Sometimes as teachers, even our best efforts at finding the right words just don’t convey what we’re trying to explain to a student. Words can’t always capture sensations or directions in the body. In those moments, hands-on assists, when they’re done well, can offer a lot of benefit. Hands-on adjustments provide a world of tactile information that verbal cues can’t always provide. In this article we’ll take a look at when, why, and how you might want to adjust seated forward bend.
Why adjust seated forward bend
A basic seated forward bend is a foundational posture that appears across styles of yoga, from Hatha to vinyasa. It’s the base that we use for lots of other seated postures. The better we understand our body in this simple pose, the better we’ll understand what happens when we add variations to it. As simple as it appears, students often struggle with making this pose work in their body. Depending on their body type, they may wonder why they can’t seem to fold very far. Or, they may wonder why they seem to get chronic low back pain in this pose.
When we adjust seated forward bend in a way that’s appropriate for the individual student, we can help them understand the answers to some of those questions. If we adjust seated forward bend in addition to offering verbal cues, we give students proprioceptive information about what’s happening in their body. And, we potentially offer them a direction to explore to evolve their pose.
Let’s start with some observations that will inform when and how we choose to adjust seated forward bend. Students come to a yoga practice with many different body types and activity histories. Taking the time to observe each student and their patterns is an important part of every good adjustment.
Some things that we might want to observe in seated forward bend include:
- How open are their hamstrings?
- Do they sit up easily or do they struggle to stay upright?
- Do their feet fall out to the side or stay fairly upright?
- Are their knees bent or are their legs fairly straight?
- Is their spine very rounded or pretty straight?
- Do they fold easily or struggle with folding forward?
- How does the lumbar curve in their low back appear? Is it more concave or convex?
- What are they doing with their arms? Are they holding on and pulling on their legs/ankles/feet? Or, are their arms more relaxed?
Intention and technique
Along with our observations of a student’s seated forward bend, our intentions for that student in that pose will determine which adjustments make sense. Generally, I consider there to be two main intentions in seated forward bend. They are lengthening and grounding. Let’s take a look at lengthening first.
One of the most common restrictions to evolving seated forward bend is short, tight hamstrings. Depending on how short those hamstrings are, they can result in compensations in the body. And, addressing the whole pattern is something I want to keep in mind when I adjust seated forward bend. If I’m working with a student with very short, tight hamstrings, one common compensation that I see shows up in the abdominals. Short hamstrings can pull the pelvis under in a posterior tilt, making it hard for someone to sit upright. Their abdominal muscles then turn on to stabilize their torso and help them sit up. But, that can result in over-doing the abdominals and get in the way of the forward bending action.
With that situation, I first want to address the pelvis. I could use my feet under the outer edges of their pelvis to lift it up and tilt it in a more anterior direction. At that point, I can use my hands on the student’s back to gently send them more deeply forward into their forward bend. Encouraging the pelvis to tilt in this way can help the student find the direction they need to send their pelvis when working on their own. It can also help them feel what needs to lengthen in the pose. Alternatively, they could sit up on a block or folded towel to lift the pelvis and I could adjust their seated forward bend from there.
I also see the opposite situation, very long, open hamstrings. These are the students who easily flop into a forward bend with their chest on their legs. In this situation, I lean more towards the intention of grounding to balance out the student’s natural tendency toward openness. Rather than sending the student even more forward, I might use my hands on their back to actually take their pelvis slightly in the opposite direction, posteriorly. Or, I might use my hands on the outside of their pelvis or the sacrum to press straight down with the intention of grounding the student. This can help give bendy students a felt sense of what a neutral pelvis feels like.
Cautions for adjusting seated forward bend
While it can be helpful to adjust seated forward bend, it can also be overdone. Two of the most common injuries that come up in seated forward bend are low back pain and sit bone pain at the insertion of the hamstrings. Pushing too hard in any pose can be injurious. And in seated forward bend, too much pressure from an adjustment can go into the low back or be too much for tight hamstrings. And it’s important when we’re adding information to a student’s practice, that we be attentive to our own biases and agenda. Go slow with each adjustment and feel and sense how the assist is received in the student’s body. Check in with them verbally to find out what their experience is. They are the best person to tell you how much pressure is “just right”.