Touching your toes is how a lot of people think of yoga. It’s also often a measuring stick of how flexible they think they are. I’ve been there too – I remember in the run up to my teacher training, forcing myself deeper and deeper so my head could rest on my legs as though that made me a proper yogi. Actually touching your toes is neither here nor there, what we’re talking about is folding forward either from standing or sitting. And the key to it all is the position of your pelvis.
It’s all in the pelvis
Where most people go wrong is pelvis placement. What you need to develop first is forward and backward tilt of the pelvis. This is most easily learned on all fours, moving between cat pose and cow pose. Settle your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Now tuck your tailbone under and arch the centre of your spine up towards the ceiling, let your head hang down. This is Cat pose and this is the pelvic position adopted by most people who struggle with folding forward. Remember, we don’t want a cat, we want a cow.
(Yin Yoga can be slightly different – we sometimes want to open up the spine in a forward fold and so will use a cat tilt. But I am referring to regular folds in Hatha, Vinyasa and Kundalini here).
Now let the pelvis gently fall forward, lifting your butt upwards and letting your belly curve towards the floor. Lift your head, maybe even poke your chin forward. Feel what’s going on in the pelvis. This is the position (cow) you want to adopt when folding forward. Sometimes muscles and tissue need to lengthen to allow this, so practice and practice more if you need to.
Once you have the hang of cow pose, you can start to apply it in a fold.
Stand with your feet under your hips and soften your knees. Now fold forward until your torso is parallel to the floor and rest your hands on your thighs. Soften your knees as much as you need to to feel comfortable and make a few cat-cow movements here. Tuck the tailbone, arch up, then let your tailbone rise up and soften the belly down. Remember it’s the forward tilt of the pelvis we want, not the tailbone tuck. Hold that forward tilt, soften your knees a little more and let yourself fold forward. If you’re really tight through some of the muscles on the back of the body you might need to bend your knees more. You can keep your hands on your legs or let them hang towards the floor.
Don’t worry if you’re a long way from touching your toes or if you have to bend your knees a lot to make this comfortable. It is far better you get the pelvis positioned right than get your hands onto the floor. It’s a fact that people have different shaped arms – some people have really long arms so touching the floor is a doddle. If your arms are shorter, it’s going to take much longer and maybe won’t happen.
Hold your forward fold for 1 to 2 minutes. If the backs of the legs start to release, you might be able to straighten them a bit more. But don’t lock your knees – always keep a micro-bend.
Come out of a forward fold slowly, bend your knees, push down into the floor with your feet and come up, moving your head last.
This is harder than the standing variety as movement is more restricted. The easiest way to practice is with one leg at a time. So stretch out one of your legs straight in front of you, bend the other leg and place the foot along the inside of your thigh. Take a moment to feel the pelvis and rock it a little between a tucked under position and one where you’re sticking your butt out. There will of course be much less movement than on all fours. Those of you who do Kundalini with me will know this as spinal flex.
Now settle into that butt out position (I sometimes like to shift the flesh of my hip back to free it up) and lean forward. You are initially aiming to lay your belly on your thigh, not your hands on your feet or your head on your knee. If the back of your body is tight and you have very little movement, bend your knee. Never be afraid to bend your knee. Who cares what someone else can do – this is your body and if it takes time to perfect, then so be it.
One surefire way to learn this is to bend your knee completely then hug your arms around your thigh. Pull your belly onto the thigh. Wait here and breathe. Then see if you can straighten your leg a little more and still keep the belly on the thigh. Continue in this way and you will eventually perfect the pose.
It takes time and regular practice to perfect a pose. Practice once a day if you can and you will be amazed how quickly you will progress. Don’t push it, work with your body. And be realistic…If you look at Instagram these days, yoga seems to be performed only by the super bendy and mostly in a bikini somewhere exotic. A lot of these yogis have a body that can achieve these positions easily. A lot are also ex dancers who have punished their body to achieve that level of flexibility. Yoga is not competitive, do not compare yourself to others. Look at how you approach poses like touching your toes. Chances are that will teach you a lot about how you respond to life.