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Yoga Practice Tips: Spine-Heathy Forward Bends
Forward bends are asana staples. Actively lengthening the hamstrings and muscles of the hips helps counteract one of the unhealthy effects of excessive sitting. Forward bending is inherently calming, as long as we approach it with an attitude of ease and curiosity, rather than an attitude of forcefulness.
Forward folds are not as easy as they look though. After decades of teaching, I’ve observed so many students struggling with maintaining spinal integrity, especially in seated forward bends. How you approach forward bending matters. It’s important that we practice not just any forward bends, but spine-healthy forward bends.
Keeping muscles of the hips and hamstrings supple—one of the benefits of forward bending—helps you maintain spinal integrity. Relaxed muscles in the hips and hamstrings help you maintain your spine’s natural “S” curves. Tight hamstrings can position the pelvis so that the tailbone is tucked under, which flattens the lumbar curve—a recipe for possible lumbar disc problems down the road.
It’s important that we maintain continuity between the pelvis and spine while we bend forward. As a general rule of thumb, the pelvis and spine should move together, both to foster continuity and protect the discs, but also to keep the sacroiliac joint in its most stable position.
In seated forward bends, sitting on a folded yoga blanket to encourage forward movement in the pelvis, and bending your knees slightly can help keep your pelvis and spine moving together. Utilizing props is the best way to ensure that you practice spine-healthy forward bends.
How To Use Props For Spine-Healthy Forward Bends
Here’s how to utilize props to create a spine-healthy Seated Forward Bend Pose (Paschimottanasana). Have two to three yoga blankets handy.
Sit on a yoga mat with your legs straight out in front of you, parallel.
Fold a yoga blanket so that it’s about three inches thick. Sit on the blanket so that your pelvis is on the edge and your legs are on the floor. If you feel your pelvis tilting back and your lumbar vertebrae poking out in the back, place another folded blanket under your pelvis.
Roll up another yoga blanket. Bend your knees and place the rolled blanket under your knees. If you happen to have a pranayama pillow, that’s the perfect size for this use.
To move into the forward bend, tip the top of your pelvis forward and lengthen your front body. Extend your tailbone back behind you. In other words, lead the forward bend with your pelvis. Keep your spine long as you come forward. It’s okay to gently flex your spine once your pelvis is tipped forward.
Stay for 5-10 deep breaths, allowing your torso to oscillate to your breathing. Check your arms and shoulders. Are you tensing there? How about your facial muscles and throat? Relax where you can. On an inhalation, come up out of the forward bend.
Reprinted with permission from Hugger Mugger Yoga Products.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.