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  • Standing Forward Bends for Flexibility, Strength and Balance
    Oh, and a little thing called proprioception (otherwise known as body awareness)

    Standing forward bend with feet together, knees straight and hands on the floor. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.Standing forward bend using a chair. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    Bending forwards at the hips, you can do a standing forward bend.

    You can use this action to stretch the hamstrings and/or strengthen them.

    If you can't reach the floor, an option for standing forward bend is to use a chair or yoga blocks.

    Standing Forward Bend Foot Position Options

    Standing forward bend with feet hip width and arms reaching upwards with hands unclasped. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
    Standing forward bend with feet together, knees straight and hands on the floor. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    In a standing forward bend the feet can be hip width apart or together. In either case the knees are straight but the hands can be supported (on the floor or on a chair or yoga blocks) or lifted.

    For hip and knee comfort you can experiment with turning the feet slightly outwards or inwards (not shown).

    Hand and Arm Options for Standing Forward Bend

    Standing forward bend with knees straight and first two fingers and thumbs grabbing the big toes (padangusthasana). Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
    Standing foward bend with the hands slid under the feet, palms upwards and fingers pointing rearwards (padahastasana). Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
    Standing forward bend grabbing on to sides of a yoga mat. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    With respect to using the hands in a standing forward bend. They can be on the floor (not shown directly above). They can be :

    • Gripping the big toes
    • or slid under the feet.
    • You could also grip behind the ankles (not shown) or even grip onto your matt.

    Any of these options can be used as a way of strengthening the arms while doing a standing forward bend.

    Note:

    • The big toe gripping option is called padangusthasana. In ashtanga yoga the usual technique is to grab the big toes with the first two fingers (index and middle fingers) and the thumbs with the palms facing inwards. You could experiment with using the last two fingers.
    • The hands under the feet option is called padahastasana. It too is used in the ashtanga yoga standing sequence. The palms face upwards with the fingers pointing back.

    In all of the above options you can use your arms against your legs to add tension and feeling to your standing forward bend.

    Hands Free Options for Standing Forward Bend

    Standing forward bend with hands on waist. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
    Standing forward bend with arms reaching back (in line with torso). Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
    Stanidng forward bend with hands clasped behind back, elbows straight. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    You can also do a standing forward bend with the hands not on the floor:

    • either being held relaxed behind the back,
    • unclasped and reaching backwards (or upwards),
    • or clasped and reaching backwards or upwards, away from the back of the body.

    Doing the relaxed hands behind the back option you could focus on your legs, particularly your hips, trying to make them active.

    Reaching the arms, whether unclasped or clasped, you could focus on making your arms feel long. This may help you to activate your latisimus dorsai muscle (and other arm and shoulder muscles). But the lats can be particularly important since they attach to a large portion of the spine and in addition attach in part to the opposite gluteus maximus muscle via the thoracolumbar fascia.

    Standing Forward Bends with Hands On the Floor Versus Hands Lifted

    Note the differences in sensation in the hips and legs when the hands are on the floor (or chair or yoga blocks), versus with the hands not on the floor.

    With the hands on the floor you should find it easier to relax your legs since your hands can help support the weight of your upper body.

    And so to train your legs, and your hip muscles, it can be a good idea to learn to do a "hands-free" version of the standing forward bend.

    Lengthening Your Spine while Doing Standing Forward Bend

    In any of the above options you can focus on lengthening your spine.

    I would suggest not worrying about maintaining the natural curves of your spine while doing this. (Since they are natural, they will resume when you relax your spine.) Instead, focus on making your spine feel straight and long.

    The three main parts of the spine to focus on in this regard are:

    • the cervical spine (the neck),
    • the thoracic spine (the part that the ribs attach to)
    • and the lumbar spine (the part that connects your ribcage to your pelvis.)

    This can feel like a mixture of stretching your spine, but making it feel strong at the same time. So it may take some practice.

    Lengthening the Arms

    As mentioned, when doing a standing forward bend with hands lifted, whether unclasped or clasped (but not on the waist) you also have the option of making your arms feel long. You may find that if you do this after lengthening your spine, the arm action can help you make your spine feel longer.

    Reaching your arms back (but in line with your spine) you can lengthen your spine forwards (or away from your pelvis). At the same time you can lengthen your arms back, in the opposite direction.

    These two opposing but lengthening actions may make it easier to make both the arm and spine feel long at the same time helping to integrate (make stronger but with less effort) the joints of your spine and your arms.

    Making the legs Feel Long

    Continuing the theme or idea of lengthening, when forward bending at the hips, with or without the hands supported, one option is to make the legs feel long so that the knees, feet and hips have a strong or stable sensation.

    Working from the groud up you could first make your legs feel long, then your spine and then your arms.

    More Standing Forward Bending Options

    Further options for standing forward bend can include:
    • shifting your hips forwards or rearwards relative to your feet.
    • If you hands are on the floor you can shift your hips even further forwards.
    Standing forward bend with hands on chair, weight shifted forwards onto hands. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
    Standing forward bend with hands on chair, weight shifted rearwards onto feet. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    When shifting forwards notice how your hands press into the floor. And when shifting back notice how they become more relaxed.

    If doing this with hands not on the floor, notice how your toes press down if you lean forwards enough. If you lean back enough you may find that your forefeet lift off of the floor.

    This simple exercise (shifting back and forwards) can help you feel where your center of gravity is with relation to your foundation.

    Including the Calfs in Your Standing Forward Bend

    Another option when doing standing forward bends is to lift the forefoot of one or both feet so that you bend the ankle forwards. You could consider this a forward bend for the ankle.

    Standing forward bend with a calf stretch, forefeet lifted. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.
    Standing forward bend with heels lifted (calfs active). Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.

    You could also lift the heels when doing a standing forward bend.

    Both of these actions help to involve the calf muscles in your forward bend.

    Adding Gastrocnemius Tension to Your Standing Forward Bends

    Lifting the forefeet adds tension to the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles. Try doing it with the knees absolutely straight.

    One reason for activating the calves in a standing forward bend (or any forward bend where you want to stretch the hamstrings) is that it gives the hamstrings a stable foundation. The tendons of the gastrocnemius interloc with the tendons of the hamstrings at the back of the knee and so activating the calfs gives the hamstrings a stable foundation from which to lengthen away from. It can also make forward bending extremely uncomfortable.

    So I spend a lot of time in my classes working at making this action more bearable.

    Standing Up with Knees Straight (from Standing Forward Bend)

    One question or point that comes up frequently with standing forward bends is whether or not you should bend your knees to come up (or to bend forwards.)

    First and foremost, if you have any sort of injury or pain, do whatever you need to to prevent worsening the injury. And if the pain is sharp pain in your joints, do whatever you need to to avoid that pain flaring up.

    One idea is that you need to bend your knees to protect your lower back.

    If you are just getting into yoga, that's good advice to follow, especially if you lack body awareness.

    But learning to do a forward bend with the knees straight just might help your body last longer if you learn how to do it correctly.

    One reason for getting more comfortable using your gastrocnemius muscles (both while bending the ankle forwards and backwards) is that you can use this muscle to help stabilize your knees.