Standing Forward Bends

Is standing forward bend as simple as it looks?

Christine Yoga Postures 16 Comments

Standing Forward Bend: padangusthasana and pada hastasana

A series on the fundamental asanasStanding Forward Bends

In the Ashtanga vinyasa practice that I do, we begin practice with sun salutations and then follow that with a series of fundamental standing asanas. This article is about the first two standing forward bends. I’ve already deconstructed the sun salutations for you, so now let’s explore some fundamental asanas in this next posture series. While I’ve said these poses are part of the Ashtanga vinyasa practice, they are also considered foundational postures in most modern styles of yoga.

So what makes them fundamental or foundational? In the next series of posts, we’ll take a look at the intention of each of these fundamental poses: standing forward bend, triangle, revolved triangle, side angle, revolved side angle, wide-legged forward bend, and a side stretching pose (parsvottanasana). What is it for? What is it doing? What patterns is it developing? What postures will build on it or are related to it? What aspects of this posture do we often struggle with? Why? What are the stages of the posture as I see it? How does it evolve over time? What is the value of the posture? How is it related to physiology in the body? We’ll start this series with standing forward bend. I’ll cover two variations: padangusthasana and pada hastasana.

Anatomy

What is our intention with forward bending in general? When we fold forward, we are flexing at the hip joints and through the spine. This has the effect of lengthening the back of the body and shortening tissues on the front of the body. I’ve discussed this in detail in my book, Functional Anatomy of Yoga.

In padangusthasana and pada hastasana our feet are hip distance apart and we are either holding the toes or we have our hands under our feet.

In these most basic forward bends, we’re just beginning to develop the pattern of length along the back of the body. I often refer to a full forward bend as coming from approximately ⅔ hip flexion and ⅓ spinal flexion. Once we reach the end of flexion in the hip joints, the spine continues the flexion to bring our torso toward our legs.

What other patterns are we beginning to establish here? We’re beginning, in these postures, to develop a feeling of the play between engaging and relaxing. In order to fold forward, our hamstrings will contract eccentrically to lower us toward the ground. Once we’re in the forward bend, we can use different techniques to work with the intention of relaxing the hamstrings so that we can lengthen them. We can even play with leaning forward into our toes just a bit to change the pressure we put into the hamstrings.

How we work with our upper body is also important. There are at least two important patterns that I work with in the upper body. The first one is the lengthening of the spine. We can also choose to use these two postures to begin training our serratus awareness. We can use the resistance of holding our toes in padangusthasana, or placing the hands under our feet in padahastasana, to engage our serratus and latissimus and direct the shoulder blades into protraction. In simple terms, make the elbows point behind you while protracting the shoulder blades.

Intention

I often refer to postures as having an opposition in their quality. Sometimes I even refer to them as having a quality of mula and uddiyana, not the literal bandhas, but the quality itself.
The play between these two aspects informs both our feelings of length and strength in postures. The relationship between our hands and feet connecting together creates a groundedness (mula quality). The result of that relationship and tension can create a length in the spine as well as the back of the body (uddiyana quality).

These two basic standing forward bends start to work with our internal cues for balance. In these two postures, we’re exploring the feeling of finding our way in space. You might find initially that these postures challenge your proprioception when you fold forward without using your hands on the floor to keep your balance.

In this aspect of proprioception of balance, the primary way in which we will adapt these postures is to move our pelvis relative to where our foundation is. In other words, beginners who are feeling more cautious in their balance will often have their pelvis slightly behind an imaginary line running up from the feet taking the pelvis behind the heels. If you’re more daring and really “going for it” you might have your pelvis as far forward as your toes.
There is another factor here, which is simply, the tension in the hamstrings. If you have really tight hamstrings, it probably hurts too much to have your pelvis more toward the toes. This is another reason why beginners send the pelvis behind the heels.

Physiology

Understanding the physiology of postures is a little tricky. Why? Well, there isn’t as much research on the physiological impacts of specific asanas. It’s possible that there are really specific physiological benefits to specific asanas, but at the moment, we are mostly talking about the general.

For forward bends like this, we can categorize them as restorative in part. Of course, they are about the hamstrings lengthening functionally, but they are also restorative in the sense that the head goes below the heart. At least half of our body is upside down and therefore changes the effort required to generate blood flow, at least to half the body.

In addition, if you consider where these two postures live, in the ashtanga sequence at least, you have just finished ramping up the cardiovascular system by completing five surya namaskara A and five surya namaskara B. Broadly, that would be more associated with the sympathetic nervous system. Now, you’ve flipped it upside down and gone restorative which is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.

Of course, there are what I refer to as the old and traditional stories about what postures like this do.

These two asanas play an important role in beginning this process of purification. They reduce the accumulation of fat around the waist and abdomen. They work on all the internal organs of the abdomen (Udara) preventing and curing stomach ailments, relieving constipation (Malabaddata) a major factor in the build up of toxins in the body, which can trigger the beginning of disease. They eliminate flatulence and cleanse the rectum and anus. The liver and spleen are toned, the urethra is also cleaned. Piles (Bagandara) are both prevented and alleviated.” – Pattabhi Jois in Lino Miele’s Astanga Yoga book.

Whether or not these claims are true remains an open question. I am personally not clear as to what this is based on. Is it extensive personal experience? Because some technical words and medical conditions are named, it does make it seem that there was some research done at some point, but as far as I know, there is none that comes from the scientific/medical community. It’s possible that we will end up proving these true with time. Let’s see.

Technique and Restrictions

What might get in the way of our fully doing a standing forward bend? You might be thinking of the hamstrings. Certainly, tight hamstrings can impede ease in our standing forward bend. Really though, tension anywhere along the back line of the body can affect forward bending. If you’re finding standing forward bend to be a challenging posture, you could be bumping up against tension in the hamstrings, the calf muscles, the gluteals, and/or the erector spinae muscles. You might even notice tension in the bottoms of the feet and achilles tendons as well as the back of the head and neck!

So, what to do? How might you start with these most basic standing forward bending variations and work to evolve your forward bend?

Of course, putting pressure in the hamstrings in standing forward bends is the main focus. I dare say, it can sometimes become an obsession. This may even be part of the reason that we see so many people searching for sit bone pain on this site. As important as it is to create length in the hamstrings, how we create that length is equally important. How we moderate the pressure in our hamstrings becomes an important part of this. Should we bend our knees? Keep them straight? What’s the difference?

Generally, I suggest that students work in a way that keeps the pressure throughout the entire hamstrings, rather than having the pressure directed more into one of the attachments, or ends, of the hamstrings. To work with that idea, bend the knees (if you need to) as you go into the forward bend and then work with the intention of straightening the legs once you get there.

Standing Forward BendsIn padangusthasana, you’ll take hold of the big toes with two fingers and a thumb once you are in the pose. In the second variation, padahastasana, reach the hands under the feet with the palm of the hand up. This second variation is a little more challenging, as more length is required in the hamstrings to be able to fit the hands underneath the feet.

Once you have either of these two positions, don’t initiate all of the work from the arms. Rather, use the arms to enhance the length in the spine. What I often encourage students to do first is to soften their abdomen. Yes, you read that correctly, relax the abdomen. Why? By relaxing the abdomen (which can be more difficult the tighter your hamstrings are) you will be forced to use deeper muscles. Which muscles? Well, the psoas comes to mind as the strongest of all of the hip flexors. Many students are so well trained to use their abdominal muscles that the body almost defaults to this muscle.

When the abdomen contracts, it’s going to try and flex the spine. Of course, some flexion is okay, but if we’re also trying to lengthen the spine, the tension in the abdominal muscles will actually work against this since it’s trying to bring the ribs toward the pubic bone. With the abdomen more relaxed and the psoas engaged, the hip flexion becomes the primary action happening.

What if you can’t reach the floor? You have options for modifications. If you’re really far away, try placing some blocks in front of you and, in a sense, bring the floor up to you. If you’re a bit closer, but need to bend the knees to get there, then let the knees be bent, but use about 25% of your strength to have the intention of straightening them. This will work toward gradually lengthening the hamstrings over time.

Once you’re in your standing forward bend, notice where your weight is. Are you keeping your weight back in the heels, and in a sense, avoiding putting some pressure into the hamstrings? Play with shifting some more of your weight forward. How does that change what you feel in your hamstrings?

One final nuance, relax your head and neck. So many students unconsciously seem to try and use their head to make their standing forward bend deeper. Of course this is happening unconsciously. Tightening the front of the neck to bring the head closer to the legs/knees makes us feel as if we are deeper than we really are at our hip joints.

Conclusion

Although often considered a fundamental posture, standing forward bend can be both simple and complicated at the same time. It’s a great example of the work of finding a balance between effort and ease in our yoga practice. Standing forward bend requires a balance between engagement and relaxation. What patterns do you notice in your own body when working on padangusthasana and pada hastasana? Are there aspects of those poses that you find more challenging? Those aspects are the places to bring your attention and curiosity then, to keep evolving your standing forward bend.

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Many of the concepts in this article are discussed in:
Functional Anatomy of Yoga

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david keil yoga anatomyThis website is simply about delivering yoga anatomy to the yoga community in a simple and understandable way. It has always been about you, the reader, understanding the complexity and diversity of our own humanness as well as our anatomy.

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Comments 16

  1. Been following this series; thank you for totally breakin’ it down for us, and taking the time to do so. I’m so glad you’re continuing with the standing postures. Just so I am understanding what it means to “lengthen the spine”: am I consciously “unhunching” my spine and “flattening” it/trying to “arch” it, the effect of which, if my hamstrings are tight – which they are – not permit as deep of a stretch but in the long run, establishing proper form as the stretch deepens?

    1. Hi Christine,

      Of course, if your hamstrings are really tight, it will limit the ability of the pelvis to tilt. That is connected to what the lower part of your spine is capable of doing. Having said this, yes, you are “unhunching” essentially. The idea is to lengthen both the front and the back of the body. If you allow too much hunching it has a tendency to put pressure on the lower back. In a standing forward bend, gravity can do more of the work than most people think.

  2. Can you explain the benefits of the intention of forward bends to create a ” lengthening of the back of the body and shortening tissues on the front of the body” ? One does not have to look to far at the posture alignment of the general public to see that most people already have a shortening in the tissues of the front body and a long, tense and weak back body. Nobody ages by going into a back bend. I have worked for almost 3 decades with yogis who have done these forward bends and wound up with various injuries such as hamstring tendonitis, disc bulges and herniations and a flat lumbar sacral curve. These poses do not strengthen the back body and in fact many yogis wind up with a flat looking butt from a steady diet of these. We do not walk with out bending our knees and to me these forward bends with the knees extended remind me of driving a car with the brakes on. I am very interested in hearing what the real benefits are because I really do not see any and on the contrary feel the dangers outweigh any supposed benefits.

    1. I agree. I stopped teaching standard hatha yoga three years ago because I was injuring my back and the backs of my students. It’s not worth it. If you tell a kid to touch their toes they bend their knees and squat down. There is nothing natural about forward folds of any type.

    2. Hi Michaelle,

      It’s been a while since I’ve seen your comments. I do appreciate you hold the extreme position on forward bends that you do and checking the rest of us. Please remember that this is a posture, not the ONLY posture, not the ONE posture that you should do for 2 hours of practice. This posture, along with others, like twists, and backbends ideally undoes imbalances and or re-establishes balances. If you want to generalize and say that no one should ever forward bend, you are welcome to do so. I’m not willing to go that far.

      As for the middle part of your comment, you describe many possibilities and you ascribe the cause of all of them to forward bends. If that is your experience, I can’t argue with you. I can, however, say, that it is not my experience. Is it possible that there are other causes of these injuries and they show up in forward bends?

      You have brought up your regular argument of walking with bent knees as a reason why we should never straighten them. I’m at a loss here, sorry. My knees also straighten at a different time of my gait. What should I take that to mean relative to forward bends?

      I fully understand you feel the dangers outweigh the benefits of forward bends. In this case, I typically look at how people do it and try to help them do the things they want to do as safely and effectively as possible.

      1. David, since you are at a loss, I will try to explain further why forward bends are like driving a car with the brakes on. We are unable to walk easily if we do not let one of the knees bend during movement. People bend their knees alternately when they walk. When walking, both knees do not straighten and stay that way which is what happens in a forward bend. Keeping the knees from bending loads the spinal column, compresses the hip socket and also flattens the sacral platform. Doing a back bend or spine extension after a forward bend does not ‘fix’ the actions of loaded spinal flexion in forward bends. According to McGill, doing end range spine flexion and extension only makes the spine loose in all directions. He also has proven in his research over several decades that a loose and flexible spine is an unstable spine and people with this anatomy have the most back pain and injuries. Also forward bending does not recruit the extensor muscles of the back so strength is not gained. The main cause for compression fractures is weak spinal muscles and in a forward bend, the back muscles are not recruited for upright alignment. As you say in the article, forward bends make the back long and the front short. What is there to gain by having a long back and a short front?
        How does this help the spine and how does this protect the ligaments from become lax?

  3. Dear David, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with the sitting forward bend. Hopefully I can raise these issues here as well.
    When I first started to do yoga, I could hardly move forward an inch and my neck and upper back hurt terribly during this pose. Due to a wrist injury and a pregnancy I didn’t do so much yoga for a few years. When I picked yoga up again I found that I suddenly could go much further in the pose, my nose even touching my knee, so without stretching!
    Now I do yoga every day and sometimes I find that my hamstrings are actually more stiff when I’ve done forward bends the day before. Also I’ve felt tingling sensations in my legs during the pose so I wondered if I stretched the nerves in my low back too much?? After doing forward bends, I just feel like having worked in the garden too much…. My low back feels more instable off the mat ass well; I’m hurting my back more often for example when lifting or pulling things or racebiking.
    I haven’t done my forward bends for two months now, instead working on my inner core, and my back feels much better. So I wonder, are these forward bends really beneficial?

    1. Hi Ruby, from my experience that I shared under Michaelle’s comment, I would say no, that forward bends are not beneficial. Stuart McGill, the professor of spine biomechanics at Waterloo University states plainly that doing these could very well lead to herniated discs. There also is a study of post menopausal women who are already showing signs of osteoporosis who are put into four groups over a period of six years. One group does forward folds, one group does backbends, one group does both and the control group does neither. After the six years were completed they took x-rays of the women and found that the ones that did the forward folds only had an 89% occurrence of compression fractures in their spines. The ones that did the backbends only had the fewest compression fractures, under 20%. Forward bends are not natural, and not necessary.

        1. Hi, I’m looking it up, but in the mean time you might want to check out Dr. Stuart McGill, the professor of spine biomechanics at Waterloo University. He has many videos and talks regarding the dangers of rounding the spine such as in forward folds.

          1. I have seen some of Stuart McGill’s work. As you point out, it’s about HOW you do it, not just that you’re doing a forward bend. I hope you can find the other reference.

          2. Stuart McGill also does not recommend people go to pilates or yoga because of the reported spinal injuries and the possibility or probability of these injuries.

          3. Joanne,

            You’ll have to try again.

            The study you linked to is NOT AT ALL what you described in your first comment.

            Let’s give some context to that link

            3 women ages 87, 61, and 70.
            All have pre-existing conditions of osteoporosis or osteopenia or degenerative disc disease. Maybe even a combination.

            Yup, if you put them into extreme flexion, it’s not going to be good for them. I could have told you that before reading the study.

            Do you really believe that it is deductively valid to take this study as proof that all forward bends, regardless of whom and how is bad for you?

            Here’s the conclusion from the study –

            Although exercise is effective and highly recommended for the treatment of osteoporosis, persons with bone loss should be educated in proper exercise techniques. The increased torque pressure applied to vertebral bodies during Spinal Flexion Exercises (SFEs) in yoga exercises may be a risk and requires consideration. Furthermore, exercise should be prescribed for persons with osteopenia or osteoporosis. Assessment of fracture risk in older persons performing the SFEs of yoga and other high-impact recreational activities is an important clinical consideration.

            Stop throwing red herrings out there or at least read this stuff with some objectivity before you try to present it to others.

            And if you agree with McGill, why are you on this site?

            I won’t be replying to any more of your comments.

    2. Hi Ruby,

      I’m really not sure about why your hamstrings lengthened without stretching. Perhaps pregnancy, but I’m not so sure about that.

      How you do something is just as important as whether you’re doing it at all. From a distance and not seeing you, it sounds to me like you are over-stretching based on the hamstrings feeling tighter the next day as well as the destabilization you’re describing. It’s always been about balance. You don’t want to be super bendy and no strength or stability. You also don’t want to be so tight you can’t move around. Unfortunately, we take yoga to mean just stretching business. Strengthening should be a component of it.

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