Yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise that can be found in just about every city around the country. Part of the reason yoga is so popular and such an effective form of exercise is because of the combination of strength and flexibility needed to perform the poses or in yoga called asanas. Yoga is more than just stretching or being flexible, it is controlled movement that helps to create stability and balance in the body. One popular form of yoga is a vinyasa style practice that incorporates sun salutations. An integral part of the sun salutation is moving in to and out of a forward fold. There has been a lot of discussion in the yoga community about the best way to perform this fold. Part of discerning the best way to do anything in yoga has to do with each individual person. As a general guide the safest way to practice – especially for anyone who has had low back pain – is to maintain a neutral lumbar spine by bracing through the core. Two huge factors that come in to play for which variation is best for you are hamstring length and mobility of the pelvis.
When folding forward, the pelvis needs to tilt anteriorly which puts the hamstrings in to a stretched position.
If hamstrings are lengthened and have enough strength to control the descent, one way to fold forward is the traditional “swan dive.” In this variation, pictured below, the low back stays long, core stays braced, and the back stays flat as the pelvis anteriorly tilts.
If the hamstrings and low back are tight or restricted, you may have difficulty with the anterior tilt of the pelvis which makes the low back round in the dive forward. When this happens the lumbar spine goes in to flexion and causes compression and strain on the low back. Especially for classes where this forward fold is repeated multiple times, this can cause more harm than good. If someone already has a spinal pathology this can even be painful.
The good news is that there is an easy solution! When you bend your knees while folding forward, it puts the hamstrings on a little more slack. This allows better control and anterior tilt of the pelvis, helping to protect the low back.
Whether the knees are straight or bent, core control is very important. Like most yoga asanas the deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles help act as stabilizers for the low back. If you are interested in starting a yoga practice and want more information on how to adjust asanas for your body, you can make an appointment with Michelle Etcho ERYT-200 and YACEP who has been teaching yoga for the past 5 years. She is currently working as a Physical Therapist Assistant at our Spotsylvania location and teaching yoga at Dragonfly Yoga Studio in Downtown Fredericksburg.
Photo credit: Aaron Spicer
Written by: Michelle Etcho