Hey readers! I am so glad you are here! In this month's blog post, I will take a semi-deep dive into the world of forward folds. Forward folds, sometimes referred to as forward bends, are super common postures in pretty much every yoga class, and for good reason - folds can be AMAZING postures for the body. It feels SOOOO good to just hang out in this posture for several rounds of breath, especially after a long, busy day at work. Forward folds are generally considered calming postures in yoga because they mimic the protective fetal position and draw our attention and energy inward.
What is a Forward Fold?
Forward folds involve a hip flexion motor pattern, which is a super common, and functional, movement that the human body can do multiple times a day. Hip flexion occurs when you bring the front of the torso closer to the front of the thighs, or when you bring the front of the thighs closer to the torso. A hip flexion pattern can be executed from a variety of body positions - prone (i.e. on your belly; e.g. child's pose), supine (i.e. on your back; e.g. knees to chest pose), seated (e.g. seated forward fold), and standing (e.g. standing forward fold).
Forward folds are generally great for stretching the entire back line of the body - the glutes (for more about the glutes click here), hamstrings, calf muscles (gastrocnemius, soleus), and spinal muscles. Forward folds also place the head in a different orientation to gravity, which is great stimulation for your vestibular (i.e. balance) system. Also, having your head lower than your heart for a few breaths can be a really nice break for your cardiac muscle tissue.
When in a hip flexion posture, the hip flexor muscles (e.g. psoas) get worked. Conversely, when returning to an upright posture from a hip flexion position, the hip extensors (e.g. glutes) get worked. This is the same movement that is used to pick items up off the floor or when sitting down into a chair. Because this is a common motor pattern for the body, it is important to biomechanically execute it safely and efficiently.
Common Examples of Forward Fold Postures
There are many examples of postures in yoga that involve some type of forward folding or bending. I'll go over the three most common forward bends.
Uttanasana. This standing forward fold is a symmetrical, inversion pose (see picture below). The main joint actions in this pose are: mild flexion in the spine, hip flexion and adduction, and knee extension. The psoas, pectineus, and rectus femoris contract to flex the hips and tilt the pelvis slightly forward. The quadriceps contract to straighten the knees. The rectus abdominis (i.e. the "6 pack" abdominal muscle) contracts to help bend the trunk forward. The adductor muscles on the inside of each thigh contract to draw the thighs together. The spinal muscles lengthen and stretch in this pose, as well as the hamstrings, glutes, gastrocnemius, and soleus. I love just hanging out in this pose, taking several deep breaths, throughout my day.
Paschimottansana. This seated forward fold is very similar to uttanasana. The main joint actions in this pose are: mild spinal flexion, hip flexion and adduction, knee extension, and ankle dorsiflexion. Like uttanasana, this seated forward fold stretches the calf muscles, hamstrings, glutes, and the muscles that run down the length of the spine. The psoas, pectineus, rectus femoris, and sartorius flex the hips, drawing the trunk closer to the tops of the thighs. The adductor group draws the thighs together. The quadriceps contract to straighten the knees. The rectus abdominis contracts to bend the trunk toward the knees. The muscles on the front of the shin, such as the tibialis anterior, contract to draw the toes on each foot toward the shins (i.e. ankle dorsiflexion). There are a lot of variations to this pose, including: a wide-leg position, baddha konasana legs (i.e. butterfly pose; cobbler pose), or janu sirsasana legs.
Dandasana. This posture, sometimes referred to as "staff pose," is like the upright version of the seated forward fold discussed above. The main joint actions in this pose are: neutral or slight spinal extension, shoulder joint adduction, elbow extension, wrist dorsiflexion, hip flexion, hip adduction and slight internal rotation, knee extension, and ankle dorsiflexion. In this pose, the muscles of the back and spine actually engage, rather than passively stretch, in order to the lift, stabilize, and slightly arch the lower back. The psoas and rectus femoris flex the hips to 90 degrees. The adductor group draw the legs together toward midline, and the pectineus and adductor longus and brevis contract, flexing the femurs (i.e. thigh bone) while drawing them together. The quadriceps contract to straighten the knees. The chest is drawn forward and up in dandasana via the actions of the latissumus dorsi, posterior deltoids, rhomboids, and the tricep muscles contract to straighten the elbows. While this pose may be easy to execute from a motor planning perspective, it isn't always an easy shape for many bodies to get into/hold.
Modifications to Forward Fold Postures
Some forward fold postures can be challenging or even inaccessible for certain body types. But that is totally fine, as there are some legit modifications that can make forward fold postures feel amazing and accessible for YOUR body. Here are a few ideas:
Use a yoga block under your hands. Yoga blocks can be set to three different heights (low, medium, and high) to best accommodate your body.
Use a belt or yoga strap under your feet if you have trouble reaching your toes
Bend your knees while in the forward fold and work to slowly straighten the knees over time. This is especially helpful if you have tight hamstring muscles.
Elevate your seat with a folded blanket or other support (e.g. yoga block or bolster) placed under your sit bones to let gravity draw your upper body more passively forward.
If the seated forward bend is too hard for your body, uttanasana may be a better option, as gravity can help you soften into the pose more easily.
Variations to Forward Fold Postures
There are several ways to "spice up" or "season" your forward fold. These variations are not necessarily harder or easier (although they might be for your body); rather, they are just different ways of experiencing a forward fold posture. You could play with one, some, or all of these variations, mixing and matching these options to best suit your body.
Nodding the head yes/no
Grabbing hands to opposite elbows
Swaying the torso side-to-side
Alternate bending/straightening one knee at a time
Gently twisting torso left/right
Adding a half-lift (i.e. inverted "L shape")
Changing the footprint to something different, such as pyramid pose footprint (see picture below) or wide-leg stance
Forward folds (aka forward bends) can be amazing postures for the body, and they are generally pretty ubiquitous in most yoga classes. Forward folds involve a hip flexion motor pattern that is typically executed via the hip flexor muscles (e.g. psoas, rectus femoris, etc.) with other muscles assisting in this movement. Hip flexion is a super common and functional movement that is often required several times per day in our daily environments. There are many examples of forward folding postures in yoga, but the most common postures include the standing forward bend (i.e. uttanasana), seated forward bend (i.e. paschimottansana), and staff pose (i.e. dandasana). If certain forward fold postures feel inaccessible to your body, you might try modifying the pose by using yoga props (e.g. strap, block, etc.) or bending your knees to help release tight hamstring muscles. There are also several ways to vary, or spice up, your forward folds in order to provide your body with a different sensory experience, such as nodding the head yes/no while in the fold. I highly encourage you to try some different forward fold postures each day and see how your body responds.
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of human movement, anatomy, and yoga. If you have specific questions about forward folds for your body, please consult with your physician, personal trainer, and/or private yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga and/or personal training sessions with me, Jackie, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my monthly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NASM-CNC
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Long, R. (2010). Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends.
Long, R. (2008). The Key Poses of Yoga.
Toner, J. (n.d.). The biomechanics of yoga forward folds: how can we make them more accessible? Article link here.