Forward bends make up a large part of any yoga practice and can be really effective at stretching out tight hamstrings and relaxing your upper body.
But at the same time if you’re new to yoga or generally feel tight in your hamstrings they can be a challenging set of yoga postures to practice safely and effectively.
In this blog we’ll explore some of the most common forward bends that you’ll come across in a dynamic yoga practice (such as vinyasa, ashtanga, and hatha yoga) with suggestions on how you can modify and adapt the postures to best suit your body on a particular day.
Want to jump straight into a guided practice on forward bends? Practice along with my simple tutorial on how to adapt forward bends to your body.
Preparing for Forward Bends in Your Yoga Practice
Forward bend yoga postures will always feel better and be safer to do without injury if your body is warm. So make sure you don’t start practicing any deep forward bends without first warming up your body!
It’s not a coincidence that most active yoga practices start with a series of dynamic warm ups and sun salutations before moving into deeper postures that are held for longer periods of time.
In case you are approaching forward bending without having spent much time warming up, keep your knees more deeply bent so that you protect your hamstrings from over-stretching.
Standing Forward Bends
In a dynamic yoga flow, there are a few reasons why we prefer practicing standing forward bends before seated forward bends.
One of the benefits of starting with standing yoga poses is that you tend to use your entire body actively in these postures and so create more heat to stretch safely. Standing yoga postures allow you to focus more easily on both strengthening and engaging your muscles as well as stretching them.
Another advantage to starting with standing forward bends is that you have more space to move your hips (compared to when sitting). This allows you to easily bend your knees and move your hips freely to find an expression of the forward bend that feels appropriate for your body on that given day.
We’ll now explore a couple of the most common standing forward bends with details on how you can approach them.
Yoga is most effective when you practice and experience it (vs. reading and thinking about it). If you can, try practicing along to feel these variations in your own body rather than just reading about them!
Standing Forward Bend | Uttanasana
We’ll first explore a standing forward bend with the legs hip distance apart. This Standing Forward Bend, Uttanasana is a useful posture to start with practicing forward bends.
You can start by standing tall with your feet hip distance apart and holding your hips.
To begin with, see if you can keep your legs and spine relatively straight as you start to exhale and fold forward from the front of your hips (using your hip flexors).
Fold forward only up to halfway—or as much as feels comfortable—and then use your inhale to come back up to standing again. We’ll do this a few times, moving dynamically up and down, and focusing on keeping your legs and spine long.
So inhale lengthening through your spine. Exhale fold forward from your hips to a halfway fold, if you can leaning a little forward to your toes. And inhale come back up to standing again, keeping your belly firm and spine long.
After repeating this 3-5 times you can come back down into your halfway fold position and pause here.
From here you can bend the knees as much as you need and allow your upper body to relax and round as you fold forward. See if you can be working at about 70% of your maximum stretch in the legs. So feel free to bend the knees a bit more if needed.
If you’re quite comfortable you could play with leaning your weight a little forward to the toes to get a little bit more deeper into the posture. While if you want to ease off a little bit you could lean a bit more towards your heels.
When we lean towards our toes we move the positioning of our hips more forward over the heels and intensify the stretch in the hamstring. While if we lean more towards our heels our hips move back away our heels and we can ease a bit out of the stretch.
You can stay here for about five slow breaths.
Wide Legged Forward Bend | Prasarita Padottanasana
Now we're going to come to another standing forward bend pose, which can feel a bit more intense since the legs are wider. This is known as the Wide-Legged Forward Bend, Prasarita Padottanasana.
The key in this posture is to first make sure the positioning of your feet is nice and wide—but not too wide! Think about the idea of your legs and the mat forming a shape of a triangle here.
If your feet are too close you won’t have space to fold forward. While if you’re feet are too wide, you will feel like your feet are slipping away and it will be more difficult to lengthen out through your spine.
Bring your toes actively in and heels a bit out so that your legs can rotate a little bit in.
Hands come to your hips. Inhale, as you lengthen up through your spine and exhale, fold just halfway forward. And repeating this several times, just like we did with the previous pose.
After a few rounds, you can allow yourself to pause halfway and bring your hands down underneath your shoulders.
If you need extra space here, you could either have your hands on blocks, so the hands are a little higher. Or you could bend your knees, so that you ease some of the stretch out of your hamstrings.
Option again to lean a little forward to your toes.
And then you can either stay here or you might choose to fold a little further forward by walking your hands back to be more in line with your feet.
Again we could play a little bit first with dynamically moving in and out of the posture. So inhale as you lengthen your spine up and look forward. Exhale, as you fold further forward from your hips.
And then choosing to pause and stay a few breaths in a version of this posture that feels comfortable. Now that might be in a position where you are folded a little further forward, or in the halfway lift with a slight bend through your knees.
Head-to-Knee Forward Bend Pose | Janu Sirsasana
We're now going to explore a seated forward fold, where we have one leg straight(ish) and one leg bent. For this Head-to-Knee Forward Bend Pose, Janu Sirsasana we need a little bit of opening in the hips than for the standing forward bends.
You can start by stretching both legs out in front and then bending your right knee and opening it out to the right.
Your left leg wants to be long and active, so imagine that you’re standing on your left foot and pressing the ball of your left foot actively away from you.
Inhale, as you reach your arms up and overhead and lengthening out through your spine. So we're really creating that space here. And then hands can come somewhere on your shin or closer to your thigh if you feel a bit tighter.
We're keeping the spine straight just like in the halfway lift positions we did standing. So see if you can really lift up through your chest and lengthen your lower back.
Then we'll try pausing for a few breaths and relaxing the upper body. So if it’s comfortable for your back, allow your spine to round a little and shoulders to soften. If you have any lower back pain you can work in the first position of keeping the spine more straight.
If you like you could frame your left leg with your hands. And if you have the space, hands can be more forward, head dropping down.
But if this still feels uncomfortable, particularly in your hamstring or lower back, you could have your left knee a bit bent. You might then choose to hold your left foot or keep framing your left leg with your hands.
Another option could be to raise your hips by sitting on a cushion, block, or blanket. This can be helpful to give a bit more space in your hips—particularly if its hard for you to sit up with a straight spine with the hips on the ground.
Staying here for around five to ten breaths and then repeating on the opposite side.
Seated Forward Bend | Paschimottanasana
After having worked on folding forward over one leg, we’re ready to try folding over both legs. So we’ll now try the Seated Forward Bend, Paschimottanasana.
We'll start sitting with the feet hip distance apart. Similar to when we were approaching this posture from standing, we're going to start with the knees bent, lean a little forward from the hips, and start to reach towards the feet or ankles.
Allow your head to drop here and keep your knees a bent so that your lower back is supported.
You can choose to stay here, or start to see how it feels to extend the legs while keeping a small in your knees. Your head is dropping and shoulders are relaxed.
Again, you could stay here or you could start to extend the legs and perhaps bring the legs a little closer together. First maybe be coming again into that halfway lift position. And then you're easing again the weight forward.
So again we're allowing the spine to round a little and finding that 70% stretch through the back of your legs. Staying here for five to ten breaths.
Observing How You Feel After Practice
So thanks for joining me through this short practice of forward bends. We were focused particularly on looking at a few options about how you can modify some of the most common forward bends to suit how your body feels on a particular day.
It's worth mentioning that your ability to fold forward is not only dependent on the length and openness of your hamstrings!
A lot of that restriction that you might feel to folding forward could also come from tightness in your hips.
So even though you might feel your hamstring stretching and be approaching the pose correctly, it could be tightness in your hip flexor or outer hip that is preventing you moving further into the posture.
Therefore it can also be helpful to practice some hip opener poses to help create more space in your forward bends. As well as choosing to lift your hips a little for the seated forward bends so that you can sit up straight in your lower back and have more space to fold forward.
When practicing forward bends in yoga it's worth keeping in mind that for some of these postures, the best version of the posture for you right now might not mean that you feel an intense stretch in the hamstring but instead be focusing more on lengthening through your spine and engaging your legs.
Also, see if you can observe how you feel before, during, right after, and the day after practice. All of these will give you an indication if you spent enough time warming up and approached the standing forward bends at the right intensity for your body on a given day.
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