Forward Folds are essential because they inform our everyday lives. The posture that we learn in forward folds is the posture that we should adopt when moving throughout our day. Forward folds are often confused for forward flexion of the spine [rounding the spine forward], however forward folding actually refers to hinging from the hip joint and bringing the upper body and lower body closer together. Forward folding happens when we bring our torso to our legs or our legs to our torso. Forward folds have the benefit of compressing the front body including the internal organs while opening the back of the body creating space for a healthy spine. The spine keeps our bodies in an upright posture and allows us to moves in all directions. The spine houses the spinal cord and protects it from injury. Forward folding with good posture is critical for maintaining the health of the spine and the spinal cord.
Along with the nerves associated with the spinal cord, the spine and the body, in general, contains a network of channels that support the transport of energy and information throughout the body. Yoga, especially done with a healthy posture supports the efficient transport of this vital energy and information. These channels could be compared to a water-hose if the hose becomes kinked the water does not flow with ease. In the same way, if the network of channels in the body are kinked our energy will not flow with ease.
All forward folding postures [all postures really] should start with the feet. Since we spend so much time on our feet and we are upright beings the feet serve as the foundation for our physical bodies. The feet are most often what is connecting us to the earth, and the feet are supporting the rest of our structure. The feet, like the hands, also contain an energetic center in the network of channels running throughout the body. This energetic center is in direct contact and possible conversation with the earth’s energy.
For this reason the feet should be open, souls broad and receptive. The toes should have space between them and the knees and toes should be pointing in the same direction. Visualizing the soul of the foot imagine a square, formed by the joint of the big toe, the joint of the pinkie toe, the outer edge of the heal, and the inner edge of the heal. Create action in the feet by reaching equally through all four corners of the feet while drawing up the line of the legs through the center of the square. In this way, you activate the plantar fascia and the energetic center in the feet.
The knees should always track in the direction of the toes. If that feels hard, it is a good thing because it is showing a dangerous habitual movement pattern that we are housing in our body. With that in mind direct the knees over the toes and do the work to keep them there. When forward folding the knees can be bent or straight, everyone’s body will be different. If your body is not used to forward folding it may need coaxing at first and bending the knees is the best way to do that.
The hip joint is where the main action of the posture is occurring. When we fold forward, we are hinging at the hip joint to bring the torso and the legs closer together. The depth of the fold is not as important as learning how to bend the hip joint as opposed to bending the spine. The quadriceps in conjunction with the iliopsoas and abdominal muscles create this action of hinging from the hips. Tightness in the hamstrings, gluteus, and back can often interfere with our ability to hinge from the hip crease, and we may find ourselves bending our spine. Rounding the spine is the number one precaution in forward folding, rounding the spine risks the health of the spine and can possible kink the spinal cord, nerves, or energetic channels in the torso. Instead start by activating the feet [described above], vigorously engage the quads, iliopsoas, and abdominals lifting the pit of the abdomen [to make space to hinge at the hip joint] and draw the femur bones deeply into their sockets while moving the sitz bones back and apart. Keeping this action, engage the hamstrings and the muscles of the back to open and lengthen the gluteus, so they do not inhibit hinging from the hips. You will feel like you are hugging all the muscles to the bones, like vacuum sealing the muscles and the bones with your fascia and skin, compressing equally from all directions. Keeping this action soften the skin and bringing the belly and the thighs closer together starting from the hip crease.
In forward folds, we are aiming to keep the natural and healthy alignment of the spine, and possibly create some axial extension or length. To do that the muscles that support the spine must be actively hugging and shoring up the spine to keep its integrity. The spine is not naturally straight; often when you hear the cue straight spine, it is actually referring to a natural spine that still has its three natural curves. Keeping these three curves in the spine is difficult in a forward fold and will often feel like an enormous amount of work. Some may even feel they are doing a backbend, however keeping the abdominals lifting the pit of the abdomen while equally engaging the muscles of the back holding the shoulders broad and the heart open is what is required to keep the back supple and open. When folding keep lifting the pit of the abdomen, hollowing the bottom of the belly, while simultaneously softening the bottom of the front ribs and the bottoms of the shoulder blades, broaden across the top of the shoulders and lengthen our of the back of the crown of the head.
We are often told to look at the toes in forward folding postures. Looking at the toes can be helpful, especially when learning how to keep the shoulders broad and the heart open. However, looking at the toes should never be maintained as the ultimate alignment of the pose because it may cause a kink the energetic channels or the spine. Instead, once the torso is aligned look down, bringing the head in line with the spine, reaching slightly from the back of the crown [the place where babies have a soft spot] to maintain the natural curve in the neck.
Forward folds can be done in both a dynamic way [yang] or in a passive way [yin]. When done in a dynamic way we are creating the alignment mentioned above with action, using muscular strength and fascial contraction. This mode should be done with a great deal of focus on keeping the alignment precise, but should only be done in short sessions for instance just holding for five to ten breaths at a time. This type of action creates functional strength and stability.
When forward folding in a passive way, the alignment is supported. For instance, you may use a blanket to rotate the hips forward, a bolster to support bent knees, and two blocks to hold the feet. Once the body is entirely supported, in the position that you want to create [proper alignment], then the body is completely relaxed, especially relaxing the tissues in the body that you are trying to change. Practicing in this way requires that the tissues that you want to change [by stretching or releasing] be completely malleable, completely relaxed, and then staying that way for a long time, maybe three to five minutes. This type of action creates space in the body by breaking of fascial adhesions and lengthening connective tissues.