Biomechanics of forward bend

February 15, 2022

Forward bending postures make up 40-60% of most yoga classes, yet there seems to be a massive knowledge and skill gap about safely practicing and teaching yoga forward bends. Essentially, forward bends are postures where the upper body moves toward the lower body. Unfortunately, there are a couple of misconceptions that forward bends are about straightening the legs, touching your toes, and getting your nose to the legs. Moreover, some students are so determined to make the forward bend pose look a certain way that they force themselves into these deep forward folds. However, this can lead to serious injury to the fascia and muscles of the back body.  

It is crucial to understand the basic biomechanics of yoga forward bends. It means knowing how to safely bend forward. The result is, this knowledge will also make forward bends much more effective. When done right, there are many benefits that yoga forward bends offer.  Popular bends like the Wide-Legged Forward Fold and Seated Forward Fold massage the abdominal muscles, stretch your back, decompress the spinal vertebrae and stretch the glutes.

Read on to discover the anatomy and benefits of forward bends in yoga, as well as how you can practice these moves safely and effectively. 

What is a Forward Bend in Yoga?

A forward bend is when you bring your upper body to meet your lower body. In most yoga practices like Hatha Yoga and Vinyasa Yoga, you will typically come across two kinds of forward bends: seated forward folds like Paschimottanasana and standing forward folds like Uttanasana. Apart from the position of the body, the leg position also varies in yoga forward bends. Wide-legged forward folds, for example, sees the body fold forward with legs far apart, or with the soles of the feet touching, like in Butterfly Pose.

Is There a Difference Between a Forward Bend and a Forward Fold?

Usually, these words are used to mean the same thing. If you bend a ruler, you'll notice that it rounds. In some yoga forward folds, the spine rounds. This is safe as long as there are a few safety cues that are followed. On the other hand, think of folding a towel. We fold one part over the other. When we forward fold, it is as if the upper body ‘covers’ the lower body as you hinge forward. To simplify matters, we will use forward bends to mean the same as forward folds.

The Benefits of Yoga Forward Bends

There are so many benefits of yoga forward bends if you practice them safely. In yoga, you have surely heard the phrase ‘back body.’ For example, “feel the stretch along the back body.” The back body is not just your back. Actually, the back-body is made up of your back muscles, glutes, hamstring muscles, and even calve muscles. Absolutely, yoga forward bends are the most effective way to stretch the entire back body. Furthermore, in a wide-legged yoga forward bend, you're also stretching the inner thighs. Yoga forward bends also have amazing effects on our internal body, such as:

  • Yoga forward bends together with deep breathing can improve digestion.
  • Organs such as the liver and kidneys are stimulated by a kind of ‘internal massage’ during forward bends.
  • Due to the slightly increased blood pressure toward the head, forward bends have a calming effect on the nervous system and brain, relieving stress and anxiety. 

The Anatomy of Yoga Forward Folds

To practice yoga forward folds safely and effectively it is important that you have a basic understanding of how the body should work when doing the movement. It is important to note that each person’s body is different. That is why, getting to know your body will help you get into the yoga forward bend in a way that is best and safe for you.

Muscles Stretched in Forward Bends

  • The thoracolumbar fascia & erector spinae muscles  
  • The 6 deep external rotators  
  • Glutes  
  • Hamstrings   

Skeletal Elements of Forward Bends

  • Pelvis: Sacroiliac joint, iliac crest & sitting bones  
  • Hip joint & femur  
  • The lumbar spine  

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What Limits Movement in Forward Bends?

It is important to understand that the primary (first) movement of a yoga forward bend is not in the lower back. Indeed, we are not simply bending forward from the upper body. The correct way to do a yoga forward bend requires us to rotate our pelvis around the head of our upper leg bone (femur). This movement is called a forward tilt of the pelvis (anterior pelvic tilt)Only then should there be a (gentle) forward bend of the lumbar spine.

The Pelvis

The pelvis is made up of 2 hip bones on either side. The femur attaching to the hip socket creates a ball and socket joint. Remember, the pelvis is the main weight-bearing joint in the body. In order to support the body's weight and absorb shock, it needs to be very stable. The more weight-bearing a joint is, the more ligaments it’ll need to stabilize it. Where the two halves of the pelvis meet with the sacrum, we find the sacroiliac joint.

Unquestionably, maintaining the integrity and stability of the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joint during yoga forward folds is vital. Without the safe foundation for a yoga forward bend that comes from an anterior pelvic tilt, we can cause strain, pain, and injury to the fascia and muscles in the lower spine and SI joint. 

Read on to find out more about fascia: What is Fascia & Why Every Yoga Teacher and Practitioner Should Know About it

The Hamstrings

The hamstring muscles, located at the back of our upper legs actually cross two joints. The hamstrings are a group of muscles that cross both the hip joint and the knee joint. The functions of the hamstrings are hip extension and knee flexion – bringing the leg backward and bending the knee.

The hamstrings get stretched or 'resist' when there is an opposite action. Namely forward folding at the hip and knee extension, straightening the knee. You can cause injury if you're practicing forward bends incorrectly with tight hamstrings. It is sometimes possible to force a yoga forward bend by using a strap or by a teacher's adjustment. The hamstring can be torn if you are in a posterior pelvic tilt position, fix the legs to the floor, and then force yourself to bend forward. Overstretching the hamstrings can also worsen knee issues.

How to Do a Yoga Forward Bend Safely 

Correct Paschimottanasana
Incorrect Paschimottanasana

Taking these factors into consideration simplifies how we can think about yoga forward bends.

How to do a simple Forward Fold 

  1. Make sure you’re seated on your sitting bones
  2. As you fold forward, let the pelvis rotate around the femur - creating and maintaining an anterior pelvic tilt
  3. Keep your entire back elongated as you fold
  4. Only when you reach your maximum allow the back to round (from your thoracic spine upward).

Forward Fold Tips

  • If you have limited hip flexion, you can sit on the edge of a cushion or folded blankets to raise the hips above the knees. This elevation can help create an anterior pelvic tilt.
  • Typically, in yoga books, the knees are straight in forward bends. For those with tight glutes and hamstrings, keeping a micro-bend in the knees will help protect the back and leg muscles.
  •  Avoid forcing the nose down. You want to keep your lower spine long and avoid collapsing your chest.
  • Yoga Forward Bends for Different Levels

    It is safest to start off with simple forward bends to practice healthy pelvic and lumbar spine movement.  

    Beginner Level: 

    • Knee-to-chest pose - Pawanmuktasana
    • Child’s pose - Shashankasana

    In these poses, the knees are bent and move toward the chest. This allows for a safe and gentle stretching of the lower back. 

    Intermediate Level:

    • Wide-Legged Forward Bend - Prasarita Padottanasana
    • Seated Forward Bend - Paschimottanasana

    How to Practice Seated Forward Fold Pose (Paschimottanasana)

    Paschimothasana-step-1
    Paschimothasana-step-2
    Paschimothasana-step-3
    Paschimothasana-step-4
    Paschimothasana-step-5
    1. Sit high up on your sitting bones with your legs hip-width apart and straight out in front of you.
    2. Inhale and stretch your arms up towards the ceiling, in line with your ears.
    3. Exhale and slowly fold your upper body forward. Reach for your heels but do not round your back. If you are unable to touch your heels, hold your shins, ankles or knees. 
    4. As you fold forward, maintain an elongated spine and bend the knees slightly if needed. Only when you reach your maximum,  allow the back to round (from your thoracic spine upward)
    5. Relax and hold the pose for a few minutes, remembering to breathe. 

    For more seasoned practitioners, these yoga forward bends will help you experience a wider stretch along your back-body, involving your hamstrings too. 

    To help gain more mobility for forward bends, you can try Padmasana – Lotus Pose: Tutorial to a Pain-Free & Safe Lotus Pose and Eka Pada Kapotasana: How to Practice Pigeon Pose for All Levels of Mobility to get you moving in the right way!

    How to Practice Wide-Legged Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana)

    1. Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your body parallel to your mat. 
    2. Place your hands on your hips and step your feet apart until they are one leg-length apart.  
    3. Inhale and lengthen your spine, pressing the soles of your feet into the mat. 
    4. On exhale, hinge at the hips and gently fold your torso forward. If you feel your back beginning to round, stop your descent and rest your hands on a yoga block. Keep you spine elongated. . 
    5. Rest your hands in the center of your mat, between your legs. 
    6. Elongate your spine and deepen the fold with each breath. If you reach the ground easily, reach with your head toward the floor using your hands and feet to anchor your body into the ground. 
    7. Stay here for several breaths before slowly rising and bringing your feet back together in Tadasana.

    Conclusion

    Undoubtedly, yoga forward bends have so many benefits for the mind and body. Therefore, it is critical to practice yoga forward bends regularly and safely! Only then are they truly effective. Your forward bends will be transformed once you understand that safe forward bending starts with the pelvis and is not just bending forward from the hips or waist. Remember, we must take care of the back and spine when practicing yoga forward bends. Keeping this principle in mind will help to avoid injury.

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    About the author

    Kalyani Hauswirth Jain

    Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain is the Creative Director and a senior teacher at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. Prior to joining Arhanta Yoga Ashrams in 2011, Kalyani studied Modern Dance in the Netherlands where she discovered her passion for the body-mind connection and personal leadership. In 2007, Kalyani began teaching yoga professionally, and four years later, she was training yoga teachers at our ashrams.

    Now with over 11000 hours of teaching experience, Kalyani is a lead teacher for the 200- and 300-hour Yoga Teacher Trainings, as well as a number of 50-hour courses at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. When she’s not adjusting postures in class, Kalyani is writing informative blogs and guides for fellow yogis, and co-authored the critically acclaimed book, 'Hatha Yoga for Teachers & Practitioners.'

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