SmartMat Pose of the Week – Standing Forward Fold
Uttanasana, Standing Forward Fold, is probably one of the most frequently misaligned poses in the practice of Yoga. This is in part because it is such a popular and commonly practiced pose, and the more common a pose is, the more sloppy we tend to become with it.
Standing Forward Fold is a well-known part of the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar), a classic full-body sequence of poses created by the masters to loosen the body and prepare it for meditation. It’s generally the “connecting” pose between Mountain pose and either lunging or Downward dog; so many practitioners overlook it or pass through it too quickly to notice all the places we might misalign here.
The English translation for uttanasana is “intense stretch pose.” Ut means “intense,” while “tan” means to stretch, extend, or lengthen out. Done correctly, indeed, it can be intense, especially for the hamstrings. Done incorrectly, and it can be just as intense, but in not such a beneficial way. Let’s take a look at how you might be putting undue pressure on your lower spine in this posture and how you can avoid that in the future.
Yogi See, Yogi Do
Since, as creatures, we humans are so visually oriented, there’s a strong tendency to orient to postures with our eyes. We may see our super flexible and bendy teacher do this pose like the women shown at the top of this post is doing it – flawlessly with her upper body closed perfectly onto the tops of her straight legs with her hands in easy reach of the floor . Upon seeing this, our next thought suggests that we too should get our hands to the floor in just the same way. After all, we want to do the pose “right”, right?
Yet, if you are not blessed with extremely open hamstrings (which by the way many of us are not), if you aim to reach your hands to the ground with straight legs, you may end up looking more like this:
What you’ll notice in this picture above is that in an attempt to get is hands to the ground, the student has rounded his upper back; turned out his feet slightly (to avoid too intense a stretch in his tight hamstrings); locked his knees; and dropped the majority of his bodyweight into his heels. It appears as if his rear is sticking out back, past his heels.
Doing the pose in this way presents a challenge, particularly to the low back. When you lock your knee joints, it makes it harder to rotate forward. Therefore, the full force of your flexing movement comes into your low back, compressing the area as you bend. For people with weak low backs or chronic back pain, this can be particularly harmful.
So, how do we modify for the safety of the back and still get that super deep stretch in the hamstrings we crave?
A Re-Orientation and Back to Basics
The first thing we need to acknowledge is our tendency to lead and learn with our eyes. It’s a dangerous habit to fall back on. Postures look incredibly different from body type to body type, but since we can be competitive and comparing creatures, we tend to measure our postures up against others instead of re-orienting inside ourselves to deepen the stretch in an appropriate way to our needs. Make an agreement with yourself to break this habit now.
Once we learn this lesson, we need to find new guidelines to help us measure our own personal progress. As usual, the feet are a great place to start. As we discussed, in Standing Forward Fold, if you are locking your knees and throwing the flexion all into your back, this will show up in your feet as a majority of weight dropping into your heels.
On your SmartMat, you’ll be able to easily notice this misalignment as the sensors in your mat will tell you exactly how you’re distributing your weight. In your ideal posture, you’ll be distributing the weight evenly in the four ‘corners’ of the feet – inner and outer heel bone, ball of the big toe and of the pinky toe.
If you have tight hamstrings, it’s entirely possible you’ll need to bend you knees a little or a lot in order to keep this proper foot alignment. But that’s how we do it. We build from the ground up, feeling the pose from the inside of our own bodies, instead of looking outside and trying to get our fingertips to the ground without proper alignment in the legs or feet.
Strong foundation first, and work your way up from there. If you do have tighter hamstrings, your pose may end up looking more like this:
Never compromise the base of your posture in order to get some other “feature” of the pose. In this case, if you are very attached to getting your hands to touch the ground, make sure you’re not doing it at the expense of your back.
And, by the way, you may be surprised. Even with a significant bend in your knees, if your spine is straight, you’ll amply do the pose justice and get a very intense stretch in the hamstrings.