One of the things I hear the most frequently from new clients is “I cannot touch my toes” (the other is “I’m so inflexible!”). I get this, there was a time when I could barely touch my toes, and when I did, it was incredibly unsafe for my lower back.
Forward bends or forward folds in yoga is great to help us release (or let go) of trapped emotions in our body. We open up the back body, which tends to take the burden of our posture throughout the day.
But just like letting go, folding forward is actually a far more intricate process than we may think. We don’t just bend our spine to reach downwards (forwards) to reach our toes or to pick up things. That kind of movement may cause us injury, whether in the short- or long-term.
When it comes to folding forward to reach your toes – the thing is, our toes are attached to our feet, and our feet are attached to our legs – we can always touch our toes.. The question is how safely are reaching forwards to touch our toes.
Are we doing ourselves any harm along the way when we bend to touch our toes?
Understanding how our body works.
The muscles of our back helps us to remain upright (otherwise, we would fall down in a heap of bones and muscles).
And our entire body works as an entire kinetic chain. Think of your body as a car. If someone hits your car from the back, the place of impact may be fine, but you may not be able to open the front door, or wind down the front windows. Something like that.
So, if your hamstrings or calves are tight – or if the fascia of your feet are crumpled and tight – it may affect how you bend forward to reach your toes.
As your body is an entire kinetic chain, if your hamstrings are tight, and you bend forward unskilfully, you may end up hurting your back, as an example.
So let’s look at a few myths of bending forward (or forward folds) to reach your toes:
1. Your knees need to be straight.
Many people feel they need to have their knees super straight when they bend forward towards their toes.
Are you one of them?
It’s okay if you are – but don’t do it anymore, okay?
If you have good long hamstrings and calves, good supple butt, hips and low back (Quadratus Lumborum or QL muscles) and also good open fascia on the soles of your feet, then by all means do try to straighten out your knees.
However, if you know that one of more of these muscles are currently lacking flexibility, there really is no harm in bending your knees.
So bend your knees!
For me – as a yoga teacher advising you – the most important thing is to be able to place your ribs on to your front thighs. If you need to bend your knees to do this, then by all means, bend your knees.
It is so much safer for the low back and your spine.
2. Folding forward with the spine in any orientation.
Back to our body being one long kinetic chain, let’s talk about the stability and mobility of our joints along our kinetic chain.
Our ankles are mobile joints, while our knees are stable joints. Our hips are mobile joints, while our low back is a stable joint (then our shoulders are mobile joints).
When it comes to folding forward to reach our toes, many people tend to bend at the waist (which includes bending at the low back), rather than the hips – which is the mobile joint.
This really does no favours to your low back. Firstly, it strains it as you bend forward. Secondly, when you stand upright again, especially if with resistance (e.g. you are carrying your shopping or your pet), you run the risk of getting a herniated (slipped) disc.
It is a tough thing to do though – trust me, I know, I was bending at the waist for decades! If you want to learn how to bend at your hips, not waist, join me for my Yoga Challenge, deets below!
You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy. So let them go, let go of them. I tie no weights to my ankles.C. JoyBell C.
3. Bounce, baby, bounce!
When I teach yoga classes or work 1:1 with yoga clients, and I find students bouncing when trying to express paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), uttanasana (standing forward fold), or any forward fold, for that matter. But why?
It’s almost like watching a classroom of Minions bouncing….
Bouncing – or dynamic stretching – is usually done prior to a workout, exercise or sports – to help you perform. Static stretching or holding the stretch is done to help you lengthen the muscle.
Several points about this:
- Firstly, during yoga practice, we usually don’t (although not never) enter into these asana immediately at the start of the practice. So we aren’t executing a performance, we are trying to express a yoga pose. There really is no need to bounce (i.e. conduct dynamic stretches).
- Secondly, yoga isn’t a performance or just ‘stretching’. It’s entering into stillness, experiencing the body, discerning what moves the body – moving from the seeing to the seer. So move into stillness (unless the yoga teacher otherwise directs).
- Thirdly, bouncing without discernment may lead to injury.
So… please stop bouncing when reaching for your toes.
4. Not utilising the breath.
One thing a lot of people do when they are in pain is to hold their breath. I know I sometimes do. Do you?
So when bending forward, instead of doing a nice long exhale, you may hold your breath, especially at the end point. Is this you?
In actual fact, Our breath helps us fend off the pain (read more here). And our exhales helps us to soften, to release, and to bend forward safely. A nice soft extended exhale though, not a big expulsion.
So utilise your breath to move. Learn more about the benefits of pranayama or yoga breath work below.
Is there more?
You have just learnt four fallacies about touching your toes, and – of course – there are more!. Let me know, or tell me if this post has helped you! I would love to hear from you.