What’s happening in standing wide-legged forward bend?
In this article I continue my series on fundamental asanas. In the particular style of yoga I practice, Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, prasarita padottanasana, or standing wide-legged forward bend, comes in a sequence of fundamental poses after standing forward bend, triangle, revolved triangle, side angle, and revolved side angle pose. All of these postures are considered foundational poses in many other styles of yoga practice as well. In this post, we’ll continue through that sequence and explore some anatomy, techniques, and common restrictions for several variations of standing wide-legged forward bend.
The muscle engagement in standing wide-legged forward bend is similar to what we saw in standing forward bend with a few changes due to the position of the feet relative to the pelvis. The biggest difference between what we saw in standing forward bend and wide-legged forward bend is that we have taken the feet wider than hip distance apart. This change has some important impacts on how the tissues are affected as well as how we ground ourselves with such a wide foundation.
The biggest and most obvious muscular change is the lengthening of the adductors located on the inside of the thigh. As we’ll see in a moment, the adductor magnus is rather important in this posture. In general we’re continuing the work we began in standing forward bend when the feet were placed only hip distance apart. We’re still lengthening tissues along the whole back of the body, from the bottoms of the feet, through the calves, the backs of the thighs, the gluteus maximus, and the muscles along the back.
What muscles are involved in folding into prasarita padottanasana, or standing wide-legged forward bend?
Hamstrings and adductor magnus
As in any standing forward bend, the extensors of the legs, such as the hamstrings, are engaged in an eccentric contraction to control our descent as we fold forward. Adductor magnus assists the hamstrings in this action. Most people don’t know that the adductor magnus is sometimes called the fourth hamstring. That’s because its attachment is on the sit-bone (ischial tuberosity) very close to the hamstring attachment. As a result, unlike the other adductors, a good portion of adductor magnus is a hip extensor.
Like the other adductors, when we step our legs apart for a wide-legged forward bend, our adductor magnus lengthens as we aBduct our legs at the hip joint. This automatically increases the tension in these tissues as they lengthen. As we fold forward, lengthening adductor magnus in particular is accentuated because we are both flexing and abducting at the hip joint. It’s like a double lengthening, once for aBduction, and once for flexion. Remember, adductor magnus is an aDductor and extensor.
Like all other forward bends, the quadriceps are not necessary to lower us into the posture. If, however, there is a lot of resistance in the back line of the legs (hamstrings/adductor magnus), then the quadriceps along with other hip flexors such as the iliacus and psoas major will engage to try to deepen hip flexion against the resistance of those pesky hip extensors that everyone is always fighting.
Balancing engagement and relaxation
The balance of engagement and relaxation in all of the muscles that we use to fold forward in this pose allow us to continue to work the idea of balancing effort and ease that we discussed in standing forward bend. In this case, we have taken our legs wide and that makes balance a little more precarious. Personally, I like to explore the engagement of the legs in a way that creates a foundation for me. This foundation is then the base from which I hang and lengthen the upper half of my body.
The upper body
There are several common variations of standing wide-legged forward bend. Which variation we do affects our intentions for the arms, shoulders, and upper body. We’ll discuss techniques for the arms in variations of the pose further on in the article. In all variations of standing wide-legged forward bend, there is a tendency to forget the upper body because we are so focused on what the legs are doing. It’s important to continue the idea of lengthening the tissues along the back of the body through the torso, head, and neck, and not let that intention stop with the lower body.
However, rather than hanging into the pose with the upper body like a noodle, we can also be building on the pattern of shoulder girdle and upper body engagement, particularly serratus anterior and latissimus, that we discussed in standing forward bend. We can use the resistance of whatever the hands are holding onto, or pressing into, to have the intention of protracting the scapula and generally keeping some activation in the armpits. In this way we are maintaining activity in the upper body just as we are in the lower body.
Primary patterns and intentions
As I’ve discussed previously, you can find grounding or mula aspects and lifting or uddiyana aspects in every pose. The dynamic play between grounding and lifting creates sensations of length and space in the body. In standing wide-legged forward bend, we can explore the balance between the grounding aspects of the foot foundation and the lengthening created by the forward fold.
Setting up the foundation
Our base in this pose might include the feet and the hands depending on the variation, but the feet will be on the floor for sure. The intention of the feet, as I see it, is to provide support and a base under the body. If the feet are too far away from each other, then we lose that sense of the stable ground underneath us. A good cue is, if you need to wiggle the feet closer together to stay balanced when coming up from a standing wide-legged forward bend, then your feet are too wide. You should be able to fold forward and come up again without moving the feet.
Positioning the feet
The other common problem in the feet, and therefore the foundation, is letting the feet roll out too much.
It’s common for some laziness to come into the feet as we focus, perhaps, on perceived goals of getting our head to the floor at any cost and feeling like we are deepening the posture.
When we roll onto the outside of the foot in a posture like this, we are creating the anatomical movement called inversion which happens at one of the two ankle joints. There are technically two ankle joints. One is created by the bottom of the tibia as it meets a bone of the foot called the talus. The name of that joint, ladies and gentlemen, is the tibio-talar joint. It allows you to do the variation on flexion/extension called plantarflexion and dorsiflexion. The joint below it is where the talus meets the calcaneus called… you guessed it didn’t you? The talo-calcaneal joint. It is at this joint that our inversion is happening. What action is the opposite of inversion? Eversion. This is what we are doing as we correct our foot and bring the inner edge into better contact with the floor.
As we lengthen and fold forward, I encourage students to look for a balance between length and a sense of connection with the ground. We don’t want to either avoid stretching the hamstrings and adductors or over-do the stretch in the hamstrings and adductors.
Avoiding the forward bend
If you or your students are on the tighter side, then you may notice that you tend to hang back onto the heels, avoiding putting pressure into the hamstrings. If this is where you’re at, play a bit with the intention of leaning a little more into the toes. We’d like to move to a point where our hips are right above our feet and not too far behind. Remember, this is a process and it doesn’t have to happen all at once.
Over-doing the forward bend
On the other side of the flexibility spectrum, and something I often see among especially bendy practitioners, is over-doing the folding forward. There is nothing to be gained by pointing our sit bones at the ceiling. Over-doing the forward fold to that point can put unnecessary pressure onto the attachments of the hamstrings and adductor magnus at the sit bones. Over-doing the forward fold in this posture can irritate or even tear the tissue at these attachments. Again it’s all about balance.
The other version of this happens in students with tight hamstrings. In this case, the student takes their feet wider than required only to be able to place their head on the floor. The extreme cases have them literally leaning their body weight onto the top of their head. Not only is this precarious, but it also avoids the real issue, the hamstrings.
As in earlier posts on standing forward bend, triangle and revolved triangle, and side angle and revolved side angle pose, I think it’s interesting to consider what physiological effects postures may have on the body. From a western medical perspective, we know little for sure about the physiological effects of yoga, as very little has been verified by western science.
However, it is interesting to read the older, traditional suggestions of specific physiological effects of these postures and consider what effects might be possible. How accurate they are from a western medical perspective is hard to say. As far as I know, no one has done research yet to confirm or deny them. Here are some suggested effects of standing wide-legged forward bend to consider:
“This group of asanas reduce the accumulation of fat deposits around the waist and increase the strength and tone of the muscles of the legs and back. Organs from the navel down (Madra) are cleansed and when the head is tipped below the waist in this manner the inner fire (Agni) effectively cleanses the bowel and rectum/anus. The sexual organs are cleansed and the breathing apparatus are purified. The entire nervous system stimulated.”
– Pattabhi Jois in Lino Miele’s Astanga Yoga book
Additional techniques and restrictions for standing wide-legged forward bend
Continuing the length through the head and neck
A common pattern I see in variations of this pose is students looking up while holding the forward bend. This happens either because they feel like they are going to fall if they shift their gaze and let their head and neck relax, or because they are just unaware of holding the extra tension in the head, neck, and shoulders. Try to allow the head and neck to be inline with the rest of the spine. Remember we’re lengthening tissues along the whole back line of the body. This includes the head and neck. If you feel like you will fall if you let the head relax, re-examine your foot foundation and perhaps bring the feet a bit closer together.
Similarly, we shouldn’t try to trick our bodies into believing that we are deeper in the forward bend than we are. I also see people curling their spine and tightening the front of their neck. It seems to me that their body is trying to achieve more depth in the pose from wherever it can, not necessarily where it matters, in this case, the hip joints.
What about putting the head on the floor?
Should the head be on the floor in this pose? Is the top of the head a “grounding aspect”? I would say no, if putting the head on the floor means that you lose the foot foundation to gain the head touching. If you have to step the feet so wide to get the head to the floor that they no longer form a stable base for your body, then perhaps maintain the intention of reaching the top of the head toward the floor, but let go of the need to have the head actually touch the floor.
What if you can keep your foot foundation and place the head on the floor? Should you then put weight onto the head? Is this an intention of this pose? Of course, there are different opinions on this point. If you’re an Ashtanga yoga practitioner, read Pattabhi Jois’ Yoga Mala. There you will find the instruction to touch the head to the floor; you will not find the instruction to put weight on your head. I use this as the basis of my own opinion that we should not be turning this into some variation on a headstand and placing weight on the head. Placing significant weight in the head has the tendency to make people relax and just rely on their head to keep them from falling rather than engage with the work of the legs.
What about the arms?
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, there are several common variations of standing wide-legged forward fold. The actions of the arms will depend on the variation of the pose that we’re talking about. Let’s take a look at the arms in four variations.
Variations of standing wide-legged forward bend
Prasarita padottanasana A
In the first variation, we’ll place the hands on the floor between the feet. In this version, the hands become part of our stable base. I’m generally of the opinion that if the hands are on the ground, then you should put weight into them. In this version of the pose we can allow the hands on the floor to take some weight, potentially allowing us to lean forward with the body, working the hamstrings a little more deeply. If the hamstrings aren’t sufficiently open to allow you to place the hands between the feet, then place them a little in front of the feet. The actions of the pose will be the same.
Prasarita padottanasana B
In the second variation, we’ll place our hands on our hips and keep them there as we fold forward. In this version, one technique to work with is curling our fingers into the low belly and keeping some attention on our physical expression of uddiyana bandha. That is, is your lower abdomen in and soft?
Prasarita padottanasana C
In the third variation, we’ll clasp our hands behind our back and then let them fall toward the floor as we fold forward. In this variation we can continue the theme of striking the right balance of stretching the tissues without over-doing the action. There is more to be gained in this posture by relaxing the shoulders and allowing the opening in the shoulders to bring the arms towards the ground than there is from forcing or trying to push the shoulders into a particular position. As with the head, if you read Yoga Mala, you will not find an instruction to touch your hands to the floor. If you can, that’s not wrong, but that’s also not the goal.
Variations on what to do with your hands
I would suggest that there are three variations on what to do with your hands. One is, palms apart while you reach the arms. The second, and slightly more difficult, is to keep the palms pressed together. The final, and usually most difficult, is with the hands turned away from the body. This causes a different rotation of the shoulders and more restriction.
I’m often asked whether it is okay to bend the elbows in this version of standing wide-legged forward bend or whether the arms should be straight. I don’t consider either version the “right” one. Experiment with both versions, having the arms straight and elbows slightly bent, and then choose the one that feels better in your shoulders, which is where the work is supposed to go in this part of the posture.
One pattern that I see in both the second and third variation in particular of standing wide-legged forward bend, is a tendency to over-do the idea of “squeezing the shoulder blades together”. While it’s true that we don’t want to see anyone’s shoulders up in their ears, I don’t find the verbal cue to squeeze the shoulder blades together to be helpful here. Remember that in a position like this, the shoulders are in a slightly vulnerable place. Over-doing the squeeze behind the back along with over-doing the arms toward the floor is notorious for over-stretching tissues in the shoulder joint, as well as where the collar bone (clavicle) meets the sternum. Generally, try to keep the shoulder blades (scapulae) in a neutral position.
Prasarita padottanasana D
In the fourth variation, we’ll take hold of our big toes with our fingers. Our toes can offer a resistance to pull against with our arms and shoulders. We can use this binding on the toes to create a balance of engagement between the muscles of the lower body and the muscles of the upper body. Remember not to let the elbows drift too far behind your back. We want to cultivate that ever important serratus anterior pattern here as well.