interesting to try your feet at different distances from your hips so that you can work on different muscles in your pelvis, hips and legs.
You might have a tendency to hunch over or lead with your head on this pose. You do not need to get your head to the floor! If you can bend enough forward you could rest our head on a bolster or a block for greater release. But even bending forward a few inches is enough.
CHILD’S POSE (Balasana)
This is a restful and healing kneeling forward bend that brings your spine into a gentle C curve providing a gentle stretch for your lower back, hips, thighs and ankles. Come to Child’s Pose any time you need a rest in your yoga practice. And you can do this any time you are feeling anxious or stressed, it can be very soothing, calms the nervous system and helps to release stress.
Tip: you can modify this pose for tight ankles with a blanket under your shins. Always listen to your body.
When we’ve done a lot of forward bends, it’s good to also do some back bends as counter poses, to create a balanced practice. For example, as a counter pose to these lovely forward bends, try Heart Melting Pose (Anahatasana). This pose is a gentle shoulder opener and backbend, which helps to counteract the rounding forward many of us find ourselves doing all too often in our daily lives. It’s ideal for your upper and middle back and creates a lovely heart-opening stretch in your chest. And it might feel very restful to connect with the earth by placing your forehead on the mat between your arms.
Other gentle back bends: Cobra Pose, Sphinx Pose, Upward Facing Dog
In any yoga practice, always listen to your body. Its good to challenge yourself and a bit of discomfort is normal is you are working muscles and joints you don’t usually work. But pain is definitely not ok. If you feel any pain or anything that feel too uncomfortable, adjust the pose or try something else.
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