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Yoga For EVERY Body: When Are Forward Bending Yoga Postures Unsafe and How Do You Avoid the Risks?
“What did I do wrong?”
This is the dreaded question physical therapist and Iyengar yoga teacher Julie Gudmestad hears way too often from yoga students who come to see her after they have been hurt in a yoga class.
“It breaks my heart,” says Julie. “And over my 40+ years as a physical therapist I’ve been asked that questions way too often. Usually it’s not a case of the student doing something “wrong,” rather that they practiced in a way that was ill-suited to their bodies.”
To avoid this all-too-common issue, Julie stresses the importance of adjusting yoga practices to suit the practitioner, and not the other way around. This, she says, is particularly true when it comes to paying attention to movements of the spine.
“I was approached once by a woman runner with tight hamstrings, who was advised to go to a yoga class to help with her back pain. Her back was hurting during the class and hurting even more afterwards,” Julie relates. “She asked what she had done to make this happen.”
"Yoga has so much to offer for both tight legs and back pain."
“In the first place, it bothered me was that she was blaming herself,” Julie continues. “But secondly, Yoga has so much to offer for both tight legs and back pain. But because the teacher she picked wasn’t trained to teach to her unique characteristics, she did not reap any of those benefits by inadvertently picking the wrong practice.”
Oftentimes, yogis are surprised to find that poses they have always considered safe and healthy for everyone can actually contribute to pain issues, or even cause long-term damage to the spine.
A frequent, but surprising source of trouble is a staple of yoga practice that many consider good for all bodies: Yoga Forward Bending Postures.
Julie begins by stipulating that forward folding postures occupy an important place in asana practice. Their calming, quieting and cooling effects are generally beneficial, particularly to counter to some of the more vigorous practices. “I think we come from a very active society and a lot of yoga students are athletes. They're runners and bikeriders and weightlifters. Forward bends offer an important balance to all that strength and effort,” she says.
That said, an understanding of the biomechanics of forward folds is the key to using them intelligently. It all starts with observing the pelvis.
“The pelvis is the foundation of the spine, so what's happening with the pelvis is going to affect the lumbar spine.” Julie begins, “The hamstrings come up the back of the thigh and originate or attach on the sitting bones, which are the base of the pelvis. So if the hamstrings are tight, and short, they’re going to pull down on the sitting bones and limit the ability of the pelvis to rotate or move,” she continues.
“We have a little rule that we use in physical therapy, which is that all human movement consists of contributions from a chain of joints. In a cascading effect, someone with really tight hamstrings is most likely also inhibited in the adductors and deep hip rotators,” Julie explains.
The effect of all that tightness? “It's like your pelvis is set in concrete, because those immobile muscles just kind of freeze the pelvis limit its ability to move and to rotate.”
Of course, Yoga includes an exploration of all possible movements of the human body including flexing (forward bending) and extension (back bending) of the spine. These are normal parts of the human movement spectrum. But as Julie points out, if you have vertebral discs or SI joints that are either already damaged, arthritic, osteoporotic, or have overstrained ligaments, weak muscles and the like, the load you place on each segment of the spine is important.
It’s also the case that not all forward bends are the same. Because of the load they place on the spine, seated forward bends with straight legs, especially in asymmetrical poses, can cause some real problems. “I've worked with a lot of experienced yoga practitioners and teachers who have overstretched their SI ligaments by doing too many forward bends in general, but especially asymmetrical ones due to the involvement of spinal rotation and side bending.”
“Once those SI ligaments are overstretched, the joint is hypermobile. It's going to go in and out of alignment and will produce a chronic achy, nagging problem with the SI joints, often accompanied by guarding and muscle spasm in the adjacent muscles,” Julie says. “And it's not usually beginners that have these SSI problems because they usually can’t move that much. It's, it's people who've been around for a while.”
Julie says that sometimes in order to help her clients she starts out by taking movements away because continuing to practice certain will either make the problem worse or keep it going indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean abandoning practice. Take the runner who asked what she’d done wrong, for example.
“I gave this young woman a different practice that was more suited to her body to do instead. People are usually fairly happy if they have tools that they can take home that they can actually do. I'm not just saying you have to go home and sit on the couch. What I do say is, ‘Here's a plan of action. Do this instead.’”
Lynn Crimando, MA serves as the teaching mentor for YogaUOnline's Wellness Educator Program. She is a yoga teacher, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist, board-certified Health and Wellness Coach, Certified Personal Trainer and Buteyko Practitioner. She has a private practice in New York City and teaches classes throughout the city on behalf of Health Advocates for Older People. In addition, Lynn is on the faculty of the IAYT-approved Yoga Therapist Training at YogaNanda in Garden City, New York. To learn more about Lynn, visit her website: yogalynn.com.