Forward Bending

There are three big issues in forward bending: gravity, the site whert he body is bending, and breathing. Gravity plays only a minor role in wl le-body standing backward bends, but it becomes somewhat more impoi int in relaxed standing backbonds, and it becomes an overwhelmingly impoi int issue in forward bending. The reason for the latter is obvious: the u >er part of the body is tipped far off axis. With this in mind, our first cor, rn is whether to bend forward from the waist or from the hips, and our set nd concern is how to use breathing to purposely further our aims.

If you watch people bending forward in daily life, you will notice iat they nearly always bend from the waist. This is the more natural movem ut-

You would look very odd indeed if you kept your back straight and bent forward from the hips to pick up an object from a coffee table. It is also easier to bend from the waist because there is less upper body weight above the waistline than above the hip joints. In hatha yoga we use both options. Bending forward from the hips is nearly always considered more desirable, but it is also more difficult, not only because there is more weight to control but also because by definition it requires a reasonable measure of hip flexibility, and this can't be taken for granted.

Our next concern is how to support the bend. Do we support it within the torso itself, which we'll call internal support, or do we support it with the help of the upper extremities, which we'll call external support. If you brace a forward bend externally with your hands on your thighs, it's natural to relax the torso, but if you slowly bend forward while allowing your hands to hang freely, your torso has to support itself internally all the way down, and under those circumstances it will be anything but relaxed. Every standing backbend, forward bend, and side bend should be considered with respect to these matters. As in backward bending, breathing is an important related issue: the more a posture is supported internally, the more it will have to be assisted by adjustments in the way you breathe.

forward bends from the waist

We'll begin with two simple and easy exercises in which you can experience the difference between externally and internally supported bends. Lean forward, bend your knees slightly, and, bending forward from the waist, slide your hands down the front of the thighs, gripping all the way. Settle your hands in place just above the knees, lower your head forward, and observe your posture. Your back is slightly rounded and relaxed, which is possible because you are supporting the torso with the upper extremities rather than with the back muscles (fig. 4.21). Your breathing is also relaxed because your respiratory diaphragm, pelvic diaphragm, and abdominal muscles are not having to contribute much to the posture.

Next, carry this process one step further. Drop your hands just below the knees and grip your legs firmly. Now we'll start to see big differences among students. If you are strong and flexible you will still be relaxed, but '' yon are stiffer you will start to feel some pulling in your erector spinae muscles. If that pulling is uncomfortable you will not be eager to go further down. So tiy to find a position that is just right, one that creates a little stretch but that minimizes discomfort. Next, sense the level of relaxation ,n your back, in your abdomen, and in your breathing, and then slowly release your hands without dropping further forward. The moment you 8t«rt to release your hands, observe carefully and you will notice that you have automatically tightened up your lower back, your abdomen, and your


respiratory and pelvic diaphragms (Gg. 4.22). The difference between bracin the posture with your hands and releasing your hands without droppiri down is the difference between an externally and an internally support* forward bend. If you are explaining and at the same time demonstratin this exercise to a class with the hands settled in place just above or ju below the knees, your voice will be at ease before you release your hand but the second you release them and yet hold the posture, your breathii and voice will become noticeably more labored.

Now that you can feel the differences between the two kinds of bend stand in a relaxed position and roll forward slowly from the head, net-upper back, lower back, and last of all from the hips. The hands can sim| dangle. As you gradually pitch your upper body forward, you will sense tensi< gathering in your back and abdomen as well as in the respiratory ai I pelvic diaphragms. Work with this tension rather than struggling to res it. Notice that the deep back muscles lengthen eccentrically and cont I your descent, but that purposely lightening the abdominal muscles and tl respiratory and pelvic diaphragms provides the all-important increas i intra-abdominal pressure that makes the movement safe. Come back up n reverse order, that is, beginning with the hips, and without too much del Muscles throughout the torso are already in a state of stretch and tensi n from supporting the posture internally, and they will lift you up nature lie aware of concentric shortening of muscles in the back as you lift up. I t at the same time focus on the abdominopelvic unit as a whole, whici is bounded by the abdominal muscles, the respiratory diaphragm, and the pel c diaphragm. Activating this region will protect the lower back by spread g the vertebrae apart hydraulically, as described in chapter 3. Being attent e to the abdominopelvic unit will give you the sense of controlling e posture rather than the posture controlling you.

Figure 4.21. Externally supported forward bend. With the posture supported by the upper extremities, the back, abdomen, lower extremities, and respiratory and pelvic diaphragms can all remain relaxed.


It is better not to explore your limits at this stage. Just repeat the down and up movement several times without a lot of concern about stretching. Finally, roll down to wherever gravity carries you and explore the feelings— stiffness and discomfort if you are not accustomed to these stretches, a deep pull and comfortable tension if you are in good condition, or more complete relaxation ifyou are in excellent condition. Again, come up naturally.

forward bends from the hips

As you improve your hip flexibility, you will soon want to accomplish the more elegant forward bend from the hips. Let's start with an internally supported bend for beginners. Stand in the mountain posture with your feet either together or 6-10 inches apart and parallel. Establish a strong base in the lower extremities, and be aware that the lumbar region of the back is convex anteriorly. You are going to tiy to keep that arch intact as you bend forward.

Now bend forward from the hips. Average beginners will be able to bend about 10-30°, but advanced students with excellent hip flexibility may be able to bend up to yor or even more. As with forward bending from the waist, ifyou are not bracing the posture with your upper extremities, you will have to support it with your back muscles, abdominal muscles, and respiratory and pelvic diaphragms. Even more than before, pay attention to pressing in gently but purposely with the abdominal muscles. Be aware of when you reach your limit of hip flexibility, and bend from the waist from that point on. Let the arms hang or interlock the hands with the opposite forearms. Do not tug against the ankles or bounce your torso up and down.

Relax as much as you can and still maintain your posture Even though you started with a strong foundation and kept it while you were bending from the hips, you had to relax to some extent when you started bending v

Figure 4.22. Internally supported forward bend. With the upper extremities dangling, abdominal Hustles, back muscles, and the respiratory and pelvic diaphragms must support the posture along with the muscles, bones, and joints of the lower extremities.


at the waist. Your kneecaps are no longer lifted, and the hamstrings are ii a state of relative relaxation, although your nervous system is keepin them in a holding pattern of activity. Depending on your flexibility ant conditioning, the deep back muscles may be fairly relaxed or they may b> active, eccentrically lengthening as gravity slowly eases you down. If yo are in excellent condition you will be relaxed as soon as you are sett let everyone else will still be resisting gravity with the back, hamstrin muscles, and the triumvirate of abdominal muscles, pelvic diaphragm, ai respiratory diaphragm.

Stay in this posture, breathing evenly. The lumbar area is flexed forwai as part of an arc of tension extending from the upper back to the heels. Tl tensions shift as you breathe. Since the crus of the diaphragm takes orig from the relatively stable lumbar vertebrae, and since the contents of tl abdominal cavity are slightly compressed from the forward bend, ea< i inhalation lifts the base of the thoracic cage, producing a slight lifti effect in the upper body and a slight increase in intra-abdominal pressui Each exhalation then lowers you down slightly and relieves pressure frc 1 the diaphragm against the abdominal organs. Just feel that happening r about 30 seconds, and then gently roll up out of the posture while pressi g in mildly with the abdominal muscles. Do not do any kind of inter e maneuver such as lifting the head, then the upper back, and then straif: ening up from the hips; just roll up naturally.

This version of forward bending assumes that you are able to rem- n relatively relaxed in the posture. If you are struggling, all you'll notici s marked intra-abdominal pressure, difficulty breathing, and a tense bf i, abdomen, and respiratory diaphragm. The posture is for healthy beginni --, and is contraindicated for anyone with acute lower back pain. If you go 1 o this posture with pain in the lower back, you are likely to come out with m< .

After you are comfortable in the beginning internally supported forw d bend from the hips, you are ready lor the intermediate version. Start v. h the feet together. This time develop a firm base and keep it, with the 1 t solidly on the floor, the kneecaps lifted, and the hips strong. Hold tens n in the thighs, not only in the quadriceps femori but in the hamstring must s and adductors as well. Bend from the hips as before. Now, however, wl n you reach your limits of hip flexibility, keep a strong base as you contir e to bend at the waist. Hold tension purposely in the hips, thighs, d abdominal muscles as you bend down. Let gravity pull you down, a d notice that you are aware of more subtleties of the posture, especif y around the pelvis, thighs, and knees, than in the previous version.

Alter 15-30 seconds, experiment with assisting gravity by pulling your; If down actively toward the end of exhalation using the hip flexors (iliops< s muscles). The abdominal muscles will now operate above and beyond 1


general effort for pressing in; they will assist the hip flexors synergist ically in drawing you forward. Hold this pose, breathing as evenly as possible (fig. 4.23). As in the earlier exercise, each inhalation will lift you up and each exhalation will lower you down. To come out of the posture ease yourself up a little bit at the hips and in the lower back, press in purposefully with the lower abdominal muscles, and then come up in reverse order, first lifting the head, then the upper back to create a good lumbar arch, and finally extending the trunk back up from the hips. It is important to keep tension on the hamstring muscles as you come up to prepare for the extra tension on them when you raise the upper part of the back.

This is an impressive posture. It places so much tension on the muscles of the abdomen, pelvis, and thighs that you will hardly notice the accompanying increase in intra-abdominal pressure and increased tension in the deep back muscles. Nevertheless, it's all there—an experience of entering and exiting a forward bend from the hips that envelops you from head to toe.

Advanced students can take this posture one step further. Go into the forward bend exactly as in the intermediate posture, bending first from the hips and coming down with gravity, but then grasping the ankles or feet and assisting gravity with a combination of the abdominal muscles, hip flexors, and upper extremities (fig. 4.24). Once settled, this posture affects your breathing differently from the beginning and intermediate variations because now you are holding the trunk in place with the hands during inhalation. You'll sense little or no movement, only an increase in tension during exhalation and a decrease in tension during inhalation. Finally, if you wish to come out of this posture with an arched back, you should ease off the stretch slightly before lifting the head and upper back, exactly as in the intermediate version.

abdominal muscles can assist gravity in pulling your torso down and back

Figure 4.23. Intermediate forward bend. Unless you are holding on firmly, each inhalation lifts you UP and each exhalation drops you down. Be sure 'o keep tension in the fhighs, especially in the hamstrings. Never stand ln a position like this with thighs relaxed and knees completely locked.

abdominal muscles can assist gravity in pulling your torso down and back

Figure 4.23. Intermediate forward bend. Unless you are holding on firmly, each inhalation lifts you UP and each exhalation drops you down. Be sure 'o keep tension in the fhighs, especially in the hamstrings. Never stand ln a position like this with thighs relaxed and knees completely locked.

hamstring muscles

_ — hip flexors (iliacus and psoas muscles) can aid the bend concentrically hamstring muscles


Standing forward bends separate everyone roughly into two groups Those with good hip flexibility have a gratifying experience: if their hip are flexible enough to press the chest against the thighs with the knee-straight, the torso is inverted and the back is only mddly bent. The posturi is rewarding and relaxing for this group of students because the full inversio of the torso, which is now hanging passively from the hips, allows the spin to stretch, much as it would if you were hanging upside down. In mos people, however, short hamstring muscles and poor hip and back flexibilil prevent this, and the torso arcs out from the lower extremities in a b semicircle. Teachers who have always been flexible enough to bend fully their hips often find their students' situation incomprehensible.

medial and lateral rotators of the hip

Up to this point we have dwelt only on the fundamentals of bending frt i the waist and from the hips. We'll now turn to the more subtle aspects f how shifts in foot position affect forward bending. We saw earlier tl t rotating the feet out (toes out, heels in) rotates the thighs laterally, a 1 that rotating the feet in (toes in, heels out) rotates the thighs media ?. What is more, rotating the thighs laterally stretches their medial rotate , and rotating the thighs medially stretches their lateral rotators. And the -e shifts are all important to us in forward bending. We'll soon see that b h the medial and lateral rotators of the hips resist deep forward bending it least in those who are not very flexible, so anything that stretches th n even mildly at the start will limit performance of these postures.

The medial rotators of the hip joint are the gluteus medius and glut' is minimus, which lie beneath the gluteus maximus, take origin from ie back of the ilium, and insert on the greater trochanter (figs. 3.8b, 3. '»,

Figure 4.24. Advanced forward bend. With the chest pressed tightly against the thighs, inhalation cannot lift you up significantly; it merely increases tension in the torso.

8.9-10, 8.12. and 8.14) of the femur, which is located laterally, posteriorly, and inferiorly to the bulk of the muscle. This architectural arrangement enables these muscles to both rotate the thigh medially and lift it out to the side for abduction. Three experiments will clarify their roles. First, stand with your heels together (for adduction of the thighs), toes out (for lateral rotation of the thighs), and knees straight (so that our experience with the medial rotators will be superimposed on stretched hamstrings). Now bend forward and notice how far you can come down and where you ieel the tension. It's mostly in the hips, whose medial rotators will be rock-sol id and resisting the bend from start to finish. Second, bring your feet parallel to one another, and you will immediately come further forward. Third, swing your heels out and toes in, and down you will go even more. What has happened is simple: when you rotated your thighs medially, you took tension off the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, which were being stretched in the beginning by adduction and lateral rotation, and this permitted you to come further forward.

The main antagonists to the gluteus medius and minimus muscles are two of the lateral rotators of the thigh: the adductor langus and adductor magnus (see figs. 3.8-y and 8.13-14 for general treatment of adductors). These muscles take origin from the inferior pubic rami and insert posteriorly enough on the back of the femur to rotate the thigh laterally as well as pull it in for adduction. To test their actions, we need to start with them in a stretched position, so stand with your feet about 3-4 feet a pail for abduction of the thighs, and with your toes in and heels out for medial rotation. Then bend forward and pinpoint the site where you feel the most tension, which will be in your inner thighs. Next, swing your toes out enough to make your feet parallel, and notice that you can come further forward. Finally, swing your toes even further out to create lateral rotation of the thighs, and this will lower you down even more. Again, what has happened is straightforward—the exact counterpart to the experiments with the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, when you take tension off the adductor longus and adductor magnus muscles by rotating the thighs laterally, it permits you to come more deeply into the forward bend.

the angle posture

An excellent elementary posture, the angle pose, is a forward bend from one hip that further illustrates how foot position can affect forward bending. With the feet a comfortable distance apart, rotate the right foot 90' to the right and the left foot slightly to the right (about 30°). Keep them both firmly planted. Swivel the hips around so you are facing directly over the right foot. Grasping the right wrist behind your back with the left hand to help pull the torso around, bend backward slightly, and then bend forward

248 ASAimn Of HATHA KH.A

first from the hips (fig. 4.25) and then at the waist (fig. 4.26). Keep the forearms flattened against the back for this variation. As you come into the posture you will be bending primarily at the right hip joint, so this is where it is most natural to place your concentration. Unless you are unusually flexible, you will notice that there will be a slight twist in the spine. Come up and bend back again moderately before swiveling around and repeating on the other side. Because you do the posture in both directions it is excellent for working with right-to-left imbalances, first and again last on the les.-flexible side. If your forearms are flattened against the back, this pose wil be especially easy and you will be able to relax more into it. The alternative posture (figs. 6.26a-b) of lilting the arms away from the back is mor demanding and will create a more intense experience.

Figure 4.25. Angle posture, intermediate stage. Forearms here are shown flat against the back. Hips are swiveled to face the right foot.

bend from the hip initially as much a possible left fool is rotated about 30 to the ngl bend from the hip initially as much a possible right foot is rotated 90 to the right

Figure 4.25. Angle posture, intermediate stage. Forearms here are shown flat against the back. Hips are swiveled to face the right foot.

left fool is rotated about 30 to the ngl

Figure 4.26. Angle posture completed, with lumbar flexion added to flexion of the right hip joint.

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