Everyday Yoga: Spine-Healthy Forward Bending—On and Off Your Mat

NPR recently posted an article titled “Lost Art Of Bending Over: How Other Cultures Spare Their Spines.” (1) The article features yoga teacher and back care expert Jean Couch and explains her advice for changing the way we bend over in our daily lives. For the last few weeks I’ve been following her advice and, wow, the results have been wonderful!

I’ve had ongoing low back pain due to mild scoliosis and arthritis in my lower spine for some time now, and although I address those issues in my personal practice, there has still been room for improvement. Since I’ve been following Jean’s instructions for changing the way I bend over in my daily life (you know, to pick up something off the floor or put something on a low shelf) my low back has felt so much better.

Yoga Practice Both On and Off the Mat

It makes sense that what you do in your personal practice for an hour or two per day could easily be undone by your habitual activities throughout the rest of the day. And while most of us know about sitting and standing with good posture, this alternate way of bending over, which is something people in many other cultures do, was not something I was aware of. (Gosh, am I just super late to the party?)

If you’re interested, I really think you should read the original article and, especially, watch the video! But the basic gist is that most of us in Western cultures tend to bend over by first looking down with our heads, then contracting our abdomens and bending over with a rounded back into a “C” shape, which stresses our back muscles and can lead to back pain. The advice here is to change this habit by bending your knees first and hinging back from your hips so you take a kind of table shape, with your spine remaining in its natural curves.

How to Bend Forward—All Day Long

Here are the instructions from the article:

  1. Place your feet about 12 inches apart.
  2. Keep your back straight.
  3. As you bend your knees, allow your pubic bone to move backward.
  4. Fold over by allowing your pubic bone to slide through your legs, down and back.

Unfortunately, tight hamstrings can make it difficult to bend over in this way. (Because tight hamstrings are common among those with a sedentary lifestyle, this may be why hip hinging” has virtually disappeared from our culture.) So if this describes you and you want to try this method of bending over, you should also be regularly stretching your hamstring muscles. Versions 1 and 2 of Supta Padangusthasana (Reclined Leg Stretch Pose) are both helpful for this.

Supta Padangusthasana 1 (Reclined Leg Stretch Pose 1)      woman practicing yoga Supta Padangusthasana 1 (Reclined Leg Stretch Pose 1)

  1. Lie down on your back on a nonskid mat with your legs stretched out on the floor.
  2. Bring your right knee into your chest, place a strap over the arch of your right foot, and stretch your right foot toward the ceiling. (photo right model does not use a strap for version 1)
  3. Walk both hands up the sides of the strap until your arms are straight, and lengthen your left leg along the ground.
  4. Adjust your right leg forward or back until you can easily straighten your right knee and still feel a stretch.
  5. Relax your shoulders and make sure your lower spine is either softly touching the floor or slightly arched away from it.
  6. To come out, bend your right knee, slip the strap off your foot, lower your right leg to the floor, and bend both knees. Shake out your hands and wrists.
  7. Repeat on your left side.

Supta Padangusthasana 2 (Reclined Leg Stretch Pose 2)

  1. Start in Version 1.
  2. Take both ends of your strap into your right hand and stretch your left arm out to your left side in a “T” position.
  3. Stretch through your left leg as you slowly bring your right leg out to your right side and down toward the floor, stopping when your foot is one to two feet from the floor.
  4. Bring your right elbow to the floor as you keep tension on the strap and press your right foot into it.
  5. If holding your leg out to the side is painful or difficult, place a prop under your right thigh.
  6. To come out, return to Version 1 by lifting your leg back to vertical.
  7. Bend your right knee, slip the strap off your foot, lower your right leg to the floor, and bend both knees. Shake out your hands and wrists.
  8. Repeat on your left side.

I learned a couple more things from spending the last couple of weeks (and I hope the rest of my life) bending forward in this new way:

  1. It takes a lot of mindfulness to break a lifetime of habits of unconscious movement, but it is possible to do it. My husband said he noticed I had started bending “weirdly” but didn’t say anything because he figured I’d tell him about it eventually.
  2. I really had no idea how many times a day I was bending over while I was doing housework and just living my life (I knew about the gardening problem) until I brought my awareness to it. So, so many!

Reprinted with permission from Yoga for Healthy Aging.

Substance use is a growing problem learn more about how yoga can help: Study with YogaUOnline and Celeste Mendelsohn – Carrying The Message To The Mat: Teaching Yoga For Substance Use Disorder.

Also from Nina Zolotow – Yoga for Healthy Aging: 3 Different Ways Yoga Can Help With Pain.

Nina Zolotow

Nina Zolotow, RYT 500, Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee, and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety) and she teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional well-being, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body (with its companion 50 Card Practice Deck) and Moving Toward Balance. She is also the author of numerous articles on yoga and alternative medicine.


(1.) NPR.org- https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/02/26/587735283/lost-art-of-bending-over-how-other-cultures-spare-their-spines?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social

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