2/28/09

Forward Bends from Standing: Pilates Roll Down, Uttanasana, Pandangustasana, and PadaHastasana.

We do a lot of forward bends in yoga. They are great for our bodies. Done well they stretch the entire back surface of the body, from the souls of the feet, through the back of the calves, knees, and thighs, across the hips, up the spine and back of the neck, connecting all the way through the fascia over the head to the ridge of the brows (thank you Thomas Myers Anatomy Trains).

When we stretch the back of the body the nerves themselves get stretched. Within a reasonable tolerance, nerves like being stretched. Even when there is some pull in the muscles and fascia, there is a pleasure sensation in forward bends. They all calm us, help us sleep, and help us deal with stress.

. video

Forward bends are also risky. More people injure themselves in forward bends than in back bends . If the intervertebral disks are compromised, too much pressure on the back of the disk can cause further disk damage and result in the disk pushing onto the nerve roots and causing pain and sciatica. Additionally, when the spine is cantilevered forward of the body, the lumbar spine (low back) is working at maximum capacity. If the muscles are not strong enough to support the weight of the upper body you risk injury with a flat back (extended spine, number 2 in the video) forward bend. When your abdominal muscles are engaged, they help in the work of carrying the upper body's weight and the risk of injury is greatly lessened. If you think you have weak abs and back muscles, stick with the Pilates Roll Down (number 1 in the video) until you feel yourself gaining some strength in these muscles.

To support forward bends, continuously engage your deep abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. You can find this work with the following exercises: Place a hand on your belly and feel the softness there. Breath in and out of your stomach. As you exhale you will feel the abdomen hollow. This is transverse abdominus engaging. Lift the belly even further back and hold it there while you breath into your rib cage now. This move engages both the tranverse abdominus and the oblique abdominal muscles. Just this breathing move done every day (3 minutes of conscious engagement about 3 times each day) will begin to improve your ab strength. Keep this engagement throughout your forward bends, and engage even more intently when you return to standing.

You also want to engage your pelvic floor to help support the lumbar spine. Pelvic floor muscles span the bottom of the pelvis in a diamond shape between the pubic bone, tail bone and two sitting bones. The muscles engage when you narrow that diamond and lift it gently toward your center. If this is hard to find, try stopping and the flow of urine the next time you use the toilet. They are the same muscles groups. Keep them lifted throughout the exercises.

If your hamstrings and the fascial tissue in the back of the legs and hips is tight, do your forward bends with your knees bent. After you fold forward with bent knees you can slowly begin to work the back of the knees open and invite more length into that region of the body. Be patient. With patient attention the hamstrings will lengthen over many months or years, not weeks.

Finally, when you add the bow of the head toward your sternum you complete the stretch of the back surface of the body and the spinal cord. Rest in your forward bend for a few breaths, or even 2 to 5 minutes, as your body can tolerate. Longer resting in a safe position (perhaps 80% of your range of motion with abdominal and pelvic floor muscles engaged) will result in gradual changes in the body.

Namaste,
Lisa

p.s. the great music is by my friend Sid Rosen. It is from the CD "Not Alone." You can get copies of the CD through cdbaby.com, Gracewinds Music, or Grass Roots Bookstore.