One of the first things people say to me when I recommend yoga is, “No way! I can’t even touch my toes!” I have to try really hard not to roll my eyes in response because — know what? Neither could I! We see these super bendy yogis on Instagram forward folding with their faces all up in their knees, and we think, “Damn, I can’t do that. Yoga must not be for me.”
First of all, I absolutely guarantee that if you devote yourself to practicing, your hamstrings will loosen and be a whole hell of a lot happier in the pose over time. However, whether or not your chest touches your thighs or your fingertips touch the ground is completely beside the point!
The Sanskrit term for what we commonly call a “forward fold” is Uttanasana, and it literally means something along the lines of “intense stretch”. So, if you’re like most people and your hamstrings start yelling when you attempt this posture, just know that the name itself agrees with you: this pose is INTENSE.
Today, we’ll discover four amazing benefits of folding forward (all of which have nothing to do with touching your toes) and learn how to engage correctly in the posture to keep your hamstrings safe. Grab your mat, strip off your skinny jeans (putting on yoga pants is optional, ha), and let’s get to it!
Ready, Get Set, Fold!
While there are several different forward fold variations depending on the type of yoga you practice, I’m going to stick with the version you’ll find in the Sun Salutations preceding the Ashtanga series. Let’s pretend you’ve found your strength and stability in Samastitihi and have just finished your upward salute (if you need a refresher, click here)…
- The upward salute happened on an inhale, so with your next exhale, swan dive forward, leading with the chest and being sure to hinge from your hips. If you’re not sure what hinging from the hips means exactly, place your fingertips on your hip crease — that place where your thigh meets your hip bone — and do your best to bend from there instead of hunching through the spine. It also helps to draw your low belly inwards to create more space for the fold, as well as to create more support in the core.
- On the way down, keep your spine long for as long as you can, and then when you’ve reached your edge, go ahead and let your spine round gently. Let yourself dangle, allowing your spine and neck to be free of tension. You can even sway a bit or nod the head yes and no a few times.
- With your next inhale, raise yourself up halfway so that your spine is lengthened and straight. If you’re very flexible, you might try keeping your fingertips (or even your palms) on the ground, but most of us will want to bring the fingertips to rest on the shins. Look slightly forward, but take care that you’re not compressing the back of your neck.
**TIP** You can SO totally start this pose with your knees bent. In fact, if you have anything less than super open hamstrings, I want you to bend your knees. It seriously doesn’t matter if your hands are anywhere near the floor. What matters is that you feel a release in your spine, a gentle stretch in your hamstrings, and freedom from tension in your neck. Don’t worry if your pose doesn’t look like mine (or hell, like anyone else’s!). This is YOUR body, and it’s about how YOU feel, so listen to what your body is telling you. If there’s more space, try moving deeper. If you’re at your limit, honor that.
You’ve made it through Uttanasana and on to Ardha Uttanasana, the half forward fold that occurs right before jumping back to Chaturanga Dandasana (we’ll save that for next week).
The Benefits of Folding Forward
So, aside from the awesome stretch Uttanasana gives to the entire back body, what are the other benefits of forward folds?
- Improves Digestion & Stimulates Metabolism
As you fold forward, your abdominal organs (kidneys, liver, pancreas, spleen, intestines) get a nice little massage and you increase circulation in the area. My only advice is to wait a bit after eating!
- Alleviates Anxiety & Soothes the Mind
I am DOWN for anything that will help kick anxiety and depression to the curb, and this is one pose that I can vouch for personally. The science behind it is that forward folds stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (think relaxation), but in my book, there’s something about folding yourself together that encourages introspection and allows you to just detach from the moment and take a breather.
- Relieves Tension in the Back and Neck
TRUTH. Ever had a kink in your neck after sleeping that you just can’t get out? Try spending a few moments dangling in Uttanasana (maybe even try grabbing opposite elbows for a full-on rag doll effect). I won’t say that your kink will be permanently fixed, but I assure you that it will feel a whole lot better!
- Activates the Core
Yep! I’ve come to believe that with pretty much everything in yoga, you can be strengthening your core. This is one pose where it’s easy to passively rest in the pose and enjoy the stretch (which is fine), but if you do want to keep those abdominal muscles engaged, think about drawing your navel to your spine and hollowing out the space behind the pelvis. You’ll get a deeper stretch AND get some core work in!
Now, make those hamstrings happy and start loosening them up with some forward folding! If you want to get really fancy, you can start out your Sun Salutations sequence in Samastitihi and flow through the postures we’ve learned together so far. Have fun with it!
I’ll see you back here for next week’s Yoga Break. Peace!