If you are new to the forward fold in yoga, you might find yourself hating inversions – or any pose that requires you to go upside down. After all, why does this Inspector Gadget looking thing that picks up something off the ground have over 2,000 5 star reviews? Often, we don’t like to bend over if we don’t have to.
Of course, that’s one of the reasons why you have to do this pose even more. As we say in most of our videos, yoga is all about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. And the truth is, for many people, this eventually becomes one of their favorite yoga poses!
Purpose: Here are some of the reasons why Forward Fold is good for you:
● Creating length and flexibility to the entire posterior of the body, including the hamstrings; calves; Achilles’ heel; low, middle and upper back; and neck.
● It is suitable for maintaining function and freedom in the spine, creating safer and more comfortable movement in everyday activities and athletic pursuits. Regular practice of this pose will keep the hamstrings flexible, decreasing the risk of hip and knee issues down the road.
● As the spine is the central processing unit of our bodies and nervous system, the forward fold brings circulation to millions of nerve cells by creating space between each vertebra.
● It also increases blood circulation, stimulates the internal organs—particularly the digestive organs, the liver and the kidneys—and can alleviate headaches and menstrual discomfort.
● Can lower anxiety, worry and depression. You send fresh oxygenated blood to your brain and rejuvenate yourself by putting your head below your heart. Simultaneously, covering up your vital organs and closing your body boosts the parasympathetic nervous system, conserving energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and calms your body.
Pose Guide: To do Forward Fold correctly, here are the steps:
● Begin by standing with your feet beneath your hips. Make sure your toes are directly in front of your heels as if you were wearing snow skis. Evenly distribute weight through all three corners of each foot: big toe, pinky toe ball mounds, and heel.
● Lift your sternum and draw your shoulder blades toward each other to open the front of your chest.
● Find a neutral pelvis by pointing your sit bones (bones of the pelvic outlet beneath the flesh of your buttocks) directly down toward your heels. Gently draw your lower belly in toward your spine while lifting your pelvic floor (as if you were stopping the flow of urination).
● Inhale to lengthen your spine as you raise your arms over your head. As you exhale, stretch your hands away from your shoulders and hinge at your hips to bow forward with your torso, pulling your heart toward your quadriceps.
● Allow your hands to release toward the floor.
● Option to keep a microbend in your knees to remove any lower back tension and avoid hyper-extending the legs past their natural range of motion.
● If you can do so, place your palms on the floor, or let your arms dangle in that direction. (You can also hold your opposite elbows—Rag Doll Variation—or place your hands on blocks for additional support).
● If you can touch the floor either with fingertips or palms flat, aim for your hands to stack directly below your shoulder space, just slightly above or outside your feet (whatever is most comfortable in your body). At the same time, you allow the supporting muscles of the neck and upper thoracic spine to relax. There should be little to no weight in your hands. If you cannot touch the floor with your hands, use blocks to bring the floor closer to you.
● Should you be touching the floor with your hands or fingertips? Should your hands/fingertips be next to and in front of your feet? And if so, how far in front of them? How much weight should you put on the floor?
● With every inhale, lengthen your spine. With every exhale, rest into the pose letting your head and shoulders relax.
● Bend your knees, planting your feet into the ground, and slowly roll your spine back up to standing with an inhale to complete the pose.
● Once folded over, place your fingers on the mat, palms on your shins, or grab your elbows and rock from side to side. This will create length and flexibility in your spine and give relief to your abdominal organs.
Here’s what you will likely feel when doing it correctly:
● There are several places you may feel activated during Forward Fold. Depending on the current state of your body, you may feel it in one or all of these places. Everybody is different; the important thing to remember is that sensation is okay, pain is not.
● The hamstrings are the most common muscle groups experienced during the Standing Forward Fold. The hamstrings are the large group of muscles that make up the back of your thighs and run from your hips/glutes to your knees.
● You may also feel a deep stretch through your back, particularly along each side of your spine and down into your upper glutes and hips.
● Some people find this to be an extreme stretch to the back of the ankles.
Practical Tips: Do This, Not That! Common mistakes beginners make:
1. Rounding the back:
The Sanskrit name for this pose roughly translates into “head to knees.” Now, if you’ve seen any of our videos, then you know that we very rarely use Sanskrit in our workouts. We don’t use it for several reasons, which you can read about here. But if we did use Sanskrit, we wish the translation was something closer to “chest to knees.” And contrary to popular belief, it certainly shouldn’t be understood as “hands to feet” or “fingers to toes.” That’s because beginners often risk injury when they go into the forward fold with their heads aiming toward their knees. This is incorrect and often leads to a rounded back.
Instead, keep your gaze forward and aim your chest toward your knees instead of your head.
2. Not engaging the core:
Beginners are often told to release into a forward fold and hang heavy once their fingers touch the ground. This can put your back into a compromising position. Instead, engage your core and the front of the thighs throughout this pose, especially when you initiate the hinge. To protect your back, treat this as an active pose. You should feel your core engaged, almost as if you were doing an abs exercise.
3. Hyper-extending the legs:
This occurs when the knee joint extends beyond a typical range of motion when the leg is straightened, creating excess pressure on the ligaments (the connective tissue that attaches bone-to-bone and stabilizes the joint). Over time, this can cause inflammation or damage to ligaments. Avoid hyper-extending the legs by using your muscles rather than ligaments to hold the bones in alignment; slightly engage your quadriceps in the forward fold or keep a microbend in your knees.
4. Lifting the chin too much and compressing the back of the neck:
You may hear a common cue in a yoga class to gaze at your big toes when in Forward Fold, but this can often lead practitioners to lift their chin rather than just their eyes to see their toes. Lifting the chin too much can create pressure on the nerves in the spinal cord, causing pain, numbness or a “pins and needles” feeling. Try gazing toward your heels instead to maintain a neutral cervical spine and allow the muscles supporting the neck to relax.
5. Overarching the lower back during the swan dive forward:
The cue to swan dive into your forward fold encourages individuals to hinge from the hip crease rather than bending from the low back. Leading with the heart rather than the forehead. The challenge arises when the low back is overarched, compressing the lumbar spine vertebrae and adding pressure to the hamstrings.
To avoid this, engage your core muscles (draw your navel to the back of your spine) as you hinge from the hips and try to maintain a neutral spine. At about the halfway point when your spine is parallel to the earth, the low back will naturally want to round to continue the fold, and that is okay. Remember, a microbend in your knees may help make this transition more accessible.
Props and Modifications: You should consider a modification if you experience the following:
● Rounding of the back.
● Pain or tension in the low back.
● Hyper-extension of the legs.
● Pain or tension in hamstrings.
Modifications and solutions to the above:
1. Rounding of the back:
The first modification to explore if you experience excessive back rounding is to hinge from your hips with a gentle bend in your knees. The more you bend your knees, the more you will decrease the stretch for your hamstrings, which can help avoid unnecessary stress on your lower back.
2. Pain or tension in the low back:
A modification to try and help alleviate pain or tension in the lower back is to hinge at the hips with a slight bend in your knees. At the same time, you are resting your palms above your knees or on your shins with little weight. Be sure to avoid placing your palms directly on your knees. You can also try the modification above.
3. Hyper-extension of the legs:
This is also known as hyper-mobility, meaning you can extend your legs past a normal range of motion. This, however, can add additional stress to the ligaments and tendons over time. If you experience hyper-extension of the legs, avoid locking your knees straight and, instead, slightly contract your quadriceps (maybe 20-30%), which will help you find a gentle bend in your knees. You can also use a block, as shown below, for additional support.
4. Pain or tension in your hamstrings:
You can try any of the above modifications to help alleviate hamstring pain or tension – remember, the more you bend your knees, the less stretch or sensation for your hamstrings so you can explore what feels best in your body. Another great tool to use is your yoga block. This will enable you to hinge from the hips while straightening your legs as much as possible to find sensation—not pain—by bringing the floor closer to your hands or fingertips to rest on gently.
5. The all-inclusive modification:
If you experience rounding of the back, pain in hamstrings or low back, or hyper-extension of legs while in a forward fold, try this modification with a chair, used in some restorative yoga classes. Using a chair brings the floor closer to you than yoga blocks, so less “folding” is required. You can gently rest your forehead on the seat of a chair, which may provide a sense of calm. Like the modifications listed above, hinge from your hips and explore how much of a bend in the knees feel good in your body, which helps to alleviate any pain in the hamstrings or low back. To avoid hyper-extension of the legs, slightly contract your quadriceps.
1. What does forward fold do to muscles?
Engages stabilizing muscles of the feet, core and quadriceps while stretching hamstrings, calves and back.
2. When is forward fold contraindicated?
Back injury, low blood pressure, pregnancy in the 2nd or 3rd trimester.
3. What’s the difference between Forward Fold and Half Lift?
In Forward Fold, as you hinge from the hips, you move your heart toward your thighs and the crown of the head points toward the earth. In Half Lift, the spine is parallel to the earth, creating a 90-degree angle or an L-shape with the body.
4. Where should the weight in the feet be?
As you lower into Forward Fold, your weight will naturally shift to your heels on the way down. Once in Forward Fold, evenly distribute weight through all three corners of each foot: big toe, pinky toe ball mounds, and heel.
5. Should I feel the stretch in the hamstrings, back, or both?
It depends on your regular movement patterns, daily activities or areas in your body where tension can store. Still, typically forward folds stretch the posterior chain or backside of the body, primarily targeting hamstrings (the straighter the legs are) and back.