How to Improve Forward Fold with Better Flexibility
If I had a dollar for every time a yoga student or friend bemoaned his or her tight hamstrings, I would be pretty wealthy. It seems that people are super concerned about hamstring flexibility, and strain hard to touch their toes. Frankly, this ability is overrated.
Located on the back of the legs, the hamstrings are made up of three muscles with tendons that cross over both the knee and hip joints. Because the muscle attaches to two joints, any decreased joint mobility affects the length of the muscle.
Because of our sedentary culture, we spend an inordinate amount of time sitting — with both the knees and hips bent. This position directly impacts the length of the hamstrings. Athletic activities, such as running and biking, further shorten the hamstrings. This tightening also affects the pelvis because the tendons attach to the sit bones (ischial tuberosities), the bottom hooks of the pelvic bowl. In sitting, and even in standing, the shortening of the hamstrings can rock the pelvis backward, causing a rounded, slouchy position in the lower back. This rounded position can stress the back muscles, creating the potential for injury.
Now take this understanding of pelvic alignment and physiological length of the hamstrings onto the yoga mat, and move through a series of forward bends: the back muscles and tendons, attached to the sit bones, become genuinely cranky. Too often in yoga classes, students are most concerned with keeping their legs straight while trying to get their hands on the floor in a forward fold. Accomplishing this move really does not matter for general function and mobility, and can actually be injurious if done incorrectly. If a student strains to get their hands to the floor, and rounds at the pelvis, the lower back (and possibly the hamstring tendons) are at risk of becoming strained.
If the hamstrings are tight but the pelvis is allowed to tip forward as the student moves into a standing forward fold, the lower back is safe and, with time and practice, the student can work on gradually straightening their knees. The goal is to hinge at the hip, so that the lower belly moves toward the upper thighs. As long as pelvic mobility is not affected, and the core is engaged, a slight tightness in the hamstrings might offer some protection to less-flexible students by acting as a bumper pad to protect them from overstretching the connective tissue in their muscles and tendons.
Moving from the pelvis safely and successfully helps gain and maintain hamstring flexibility.
Complete this practice to help improve your forward fold with both pelvic mobility and hamstring flexibility:
- Start with cat/cow by going down on all fours. Focus on moving your pelvis by moving the sit bones up and down. Don’t dump into the lower back.
- Move into downward facing dog. Lift the sit bones up towards the ceiling, lifting the tendons of the hamstrings. Keep the pelvis in this position as you tuck the toes, lift the knees off the ground and gradually straighten the knees. Move into down dog gradually as you keep the pelvis stable, stopping when the knees can no longer straighten without rounding the back.
- If your hamstrings are really tight, place your hands on a chair and do the same cat/cow transition into a down dog. The focus should still be on lifting the tailbone.
- In down dog, place a block between your upper thighs and squeeze the inner thighs together. Try to straighten the knees, with the block in place, by pulling the lower belly in and lightly squeezing the sit bones. This movement activates the hamstrings, inner thighs and quadriceps (on the front thigh).
- Lie on your back, and place a strap, or a towel, around your foot and straighten the knee. Instead of pulling the foot closer to your head, keep the foot over the hip point and firm the front thigh muscle/quadricep to stretch the hamstrings. This alignment keeps the pelvis in a slight tilt and does not let the lower back round (as it would if you kept pulling the foot towards the head).
- Keep your abdominals engaged as you work on your pelvic mobility, on all fours or on your hands in down dog, so that you don’t dump into your lower back.
Completing this practice, and focusing on the pelvis instead of the hamstrings, may get you closer to the promised land of palms on the floor – or not. Remember, yoga is like life. It isn’t about the result; getting your palms down is much less important than how you move towards that goal.
Urdhva Dhanurasana: Upward-Facing Bow
Urdhva dhanurasana (OORD-vah don-your-AHS-anna) is often mis-translated as full wheel pose (chakrasana). Upward facing bow pose is a deep backbend that can cultivate flexibility, strength, and patience. This posture is worth the effort with its long list of benefits, including an energy boost and thyroid and pituitary gland stimulation.
- Urdhva: upward
- Dhanu: bow
- Asana: pose
- Expands chest, lungs, shoulders.
- Stretches hip flexors, muscles of the abdomen, wrists.
- Strengthens glutes, hamstrings, lower back muscles.
- Promotes courage and compassion.
- Enlivens the chakras.
- Increases energy.
- Bridge pose | Setu bandha sarvangasana
- Reclined hero pose | Supta virasana
- Upward facing dog | Urdhva mukha svanasana
- One-legged upward facing bow | Eka pada urdhva dhanurasana
- Wheel pose | Chakrasana
- King dancer pose | Natarajasana
- Half lord of the fishes pose | Ardha matsyendrasana
- Head to knee pose | Janu sirsasana
- Reclined hand to foot pose | Supta padangusthasana
- Blocks on the wall: Place two blocks on the floor against a wall, about shoulder distance apart. Place your hands on the blocks as you move into urdhva dhanurasana to help elevate your upper body and better engage your shoulder blades.
- Strap: Use a strap around your upper arms to prevent the elbows from splaying as you press upward.
- Block: Place a block between your thighs to keep your lower body engaged.
- One-legged: Try out eka pada urdhva dhanurasana by lifting up one leg at a time.
- Lie on your your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor, like you’re moving toward bridge pose.
- Place your palms on the ground beside your ears, fingertips facing your shoulders.
- Press into your feet, especially the big toe ball mound.
- Exhale to lift your tailbone and hips off the floor. Squeeze your thighs toward each other so your knees point straight ahead.
- Press into your hands to bring the crown of your head to the ground. Pause here for a breath.
- Draw your shoulder blades down your back while keeping elbows in line with shoulders. Press into your feet and hands equally.
- Exhale to straighten your arms and lift your head off the floor.
- Squeeze your inner thighs toward each other and down toward your mat (internal rotation). Lengthen your tailbone toward the back of your knees.
- Drop your head all the way back if comfortable.
- Hold the pose for up to a minute with a steady, long breath. Lower down and rest, option to repeat.