Yes you can touch your toes, but you need the right technique!
I can’t tell you how many people tell me they can’t do yoga because they “can’t even touch their toes!” Most of the time, unless the person has a specific postural issues or injuries, a few adjustments will immediately getting them into a comfortable forward fold.
Firstly, it is not essential to be able to do this to participate in a yoga class. But if you’d like to be able to or maybe you just want to make your forward folds a.k.a uttanasana a bit easier, here’s my how to guide.
Most people have tight hamstrings, these are the muscles at the back of your thigh. Warm up your hamstings by doing some gentle warm ups. I like to do ‘runners lunge’ a.k.a Ardha Hanumanasana or reclining leg stretches. Tight hamstrings can also contribute to lower back pain and poor posture so if you suffer from either of these make sure to invest the time in stretching out and relieving that tension as much as you can before progressing.
To do Ardha Hanumanasana, get into a low lunge position, with your back knee on the floor and simply straighten and bend your front knee. As you straighten the leg, reach out through your heel and you’ll really feel the stretch in your hamstrings – and mostly likely quite a few other places! Try not to go too far when you bend your knee, keep it stacked over your ankle and try to keep your knee moving in a straight line to keep it safe.
To do a reclining leg stretch, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Lift one leg and take your hands behind your thigh to support it. Play around with bending and straightening your leg to start. Try to get your leg as straight as it can go without pain and reach out through your heel, drawing your toes back. Flex in and out of this position. Repeat on the other side.
2) Change your focus
Yoga is all about shifting your focus away from the result of your action and into the process of the present moment. This is demonstrated even in something as simple as a forward fold! When you start to get into a forward fold, even if you’re just reaching to pick something up, shift your focus away from getting your hands to the floor. Instead let your first thought be getting your belly to your thighs. To help you achieve that, imagine there’s a hinge at the front of your thighs and you’re closing it. The movement starts as you make that movement at the hips. If it’s still hard, bend your knees too. Don’t worry if it starts to look a bit like a half cooked squat, you can straighten your knees gradually as you move down.
3) Mind your back!
If you sit at a desk all day or slouch you might have some compression or tightness in your lower back, making it much harder to come into a forward fold. If you have severely tight legs or chronic lower back pain you should practice forward folds with caution! Wrenching your back into a forward fold before it’s ready can cause injury so always go slow and check if you’re able before you go for the full posture.
The pelvis and the spine work together to stabilise your body and create good posture. The most common mistake in forward fold is to keep your hips static and hump your back to reach down. When you tip your hips forward and lengthen through your spine at the same time, you’ll find it much easier to forward fold.
Try to imagine your drawing up through your lower back before you begin to bend. Keep your lower back long instead of creating a hump as you reach down. As you hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees this will start to happen by itself.
Practice every day or even a few times a week and you’ll notice your hamstrings and your lower back adapting to the stretch, giving your body more freedom. Ease in and out of it gently, bend your knees deeply then straighten them, hang out there for a minute or two. Use the opportunity of tying your shoe laces or picking up something you’ve dropped as a moment to practice a good forward fold.
My favourite ways to practice my forward fold is to start by setting up my forward fold and then lift my torso up to a 90 degree angle with my legs – a half forward fold. Lengthening through my back and engaging my legs, I lower back down into my forward fold and repeat. After that I like to play with bending my knees to get my body as low to my thighs as I can, and then straightening my legs, reaching up through my tail bone.
The benefits of a forward fold are immense. When we come into a forward fold whether it’s standing, seated or in the midst of another pose, it has the wonderful effect of calming the nervous system, giving you a chance to catch up with yourself and relieve feelings of overwhelm or mild depression. This effect has the bonus of bringing your body out of anxious “fight or flight” mode and into “rest and digest” mode, alleviating anxiety and it’s symptoms. Meanwhile, your upper body is getting a chance to relieve the pressure of gravity, allowing any built up mucous in your sinuses and lungs a shake up and refreshing your blood flow. This results in helping your digestion, high blood pressure, asthma, headache, sinusitis and insomnia.
If you enjoyed this post and you’d like to work on those tight hamstrings or low back tension, you’re always welcome to my yoga classes in Bray and Greystones. I teach a variety of Hatha yoga, meditation and mindfulness 3 days a week.
September 3, 2018