Forward Folds: How You Might Be Hurting Yourself In Yoga
Over the last sixteen years, injuries have been on the rise in yoga. Maybe this is because there are more people practicing yoga, or maybe it’s because we’ve had an increase in new teachers, who have very little experience practicing, themselves.
Regardless, all age groups have seen this change, but those 65 and older have had the greatest increase in injury.
The area most frequently hurt for all practitioners?
A whopping 46.6% of all reported injuries occurred in the trunk.
While this is vague at best (which part of the trunk? the spine? the ribs? the back? the front?) it is true that the spine is the foundation of the trunk, and a crucial part of the anatomy, as it houses the spinal cord, and the roots of the nerves that reach the entire body.
Two areas of the spine are most susceptible to injury: the neck, and the low back.
Enter the forward fold in yoga…
What Is A Forward Fold?
A forward fold is any posture that puts the spine and hips in flexion, or brings the front of the torso and the front of the legs closer to one another.
This includes everything from paschimottanasana, to Downward Dog, to the more extreme Plow pose & Shoulder Stand, and everything in between.
While forward folds have the benefit of stretching the back side of the body, nourishing kidney and adrenal glands, and creating a more calm, introspective mental state, they don’t come without risks.
So let’s look at this category of yoga poses with respect to the low back and the neck and understand how they could be risky, and how we can make them safer.
From an anatomical perspective, the spine has a forward facing curve in both the low back (lumbar) and the neck (cervical).
These curves act as shock absorbers for the spinal discs which sit in between vertebrae that make up the spine.
Flexion of the spine tends to flatten out these curves with the possible risk of pinching the anterior side of the discs, or pressing them back in a way that could cause them to bulge and/or pinch a nerve at its root.
Folding forward is a natural movement, one who’s range of motion is good to keep. Flexibility in this direction helps us bend over, pick things up, reach down to tie our shoes…
But without its partners, alignment & strength, flexibility is a little more risky. Strength along the spine, and even down into the butt, can help support the trunk and align it in a safer way.
The Role of Bone Density
Another consideration as we age is that we (especially women) lose bone density.
In the case of osteoporosis, all bones, including the spine, become more friable and susceptible to fracture.
Cranking your body deeply into any posture —especially a forward fold, and especially one with weight on the spine rather than the legs (think Plow pose)— can put extra pressure on the vertebrae, creating the possibility of fracture or pain.
Again, strengthening the muscles around and along the back of the spine is a good preventative measure, as is keeping the lumbar and cervical curves in somewhat neutral alignment.
This, of course, is true for all activities, not just yoga. Findings indicate that yoga appears as safe as usual care and exercise*, which is to say you can get hurt picking up a piece of paper (happened to someone I know) or working out in the gym, just as easily as in yoga.
The Case For Strength
One goal in our yoga is to work both strength and flexibility, not to get to a final destination or a particular shape. By toning the posterior chain, from heels to head, we help hold both the bones and the discs of the spine in place while we move through a safe range of motion.
In general, healthy spinal alignment means restoring and supporting the cervical and lumbar curves, as much as possible. This means that while the spine is in flexion (folding forward), there is some element of strength in the back body that works on extension of the spine (backward bending).
Simply sitting up straight, like in the pose dandasana, is one way to practice this. To draw the low back in and up (rather than letting it roll back toward the floor), to lift the chest (rather than slouching), to draw the shoulders back and position the head in line with the upright spine involves working extension and strength, not just flexion and flexibility.
More Is Not Better, Balance Is
Often, teachers urge students deeper into postures. Encouraging a “deeper is better” mentality makes the end goal, or the appearance of the pose more important than working in a functional middle range where strength and alignment are considered alongside depth and flexibility.
The advent of heated, power flow yoga, combined with less knowledgeable teachers also brings a scary combination of lax (hot) muscles and a fast-paced environment. It can be done, but for most people in this style of practice —students and teachers alike— working (teaching) safe alignment in a functional range of motion at a quick pace is a challenge. It’s easy to overdo it and not notice the indications of “too much” until it’s too late.
Consider, also, our daily habits. For the vast majority of people, sitting is the primary daily posture. Frequent and long sitting, locks the front of the body short and the back of the body long. Another way to say that might be that the front of the body could be strong, while the back of the body is weak.
As is often the answer in yoga, balance is important. Here, we seek balance between strong and supple, between front and back, between fast enough, but not too fast to lose alignment, between deep enough, but not so deep as to cause injury…
Two Phases Of The Seated Pose
One way to find balance and implement these teachings in a a seated pose is by breaking them into two phases. The first phase is to lift the torso upright, suck the low back in and up, to make the head an extension of the spine and to go for length rather than folding over.
This phase is dedicated to restoring and protecting the lumbar and cervical curves through toning the back muscles as if doing a backbend. How much you have to engage the muscles of extension depends on factors like flexibility in the legs and mobility in the pelvis.
For some, bending forward and taking the low back with them, instead of allowing it to roll back behind the plane of your pelvis, might take years. For many, sitting on a folded blanket, or slightly bending the knees will give access to pelvic mobility and back body strength in a way that is beneficial. Others may simply want to back off how deeply they fold and worry more about stability in the mid range of their movement instead of trying to get their head to their knees.
Only once we have balance between strength and flexibility, and we use it to maintain safe alignment is it a good idea to take the second phase of the seated pose —folding forward.
If you want to practice safely, you don’t have to quit forward bending. But you can avoid the urge to push to your maximum. You can also learn to engage the back of your body and create strength there, even when you fold forward.
Figure out what a neutral spine is in your anatomy, then try to balance out those curves —it may mean more backbends, or more of the memory of a backbend even when you bend forward.
Break the “if a little is good, then more is better” habit and engage the practice of santosha, or contentment, instead. Find a qualified teacher, one who has experience and who encourages you to stay safe and present, and to slow down, so you can be with where your body is, instead of always pushing to do more.
Let’s not add to this growing statistic of yoga-related injuries. Together, we can work smarter and safer!
The Safety Of Yoga: A Systematic Review * “No differences in the frequency of…nonserious, or serious adverse events…were found when comparing yoga with usual care or exercise.”