Benefits of Forward Bends
I remember the first time I was doing a seated forward fold in a yoga class. From sitting upright, my back moved just a few centimeters forward as I exhaled and that was my forward fold. Listening to my teacher back then with keeping a straight back and my legs straight, I barely moved my back forward. What I didn't know back then and what also no teacher back then has told me was that I could have used some props such as blankets or bolsters to improve my seated forward fold and get a better benefit out of the pose for my body and my mind.
Seated forward folds are a bit harder to get into than a standing one, in my opinion. When standing, gravity automatically pulls your upper body down and getting into the forward fold feels easier than when seated. Whenever I had to come to Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold) or Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Fold), I didn't feel very comfortable. I felt pain in my back and my chest felt compressed so it was hard to breathe. Even though I didn't enjoy seated forward bends, with time I gained more flexibility and my back was moving more forward with every practice. It was great to see that my body was changing, but I still didn't consider a forward fold one of my favorite yoga poses.
When I started to dive deeper into learning postures that decrease anxiety, I learned that forward folds are a great pose to calm the mind. Obviously, I wasn't thrilled, but I gave it another chance and learned to do a forward fold again from scratch. I got to know that in the beginning, it may help you to bend your knees and not keep your legs straight, or even place a blanket or bolster underneath your knees. And after trying this for a couple of weeks, I became more and more comfortable in a forward fold, as my hamstrings didn't feel so overstretched and my lower back was not in any more pain. And when my mind finally was not focused anymore on how uncomfortable this position is, I could see the benefits that everyone was talking about all the time.
1. Soothing your nerves
Whether it is the fact that you - or at least trying to - fold together and form a small package with your body or that you are creating space in your back, a forward fold relaxes you. I often feel in a forward fold as if I would just let go and let myself be pushed into this pose to find relaxation and calm my mind for a moment. It is a feeling of going inward and solely focusing on yourself. In a forward fold, there is space being created between your vertebras which boosts the circulation of a lot of nerves situated back there.
2. Stimulating your digestion
Considering the front of your body, in a forward fold you use your abdominal muscles and with a clear breath, your digestion is being stimulated in this movement. Your digestion organs are getting a massage in a forward fold, which can even also improve your metabolism. Especially after a heavy meal, a forward fold can increase the blood circulation in your stomach area and release any tension you may feel.
3. Stretching your pelvis
Whenever you may feel some discomfort in your pelvic area, a forward fold can be magical. Increasing your blood circulation to your pelvic organs can help you decrease any menstruation comfort or help you healing after childbirth. In a forward fold, your sacral chakra Swadisthana - your second chakra - is being activated. This may help you with any imbalance you feel regarding your creativity, sexuality or relationships. Any emotional blockages you may feel can be released when practicing a forward fold. You may be surprised.
4. Calming your mind
When your head is below your heart, such as in Uttanasana, fresh blood is flowing towards your brain and you feel a fresh boost of energy. This can help with experiencing a headache and also fatigue. Your energy will be restored naturally in a forward fold and you feel uplifted.
5. Stretching legs, hips and chest
When folding forward, your hamstrings and calves are stretched, while your thighs and hips are strengthened. With your heart moving forward, your chest is engaged and keep in mind to not hinge out from your waist, but from your hips. If there is too much pressure on your knees, use a support for underneath your knees. This can also be used for pain in your lower back and a blanket to put underneath your sitting bones can help you to hinge from the hips, that will protect your lower back as well. Keep a long spine in this pose.
Something I see very often and almost every class - again this morning - is the aim to touch the feet. It is not necessary to touch your feet in a forward fold! Keep in mind to maintain a long spine and see where your arms and hands fall naturally. If you can bend all the way until your forearms reach the floor or your belly presses against your thighs, reaching for your feet will not change the position of your spine probably. But if you aim for your feet and your back is still up quite high, this may change the position of your spine with a high chance. Your back starts to round and your spine will do the same. This not only may cause pain, but also is not healthy for your spine, in general, to stay longer in that position. Concentrate on your spine first and what is going on with your hands is not a priority, as they don't have any great functionality in a forward fold.
Another mistake I see often is that the head is lifted up, that may cause some tension in your neck. Often in classes, the cue is given to gazing towards your toes. However, depending on where your back is at influences the direction of your gaze. Try to keep a long neck by tucking your chin more towards your chest than to lift it up.
Especially in Janu Sirsasana, I have seen that the back starts to round once the head is being pulled towards the knees. Even though the pose is translated into Head-to-Knee Forward Fold, remain an extended spine here and aim to come with your chest forward and press your shoulders downwards. This will maintain a straight back and eventually, your head will come closer to the knee, without risking to injure your back and neck.
You can find great instructions on how to properly get into a forward fold. Here are a few links for the most common forward bends:
There may always be one variation you feel more comfortable in such as standing instead of seated folds. But don't let yourself get drawn into this comfort! Face the poses that are not comfortable yet and turn it into your favorite ones. Props can help big time here and most importantly, patience.