Forward bends are among the most soothing and satisfying postures. They have a wide range of benefits; they settle the nervous system and can also stimulate the digestive system and different organic functions.
At the same time, says author and yoga therapist Doug Keller in this free download, forward bends can also be one of the most harmful groups of yoga postures, and it is critical for teachers to develop the knowledge and tools to modify forward bending postures for a wide range of students.
When we think about issues with forward bends, most yoga teachers immediately think of people with tight hamstrings. But there’s a much wider syndrome of issues involved, says Doug. Firstly, there are different types of tightness in the hamstrings. But beyond that, there are also certain patterns of movement habits that affect people’s alignment in yoga postures.
These patterns apply to flexible people as much as to those who are inflexible. Even people who are well-trained and athletic can be at risk for different kinds of small injuries or chronic pain to the body if they don’t learn the proper techniques of forward bending.
For example, one of the most common difficulties that students have in a Hatha Yoga class—and also one of the most common causes of injuries and chronic pain—is bending forward from the lumbar spine rather than from the hip joints. This is not necessarily caused by tight hamstrings. It’s often a habit or pattern of movement that has to do with body proportion. So, as teachers, we don’t necessarily want to address loosening the hamstrings to overcome the syndrome. We need to get different alternatives and ways of approaching to make it easier and safer for people to achieve the forward bend.
To develop proper teaching techniques for forward bends, teachers need to learn to look at body proportions and the different styles of movement that people have, explains Doug. The risk in forward bends is to end up with uneven pressure on the spine. This can happen due to any number of factors other than tight hamstrings. People with longer torsos, for example, will tend to have their hips sway further in a forward bend, because the body is compensating for the length of the upper body. So different parts of the spine bend more, depending upon that person’s physical build just in terms of the body proportions. And where that strain shows up in the forward bend is the place where the person’s likely to possibly develop some injury over time.
In addition, in yoga classes catering to older age groups, many students are likely to have osteoporosis, making certain kinds of movement patterns and forward bends dangerous. In such cases, teachers need to learn how to teach a modified version of a forward bends that won’t present a danger to the spine.
In the beginning of a yoga class, once we learn how to observe the different patterns in a class, teachers can pick up on what’s the basic pattern of the group and know which basic pose modifications that can be introduced to help people to do the forward bends more productively, Doug notes.
Doug also talks about the importance of how people use their head and their neck in forward bends, which also has a significant impact upon how they do the forward bend and what the effect of the forward bend is. He emphasizes the importance of looking at a whole body movement instead of just isolating one muscle like the hamstrings.