Searching the internet, one can find many videos and detailed lists on how to correctly perform the Standing Forward Fold Yoga Pose or Uttanasana. Seeing how popular yoga has become, that should come as no surprise. According to the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, approximately six percent of American adults used yoga for health purposes, making it one of the top ten complementary and integrative health practices in the country.
Compared to other yoga poses, this pose seems simple, right?
But what if you don’t have the body type often observed in the online videos and pictures? What about the person who has chronic back pain, tight hamstrings, and neck pain? What cues could a yoga instructor give that would make a difference in the lives of people seeking yoga for treatment as opposed to ongoing wellness?
What piece of somatic information could transform the Standing Forward Fold from a pose to a movement that offers a different perspective, giving us a chance to reconnect, experience yoga “off the mat” and bring the lasting benefits yoga has to offer in everyday life: getting the dishes out of the dishwasher, changing the garbage can liner, reaching for the hair dryer under the sink or picking up the toys from the floor?
Movement awareness improving function!
Here are some somatic language cues to enrich the Standing Forward Fold Yoga Pose:
Standing Forward Fold Yoga Pose Cue 1: Toe Pads Disengage
There are four parts to a foot: a very LONG heel bone (Calcaneus) that ends just as the arch of the foot begins; the longitudinal arches of the foot (Medial, Lateral)/mid tarsal joints, the ball of the foot (Metatarsal joints, Transverse Arch), and the length of toes (Phalanges). People who suffer from chronic back and neck pain will rest most of their body weight on the front half of the foot and toes, often curling their toes into the floor when standing or bending over.
Cueing Toe Pads Disengage results in a subtle or—for most people—a profound lifting of the toes from the ground (notice I said toes, NOT the ball of the foot) and the weight of the body will shift towards the foot arch and along the LENGTH of the heel. This single move alone has the capacity to improve standing tolerance, one legged balance, and back and neck pain. A simple awareness check and reminder throughout the day releases unconsciousness and accumulative muscular tension along the spine. One can sense an important motor pattern or muscles activating that has been chronically inhibited or turned off during toe pad engagement: knee caps lifting (quadriceps muscle), pubic bone lifting (rectus abdomius and upper hamstrings muscles), Lengthening of the low back and neck in curves (lordosis), and crown of the head lifting toward the ceiling (deep neck flexor muscles)
Standing Forward Fold Yoga Pose Cue 2: Pelvis Sways behind the Heels and Feet
Most instructors cue “exhale forward hinging at the hips, not the waist.” It’s a great cue…if you know where the hip joints are located!
The side of the upper thigh (femur) is often mistakenly identified as the hip joint. Rather, the hip joint is formed where the thigh bone (femur) meets the three bones that make up the pelvis: the ilium, the ischium or sit bone, and the pubis. The two large pelvic blades (ilium) are easy to find, touch and sense movement. The “ball shaped knob” at the top of the femur sits in the “cup” of the ilium. This is the true hip joint and is located deep in the groin and unable to sense with your hands.
A better cue of “hinging at the hips” would be to “hinge at the groin.” An even better cue is to place the fingers in the groin (along an artificial line made by the underwear) and allow the Pelvis to sway behind the heels and feet. Without nodding the head, or bending the neck, the eyes should go from looking out at the horizon line to looking down at the floor. One should see a progressive appearance of the entire foot, then the ankles, and then the shin bones. Continuing the move, the knees should yield to a soft, subtle bend, NOT hyperextension. As the long torso or trunk naturally bends forward (a protective reflex to keep us from falling), one quickly sees the heels and then about three feet of flooring between the legs as the trunk, not just the head, is displaced forward.
Falling backward is not an option as long as the weight of the body is distributed simultaneously along the length of the heel through the longitudinal arches and balls of feet. The toe pads should still be disengaged. The aim is not to align the ankles, knees, and hip on top of one another like a pole sticking out of the ground at a 90º angle. Rather, the aim should look more like a pole that is angled 115º to the ground. This is imperative for beginning, middle age, and older students in a class and for people who have pain when bending forward.
Allowing the pelvis to sway behind the heel/feet, in turn, allows the base of the spine (sacrum) to disengage progressively from the lower back joints (lumbar facets) where years of poor movement and compression has caused osteoarthritis, facet degeneration, and lumbar foraminal narrowing or stenosis.
Standing Forward Fold Yoga Pose Cue 3: Sit Bones Elevate or Rise to the Ceiling
Most students have difficulty identifying their sit bones, and some mistake them for hip joints. At the bottom of the pelvic blade (ilium) is a rounded knob like structure protruding from the ischium, the sit bone. The rounded sit bone (ischial tuberosity) is best felt when sitting on a hard chair or school bleacher while performing a forward and backward pelvic rocking motion. This area is also the attachment for hamstring muscles, adductor magnus muscle, and the sacrotuberous ligament (sciatica, piriformis syndrome). As the pelvis sways behind the feet, the sit bones are also carried back behind the feet. At maximum horizontal pelvic sway, the sit bones can begin to elevate or rise to ceiling allowing the crown of the head to posture toward the floor without tucking the chin to the chest or closing off the front of the throat area. At the same time, the eyes will see about 6-15 feet behind the heels, not just the floor in front of the toes. Instead of cueing “press the hips up,” suggest elevating the sit bones to the ceiling, bending the knees as much as needed, placing hands on a yoga block that is positioned close to or between the feet, if necessary.
Standing Forward Fold Yoga Pose Cue 4: Arms Move at the Same Level as the Head
If starting the Forward Fold from Upward Salute, Urdhva Hastasana, keep the side of the upper arms parallel to the side of the face. Maintaining this arm/head pose as you perform the three somatic cues above will eliminate nodding the head or bending the neck as the eyes go from looking out at the horizon line to looking down at the floor.
Once the pelvis has reached its maximum sway and the sit bones have elevated, release the arms from the side of the face and place them on the ground allowing the sit bones to further rise toward the ceiling. Come up from the pose with this first cued movement: bring the side of the upper arms parallel with the side of the face, then sway the pelvis forward, distributing the weight shift throughout the soles of the feet without clenching or grasping with the toes. The torso/trunk is brought to the vertical or upright with a flat back and the eyes track the pathway from the floor behind the heels, to the feet, to the floor in front of the feet and up the wall in front, heading towards the imaginary horizon line.
Now that you know these cues, try the standing forward fold yoga pose while going about your day. Interested in learning more ways that yoga and somatic education can complement each other? Contact us today.
Carol is a physical therapist, a co-creator of Integral Human Gait theory, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, and a Senior Trainer in Movement Intelligence. Focus, Align, Teach and Inspire! These qualities not only describe her work, but they also describe her presence. She is passionate when it comes to reconnecting learning with human function and health. Carol is in private practice at MontgomerySomatics.com in Columbus, Indiana.