Forward folds are underrated. They often are woven into the beginning of a yoga class as a warm-up to gently, gradually relieve tension in the body, specifically the shoulders, neck, lower back, hamstrings, hips and calf muscles. Forward folds are also great for mindfully strengthening the thighs, knees, lower back and abdominal muscles.
My favorite forward fold variation is Padangusthasana, a deeper variation of Uttanasana, (forward fold). To get into it, start in mountain pose (feet parallel, facing forward and hips distance apart, arms resting by your sides, palms facing outward and fingers spread apart, core hugging in, hips tucked under slightly, top of head reaching towards the sky, and stacking shoulders over hips over knees over heels). From mountain pose, imagine the top half of your body is a lever, and slowly hinge forward at the hips, keeping your head, neck and spine in one long line, moving together as one. For my visual peeps, imagine you are E.T. when he gets super anxious and his head extends out of his neck – this is exactly what you want to do from your head all the way down to your tailbone. I actually picture E.T. a lot when I move in a yoga class and it helps. I am going to have a difficult time teaching this in class without laughing now that I just shared one of my awkward yoga visualizations.
Now you’re ready to take a bind: Peace sign fingers (index and middle fingers) clasp around the big toes. Your thumbs meet the two fingers on the other side. Holding the bind in place, halfway lift (hinge at the tops again, slight or subtle bend in the knees to keep your spine protected like you are going to attempt to stand all the way back up), and use the bind to help draw your spine out a little longer as you keep your belly button pulling towards the spine. When you halfway lift, the top of your head is pointing straight ahead and your chest should be parallel to the floor, your spine and neck are in one straight, extending line, and your torso creates a 90 degree angle with your legs. Again, you are a lever.
To coordinate this with breath, take a deep INHALE through the nose as you halfway lift to lengthen the spine. Then, as you use the peace sign fingers bind to slowly, mindfully pull yourself back towards the ground while keeping a long spine, EXHALE. You want to pull the top of your head closer to the floor while keeping your spine and legs lengthening simultaneously. Hold the bind for five deep, slow rounds of inhaling and exhaling and you pull yourself closer to the ground on each EXHALE. This is when you can begin to take the bend out of your knees as long as it feels natural and comfortable on your spine and body. If you have straight legs and a bend in the elbows, then pull the elbows out to each side. Really engage your quadriceps here (and your core), pulling kneecaps up and make sure your toes are spread wide on the ground, but not gripping the floor. The less tension you can manifest in each pose, the more benefit you will receive.
A few things to note
Your spine is the priority in pretty much every pose; therefore, if you do not keep that in the front of your mind and take care of it throughout your practice and movements, you need to back up, reset priorities and allow your body to open up. If you lose the integrity of your spine, it will not matter that your legs are able to straighten or your head can reach the ground. If you have super tight hamstrings, keep a gentle bend in your knees for the entirety of this pose with a long spine.
With that being said, while it’s perfectly fine to keep a bend in the knees, make sure you are also getting something out of the pose. There is a fine balance in everything we do…hence, Planks & Pizza. We need to acknowledge when we reach a point where we are doing too much and pushing too hard, and on the flip side, we must recognize if we are at a place of complacency where should push ourselves a little harder to make a little progress. The goal with Padangusthasana is to work on the tightness in your hamstrings while moving safely, so if you aren’t feeling a stretch on the upper back side of your legs, you may need to go back through the steps and find what option works best for you.
Lastly, regardless of where you are in your practice, please remember that just because you may have to bend your knees today, doesn’t mean you will next week. Part of yoga is learning to love and accept yourself and your body where they are in their current state. Let everything else go, work on the mind as you work on opening up your body and trust the process one-hundred percent.