Folding forward into fitness


I think we all remember the sit and reach test we had to do in our school gym class. As a part of our athletic assessment test, we would all line up and see who could or couldn’t touch our toes but what we didn’t realize is the sit and reach test is the most common way to measure lower back and hamstring flexibility. Many people have a hard time doing daily simple tasks that require that leg flexibility. From putting socks and shoes on in the morning to even simply dropping something and going to pick it up many people suffer from “tight legs.” From golfers, tennis players, cyclists and runners is almost “necessary” to have good flexibility but what about our average Joe? What about everyone else who loves hiking and walking and being active?  Tightness in the lower back and hamstrings is often related to muscle pain and stiffness but here are some good tips and stretches to help make your daily life a little more flexible (pun intended.)

Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana.) In yoga, forward folds are very common and they help lengthen the hamstrings. Begin with your feet together so the bases of your big toes are touching. Lift your sit bones and begin to fold forward while pressing your belly in and elongating your back muscles. Remember to move from the hips. If you need to, use a wall for support by standing with your back against the wall toes facing away, that way you have a support to lean against in case you’re worried about falling over. Next, place your hands next to your feet or on the ground in front of you. If you’re having a hard time reaching the floor bring your hands on to the tops of the thighs for more support or even the front of the shins. Inhale and extend your chest to lengthen the spins and keep your gaze forward. Exhale and gently begin to press both legs straight. Lift your kneecaps and try not to hyperextend your knees. Remember if you experience lower back pain try entering the posture with bent knees. Instead of straightening your legs keep the bend and place your hands several inches in front of your feet or hold onto your forearms for a Ragdoll Pose.

Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana.) Another fold to take is a seated forward fold. Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. If you need to you can sit on a towel or a block to give yourself more support. Press your belly in lifting up through the pelvic floor keeping the torso long. Lean forward from the hip joints pressing the tailbone away. If possible wrap your hands around your feet if not take hold of the outsides of the shins or even loop a strap around the feet to help you fold forward. Hold the strap firmly. When you are ready to deepen this posture don’t forcefully pull yourself into the bend. Always remember to lengthen the front torso into the pose keeping the arms long. The lower belly should touch the thighs first, then the ribs, and then the head last. If your hands are around the bottom of the feet and you want to deepen the fold bend the elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor. Eventually you might be able to stretch the arms out beyond your feet in this fold.

Head to Knee Forward Bend (Janu Sirasana.) I think we see a lot of this fold among athletes in their warm up and cool down stretches. To begin this fold, sit on the floor with your legs in front of you and bend your right knee bringing your right foot to the inside of the left thigh making a “4” with your legs. It’s ok if your foot is not all the way in towards the groin. With time and practice you will get there. Sit up nice and tall and lift the front torso pressing the top left thigh into the floor and keeping the left foot active. Reach your left hand to the outside of the foot with the arms fully extended and lengthen forward into a comfortable stretch. Again, it’s ok if you can’t reach your foot or if your right leg is not fully on the floor. Remember you can use a strap and a towel or a block for support. Repeat this bend on the other side.

Overall, remember flexibility is not gifted to everyone and some of us have to practice every day to better our flexibility. These three postures can help stretch and strengthen not only your yoga practice but also your daily routine. If you’re active remember to stretch before and after your workouts. If you’re not active and want to better your mobility remember taking some time to stretch out your body will help you overcome bodily tightness. Again, remember to keep practicing and I hope these postures can help you be a little more flexible every day.

Cassie McIntyre is a NASM certified personal trainer, yoga instructor, and nutritional coach. She works at LA Fitness.

Cassie McIntyre