The forward bend, or yoga's uttanasana is probably the most basic hamstring-using pose you can find in yoga classes throughout the world. I love it because it feels good, don’t you? But here’s the thing: it might be the most mis-performed “basic” movement out there as well. Why? Because of those tight hamstrings, most people will have to slightly bend their knees and/or flex their spine to mask the immobility in the hips. Which means they still have a gorgeous, sweeping armed sky-to-yoga mat movement but instead of being a hamstring changer, it’s more of a low-back damager. Partswearingoutasana.
I hate to tell you this, but your uttanasana is going to have to get a whole lot uglier. Or, at least a whole lot smaller.
Modifier 1: Your knees should not bend. Why? Because not only does this reduce the hamstring-lengthening effect on the way down, it also reduces the ability for the hamstring to lower you down (eccentrically) and pull you back up (concentrically). Which means your tiny SPINAL MUSCLES have to bear the weight of the torso as you go forward and back instead of the giant HAMSTRINGS. If you take a look at your favorite anatomy book, and do a quick leverage calculation, you’ll find that the hamstrings acting on the pelvis will get you a lot more bang for your buck. The spinal extensors cannot handle the load well because of their smaller mass and shorter levers.
Modifier 2: Once your pelvis stops hinging forward, that’s the end of your forward bend. Any downward motion beyond this point is all lumbar flexion -- aka where the lumbar discs are most susceptible to damage. And as you come back up, it will be the spinal extensors that must pick up the weight of the torso. Which seems balanced (hey, if I’m flexing, shouldn’t I extend?) but isn't. Spinal extensors do not have the leverage to continuously (and repetitively) hold the weight of your torso. Which is why Krishna gave us hips. So that we would have the leverage to bend forward and come back up 22 times in yoga class and never once interfere with the precious cargo of the spinal cord. What he didn’t count on was that we would all allow our hips to calcify over (only kind of kidding) until we could only move at the knee and the spine.
Here's a "before" pic of the end-position. Note the flexed knees and spine. Also note, says model, the amazing garden behind him. Where "he's sacrificed joint mobility for the movement of the soil."
Here's the "after" pic of the end position. (Yes, this is the new END POSITION!)
It looks a whole lot smaller, I know, but the entire body is actively participating much more in this photo. It's also a much more accurate assessment on how much your hamstring tension limits the motion of your neutral pelvis and vertebral column as a unit.
If you head to yoga class after sitting the bulk of the day, and you kick off a pair of shoes (heeled? Ack!) right before class, you’re probably going to find you have a micro-forward bend, aka hardlygoinganywhereasana. And hey, if you can’t get to the ground, you can’t get to the ground. Don’t worry about it. They stopped giving Tootsie Rolls out in Yoga class a long time ago. Wait, that wasn’t yoga class -- that was second grade. And, they might still do that, I’ll have to check.
If you’re OK being the only one in class with the six and a half-inch forward bend, here’s what you will accomplish:
1. You will not be tensing the quads by bending the knees, which means your knee cartilage will be pushed on less by your patella.
2. Your spine will maintain its neutrality, which means your core musculature will fire throughout the motion (instead of taking a break when you flex and extend your lower back) and your vertebral discs won’t be compressed at funky angles.
3. Your hamstrings will work throughout the pose, which is not only kinder to our modern-living spines, but also how these muscles can change their resting length for a longer period of time.
Oh, and sit and wear positive-heeled shoes less too, OK?
Respect your current muscular boundaries, and they will reward you by expanding.
*Loosely translated to mean the Tootsie Roll lover in me bows and respects the Chocolate lover in you.