Why Adjust Standing Forward Bend?
Standing forward bend is a foundational yoga posture. We move through standing forward bend often in yoga classes. It’s not just a static posture. If you are practicing a flowing style, it’s a pose that we move through every time we do a sun salutation. It’s also one of the most commonly adjusted poses among those who use hands-on adjustments.
Hands-on adjustments can be a valuable tool for helping students have a kinesthetic experience of the direction the posture is going, and it’s also true that if they are not done well, they can be confusing or even injurious to students. So, let’s explore adjusting standing forward bend within the context of what I understand a “good adjustment” to be.
Remember that good adjustments have a process. They start with observation. What is it that we see that makes us think we want to change or add to a student’s experience of a posture?
What is happening in standing forward bend that we could be observing? Remember from our previous article on standing forward bend, that the overall action of the pose is lengthening the whole back of the body. The hamstrings are lengthening of course, and so are the calves and all the muscles along the back of the upper body. Standing forward bend should be established on a stable base, the feet. Besides the intention of length in the back of the body, we are also working with balance in this pose.
Based on what we know anatomically about what’s happening in standing forward bend, what observations might we want to make? Some observations that we might make are below, but we can certainly add more to that list. The observations should fit the person and situation in front of you.
- Where is the person holding weight? Is it forward into the toes, back on the heels, or somewhere else?
- Are they bending their knees when in the pose or do they easily straighten their legs?
- Are they breathing easily and steadily or struggling with the breath?
- Do they appear comfortable and grounded in their feet and possibly hands or are they wobbling or shaking a lot?
- What are the arms and torso doing in the posture? Are they active and engaged or hanging a bit limply in space?
- How familiar does this person seem with yoga practice? Are they fairly new to all this or have they been practicing consistently for some time?
- Have you checked in to find out if they have any aches, pains, or injuries that they are experiencing at the moment?
Intention and Techniques
The next step in a good adjustment is a clear intention based on our observations. What is it we want to communicate through our touch and why? What intentions might we potentially work with when adjusting standing forward bend? The intention or intentions that we choose should be based on the needs of the student in front of us and the observations we just made. All postures have more than one intention. I often think of postures as having primary, secondary, and tertiary intentions, or more! Before we adjust or make a change to a posture, we should be clear about what the intentions of the posture are that we want to emphasize for the student we’re working with in that moment.
We also need to be mindful of our own body mechanics, as we want to avoid causing stress or injury to our own body in the process of adjusting someone else. Additionally, we will communicate a sense of groundedness through our touch only if we are also in control of where our own body is in space.
When adjusting standing forward bend, I would consider the primary intention to be grounding. The first component I’m looking for students to establish is a connection with their base. Related to a sense of grounding in standing forward bend is balancing – challenging our proprioception to find our place in space. To support this intention, we can provide a safe place for the student to explore balance. If we stand facing the student, we can use one or both of our legs/knees to help support them as they lean forward into the posture and test their balance in space.
We can add to that by using one hand to send some pressure straight down through their sacrum into the legs and feet. The intention of this pressure is to give the student a feeling of being grounded in their feet, which is their base for this pose.
The second intention I’m looking for in this posture is lengthening through the back of the body, both lower body (hamstrings, calves, and ankles), and upper body. Deepening the pose when adjusting standing forward bend would address this second intention then.
The depth of a lengthening adjustment should match what’s going on with the person: Are they bendy or tight? Do they have hamstring issues, pain, or previous injuries? It should also be created with your own kinesthetic experience of the feedback received in the moment from the student’s body.
The third piece that I might address when adjusting standing forward bend is repatterning some aspect of the forward bend. If a student is hanging back on the heels, we might want to suggest a pattern of bringing a little more weight into the toes to work a little more into the hamstrings. If the upper body is not actively taking part in the posture, we could suggest some work from the shoulder girdle to bring awareness to this part of the body.
Remember, no matter which adjustment we decide to use, it’s important to put the person you are adjusting back in balance before you remove your contact, if you have taken them off balance.
And very importantly, breathe with the person you are adjusting!
Finally, it’s a “good adjustment” only if we are listening with our touch at all times, feeling and sensing how the adjustment is being received by the student, and making any changes to our adjustment as needed. How does this adjustment relate to the overall intentions for this person’s practice?
Modifications and Avoiding Injury
Standing forward bend is a commonly adjusted pose and one that is easy to overdo. Often standing forward bend comes towards the beginning of a practice or class and students are not especially warmed up yet. Remember that overdoing forward bends is associated with both hamstring injury and low back pain. With gravity assisting, it’s easy to go too far in this pose.
For the bendy folks, it’s not uncommon to let go of supporting this posture from inside and hang into it too far, putting unnecessary pressure onto the sit bone attachments of the hamstring muscles. If you see the sit bones start pointing to the ceiling, consider whether that amount of depth of forward bending is really helpful in someone’s practice? In that case, you might consider taking some of the depth out of the pose by encouraging the pelvis in a little posterior tilt and by encouraging grounding rather than additional length.
When adjusting standing forward bend for those on the tighter side, recognize that with an adjustment you are suggesting a direction to explore. The person may only be able to accept a certain amount of change in that moment. Allow the pose to evolve over time for each person.
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David summarizes research which evaluates physical effort needed to do common standing yoga postures and how that effort compares to walking.