The ultimate guide on the forward fold. Paradoxically, it includes bending backward
There are a thousand articles out there on how to properly forward fold. But to truly improve your folds, you need to familiarize yourself with your physique. As each body is ultimately unique, it’s impossible to share one surefire way to improve a forward fold. But there are a few starting points that assist in getting a grasp. Start reading to discover the way your body is wired and what is truly holding you back. Because once you understand how you’re structured, you can ignite your desired change.
Understand the proportions of your body
First of all, it’s of the utmost importance to understand the proportions of your body. Bodily proportions aren’t always taken into the equation, but in my opinion, the impact of your anatomy is tremendous. Especially for the less flexible ones (myself included). For me, my anatomical challenge is that I have long legs in comparison to my upper body. This means that, for me, an effortless forward fold isn’t easy to come by. To be able to grab my feet with my hands, all limbs need to literally join forces. While this might not be the case for someone with long arms or relatively shorter legs. So, try to discover the proportions of your body to get a comprehensive anatomical view. Although focused on backbends, Ashtanga Dispatch’s brilliant article called Size Matters will help you ahead.
What could be limiting you in a forward fold
The proportions of your frame are relevant to folding forward. But you also need to find out what your flexibility limitations are. In the case of forward folds, we often zoom in on the hamstrings and the lower area of the back. That’s because it’s those areas where many people feel the stretch. Tight hamstrings and lower back tension do hold us back, but that’s not all there is to it – because forward folding is first and foremost about flexion in your hips.
Forward folding from your hips or from your waist
A fluid forward fold should come from the hips and not from the waist. Even so, not many people are actually able to bend forward from the hip. The reason for this is having tight hip flexors. Something most people in the Western world struggle with due to continuously sitting on all kinds of chairs. In the case of tight hip flexors, this area will avoid folding. As a result, you’ll bend from another junction in your body, which is usually around the waist.
How to know if you fold forward from your hips or your waist
An easy way to find out if you are bending forward from your hips or from your waist is the following. Stand in front of a mirror, and then turn one quarter to your left or right so that your side is facing the mirror. Bend forward and look for a crease where your lower abdomen is touching your thighs. If there is a gap between your upper body and your thighs, you will probably be bending from the waist. Now, bend your knees all the way until your lower abdomen is truly moving towards your thighs. Once they touch and a crease is formed, you’ll feel that you are bending in an entirely different way.
Cannot stretch your legs when folding forward from your hips?
Don’t worry, most people can’t bend from the hips AND stretch their legs completely. Only the super flexible ones can do. A fluid forward fold is definitely not the norm 🙂 So, a small YAY is in place if you are now bending from the hips! Even if your knees are fully bent, it’s undisputedly a different sensation from bending at the waist. In forward folds, let bending at the hip always prevail over stretched out legs.
The one discovery that helped improve my forward fold
In my case, my forward folds improved immensely when I expanded my area of focus AWAY from my tight hamstrings and tense lower back. Even though my hamstrings and lower back were sending out signals during each and every forward fold, focusing solely on those areas wasn’t helping me improve. The area that actually needed my full attention was the complete region of the hips and groin. Due to countless years of office work, my hip flexors had become extraordinarily tight. And during forward folds, that tightness took its toll.
How to know if your hip flexors are tight
Bending from the hips started to make sense when I connected hip flexion to maintaining a straight spine in seated forward folds. Hence, my inability to sit up comfortably in Dandasana (discover Dandasana on Yogapedia if you’re not familiar with the pose) all of a sudden seemed plausible. My tight hip flexors combined with tight hamstrings and a tense lower back keep pulling me back of my sit bones instead of letting me sit comfortably right on top. And that backward force triggers the rounding in the spine.
Improve your knowledge of your hip flexors
The next time you are on your yoga mat, try to check in with your body and move mindfully to locate your area of the strain. This way, you gather crucial insights into what is holding you back and where to do the work. Another way to know if you have tight hip flexors is by doing the Thomas Test, also known as the Iliopsoas Test. The Thomas Test is usually executed by physical therapists, so don’t let the terminology on this website put you off 🙂
Understand basic anatomy for your forward fold
As a matter of fact, if you really want to tap into the knowledge about your own body, I’d encourage you to do some reading work. Understanding how you are structured from an anatomical perspective is essential for connecting your individual body to a broader yoga practice. And thus, for discovering the variety of ways to trigger your hip flexors and eventually improve your forward fold. David Keil already brilliantly connected many dots through his insightful Yoganatomy blog.
Asanas for tight hip flexors
Some asanas and challenges within them might indicate tight hip flexors. Especially the ones below are a pain in the a*sana (:)) in the case of tight hip flexors AND hamstrings (yup, that’s me). Even so, I find these asanas beneficial, as they helped define my limitations in this area – and how to work around them. My key takeaway here is to NOT avoid these asanas, even if they don’t feel soothing. Instead, I use props for alignment and to ensure enough comfort. Then, I let my practice do its work.
Take a look at how to do Dandasana, Paschimottanasana, Padangusthasana, Virabhadrasana B and Marichyasana A to improve your forward folds. Make sure that you start your practice with a quiet mind (as much as possible :)) and enough time to properly be in the pose and feel your body. If you can, do a few sun salutations to warm up before.
As I said, Dandasana can be quite the challenge if your hip flexors are tight! Tightness in the hip area might keep pulling you backward instead of sitting up properly on top of the sit bones. Putting a yoga blanket or a yoga block underneath your bum already helps you to sit more straight. And therefore, gives you a proper basis to start working on your forward folds.
If even Dandasana is challenging, I can imagine you are dreading Paschimottanasana even more! This seated forward fold not only requires you to sit on top of your sit bones but to fold all the way forward with your tummy on top of your thighs. Here, tight hip flexors will prevent you from placing your tummy on your thighs. Elevate your bum as in Dandasana, and only bend forward as far as you can maintain a straight spine.
This asana works relatively the same as Paschimottanasana, but here, you have gravity on your side. Of all forward folds, the standing ones are a bit easier, as gravity will pull your upper body toward the floor. Even though, with tight hip flexors, your upper body will probably be miles away from your thighs 🙂 First, bend from the hips, then slowly start stretching your legs. Mind you, the process of straightening your legs might take a few years.
With tight hip flexors, the back leg’s hip will probably point diagonally or even forward. But the idea of Warrior II is that both hip bones are pointing sideways, in line with the long side of your mat. Try to open the hips by proactively pulling the back hip more backward. Keeping the pelvis neutral assists in getting the hips aligned. You will feel a stretch in the hip area and possibly also in your back leg’s inner thigh.
Having tight hip flexors already makes for quite a challenge to fold forward without any advanced tricks. Alas, Marichyasana A requires you to bend forward, and then some. In this asana, you’ll bend over one outstretched leg while the other leg is pulled up beside you and your arms are simultaneously in a bind. Tight hip flexors will prevent you from drawing back the knee of your pulled-up leg. You need flexible hips to draw back the pulled-up leg, creating space for the proper forward fold. Elevate your bum with a yoga block and accept that improvement may just take time.
More asanas to open your hips
As a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, I used asanas from this method to describe what I encounter in my day-to-day practice. But there are plenty of other asanas out there that also do the work. That’s why I also incorporate restorative yoga in my own practice. What works for me is Ashtanga in the morning and restorative poses throughout the day. Start exploring within your own practice to find what helps you along. To discover more asanas that work on loosening up the hips, head over to Yoga Journal to check out their Yoga Sequence for Deep Hip Opening.
Exercises to improve your forward fold
Now I don’t have a magic formula that will instantly provide you with a supple body 🙂 But I can tell you how I make my everyday yoga practice more light! As soon as I discovered that my hip flexors needed a great deal of work, I started to do the following exercises on a daily basis. And that daily practice triggered quite the flexibility change. The best thing yet is that besides one exercise, you can do them all while laying on the bed 🙂
Legs against the wall
What you need: a bolster or a large pillow, a wall
Can you do this exercise in bed? By all means!
One of the most effortless ways to stretch your hamstrings is simply stretching them out against the wall. As the wall prevents the force of gravity from pulling down your legs, all you essentially have to do is lay down, and stay there. Yup, this is basically an upside-down, lazy forward fold prep 🙂
Place the bolster about a fist-width apart from the wall. Enter the stretch by lying on your side and pushing your bum against the wall. Then, wriggle your legs all the way up. Your sit bones should be as close to the wall as possible while your back lays flat on the bed. If you’re doing this exercise on your bed, you can grab the outer edge of your mattress to pull your bum even more toward the wall. Stay in this holding position for as long as you like. I often read a book while doing this, alternating by flexing and stretching my legs if they start to tire.
Upside-down sideways stretch
What you need: a bolster or a large pillow, a wall
Can you do this exercise in bed? Absolutely!
Essentially the same exercise as ‘legs against the wall’, but you’ll spread out your legs in this one. Here, too, the trick is to keep your sit bones as close to the wall as possible. Even though they might lose contact as you start to spread out your legs. Over time, you’ll become more able to stay fully connected with the wall while lowering down your legs.
I use this upside-down sideways, forward fold mainly to open up my hips, as gravity will easily do most of the work. Spread your legs out as far as comfortable, and make sure to exit or move around if you start to feel sore. I often hold this exercise for minutes at a time, during a longer read. I alternate stretching and flexing my feet so that I am also lengthening my calves in the meantime. In the beginning, it may feel awkward, but the stretch actually feels nice and comfy over time.
Upside-down yogic squat
What you need: a bolster or a large pillow, a wall
Can you do this exercise in bed? Hell yeah!
Although the regular yogic squat also works on opening your groin area, in the upside-down yogic squat, things get more intense. Because with this one, you really dig into the hips. You’ll start out in the same position as in the two previous exercises, simply by placing the bolster below your bum/lower back and entering with legs outstretched up on the wall. Spread out your legs and then proceed to place your feet flat against the wall, toes pointing out in line with your knees. Meanwhile, you bend your knees as if you are in a yogic squat. Hold in a comfortable position and adjust if needed with the help of your hands. Whatever you do, be gentle with the knees and assist your legs with your hands when coming back out.
In the beginning, this stretch might feel extreme, but over time, you’ll start to feel more relaxed. You might even need to further deepen the squat with your hands so that the stretch gets more intense. If that is the case, you could even try to rotate your pelvis softly while in the upside-down squat. To me, this is the number one exercise to assist in a forward fold that is initiated by the hips instead of by the waist.
Pole-assisted yogic squat
What you need: something steady to hold on to
Can you do this exercise in bed? Nope, not this one 🙂
Start out by choosing the way to assist your squat. What are you going to hold on to? The pole could be the leg of your dining table, a lower placed handle on your door, or any other construction that you can easily grab. Just make sure it holds your weight. Keep your feet entirely on the floor and stretch out your arms while you lower into the squat. Roll your shoulders down and open and activate your core. To make sure your neck stays long and balanced, look forward instead of down.
The deep squat position works on opening the entire area of your lower back, groin, glutes and hips, and the backside of your legs. Talk about a multifunctional stretch 😉 To me, this is the most effective asana to stretch my lower back, as the pole provides leverage to further stretch out this difficult-to-reach spot. Try moving around on your feet while holding on to the pole to find different positions to stretch and lengthen. Move your bum a bit more up or down, or forward or backward. Keep each holding position for at least a minute. Make sure that your core is continually active and your spine is straight and long.
More ways to improve flexibility for your forward fold
If you really want to take your flexibility work up a notch, there are many more ways to play around! The key to flexibility is essentially to keep moving around. Try to lengthen your spine, stretch your calves, or do some opening shoulder-work. Here, you’ll discover 6 easy tricks to improve your flexibility from head to toe.
Progress, analyze, and adapt your forward folding work
This counts for literally every focus area that you want to improve: keep track of your progress. When you start out, write down some initial thoughts or things to pay attention to. Do a regular check-up on where you are in your journey. You can read back your notes whenever it’s time for reflection so that you’ll notice how you have advanced. Over time, your body will change, and you’ll want to adapt your exercises. Every now and then, realign your focus with the areas that still feel tight.
How back bending helped me to fold forward
Oftentimes, we are so focused on our bodily limitations that we forget to think about the easy parts. The good thing is, the easy parts can loosen up the tighter areas, too. For me, that is the case with back bending. As back bending comes relatively easy to me, backbends in asanas bring me a lot of joy. They’re beneficial, too, as, in backbends, the iliopsoas plays a prominent role. This composite muscle simultaneously dominates our forward bends as one of our key hip flexors – which can get very tight. Besides opening up the hips, backbends contribute tremendously to spinal flexibility. Connect the dots to comprehend how back bending improves your forward folds.
Backbending asanas to help your forward fold
An Ashtanga yoga practitioner, you might be practicing mostly forward folds for years. That goes for me, too. But that doesn’t discourage me from playing around with back bending asanas outside of my regular Ashtanga practice. In fact, there are a million reasons to practice backbends regularly to build flexibility. I find Yoga Space’s article Reasons to Practice Backbends Everyday a remarkable sum up of all the why’s. Scroll down to read which back bending asanas I practice in prepping for my forward folds.
Ustrasana or Camel Pose
This asana isn’t just a backbend. Ustrasana simultaneously activates the quadriceps on the front-side of your upper legs. The quads are a crucial factor to work with. You need them loose enough to give the front-size of your body enough length to backbend. And count them in on forward folds, too. By activating the quads before and while you fold forward, you automatically release tension in the hamstrings, allowing you to get deeper into the stretch.
Dvipada Pitham or Bridge Pose
This asana, also known as Bridge Pose, is a preparatory asana for Wheel Pose. Bridge Pose is a relatively accessible way to open up the hip flexors AND activate the abdomen and glutes. That’s why Dvipada Pitham is also an instrumental exercise to correct an anterior pelvic tilt. Since, by activating your abdomen and gluteals, you build a stronger core. And thus, cultivate the strength to maintain a neutral pelvis – the foundation to every asana.
Urdhva Dhanurasana or Wheel Pose
Wheel Pose is one of those asanas that seem intimidating initially but can be incredibly reviving after some time. This asana strengthens just about everything: from your abs to your glutes and your lower back to your arms. Besides building strength, the Wheel pose works deeply on opening your chest. And an open upper body helps to keep your spine aligned in every forward fold.
Salabhasana or Locust Pose
The work to be done in Salabhasana is to strengthen your back, your glutes, and your core. And because you’ll be lifting your arms and legs of the floor, you are simultaneously activating those muscles and opening up your chest. The coordinated uplifting movements in this asana improves your sense of balance, preventing you from rolling to either side. The strength you build in Salabhasana aids in controlling aligned forward movement as you forward fold.
Checklist: how to work on flexibility for your forward fold
- Analyze the proportions of your body and take them into consideration while you practice.
- Don’t avoid asanas in which you feel your limitations but adjust properly with the use of props. Commit yourself to do the work.
- Work on your flexibility daily by doing preparatory stretches, opening up the hamstrings, the hip flexors, the lower back, and the groin.
- Incorporate back bending asanas for spinal flexibility and opening up the hip flexors. Practice those backbends daily, too.
- Move around freely whenever you have the chance to keep your limbs supple and unlocked from head to toe.
- Keep track of your journey by jotting down your focus areas and progress in a journal. Adjust your forward fold prep routine when necessary.
Checklist: how to do a proper forward fold
- Moving on to actually practicing a sitting or a standing forward fold: activate your quadriceps throughout the movement.
- Make sure you keep your pelvis and your spine in a neutral position.
- If you’re not able to sit straight on top of your sit bones, use yoga blocks or blankets to elevate your bum – as many as it takes to sit comfortably.
- Bend your knees slightly to tilt the pelvis forward and loosen up your hamstrings.
- Keep your core active, as this facilitates coordinated movement and helps to support your spine.
- In every forward fold, your spine should stay lengthened and straight while you keep your neck relaxed and long.
- Go easy on yourself. With open shoulders, a long neck, and less bodily tension, there is more room to enjoy.
- Keep it real: remember that even bending forward from a 90-degree angle (as in Dandasana) to a 70-degree angle while maintaining a straight spine, is an INTENSE forward fold! Most people with average flexibility couldn’t possibly bend this far 🙂
- Always even out: after a deep stretch, get into a counterpose to neutralize your body. Child’s Pose, Knees to Chest, Cat/Cow, and Supine Twist are great ways to balance your practice.
Want to read more on improving your forward fold?
I gained my anatomical knowledge predominantly through David Keil’s book Functional Anatomy of Yoga and its accompanying anatomy course. That’s why I tend to hop over to his Yoganatomy website all the time. In case I search for an explanation that covers the yogic AND anatomical point of view, this is where I start my search. To improve your forward folds, you might be interested in reading Is Standing Forward Bend As Simple As It Looks? But there are a few more helpful sources out there, such as the Bio-Mechanics of Forward Bends by Intouch Yoga Byron Bay and 3 Secrets to Deeper Forward Folds by Yoga London.
Regarding any form of bodily movement or exercise, please note the following. If you are in severe pain or have a known condition, please consult with your treating doctor. Don’t continue to practice if you experience pain while doing so. Only practice for as long as it feels comfortable and practice mindfully. Be aware of how your body reacts.
Did you enjoy reading this post?
I sure hope you did 🙂 If you have any questions, recommendations, or experiences you want to share, I’d be more than happy to read your thoughts! You can leave your comment in the field below. Do you know someone who could benefit from this ultimate guide on the forward fold? Feel free to share this post (via the URL bar or any of the social share buttons) and get the positive energy flowing!