Why This Neuroscientist Wants You To Do More Forward Folds
Forward folds are an essential yoga posture that show up in nearly every yoga class—and for good reason. It's an excellent stretch, as well as an inversion, and according to Tara Swart, Ph.D., neuroscientist and author of The Source, a nice, drawn-out forward fold may be just the thing we're missing in our regular movement routine. Here's how to properly do it, plus why it's so beneficial.
How to do forward fold, uttanasana:
- Start by standing in mountain pose, with your hands either at heart center or on your hips. Inhale.
- On your exhale, begin to hinge forward from the hips with a straight spine, as if you could lengthen your chest outward. If you wish, you can bend the knees, allowing your stomach to come to the top of your thighs.
- When you've gone as far down as you can go, allow the head to hang heavy, grabbing opposite elbows with opposite hands. Thighs are turned slightly inward.
- Begin to shift the weight into the heels, as you tilt the hips upward and straighten out your legs (without locking the knees). Keep exercising the motion of sending your hips upward, stretching the hamstrings, and letting the head hang.
- If your legs are straight without having to round your spine too much, you can reach for the floor with your hands, pressing into the mat with fingertips or palms. For a deeper stretch, wrap the arms around the backs of your ankles, palms facing in.
- Engage the fronts of the thighs to allow your hamstrings to release, and start shifting your weight into the balls of your feet.
- Hold for up to 1 minute. As you inhale, work to lengthen the torso, lifting it slightly, and as you exhale, release, and you'll be able to stretch even deeper.
- To come out, inhale and rise up with straight legs and a flat back. Alternatively, you can rag-doll up, one vertebra at a time, with chin coming up last.
Why Swart recommends forward folds to "rest and digest."
As Swart explains to mbg, forward folds are not only a great stretch, but when we hold them for a bit longer than we might normally, they can help the body go into "rest-and-digest" mode, which helps us de-stress and maintain a healthy weight.
When we've put on weight, Swart notes, "the natural idea to counteract that is to do more aerobics, more weights, maybe change your diet—but actually, because it's the stress hormone that's trying to save us by holding on to belly fat, it's really important to do exercises that reduce your stress." Enter: forward folds. "It moves your nervous system into parasympathetic, not sympathetic, which is fight-or-flight," she says, "and that can actually trigger your brain to release fat."
That's because, being an inversion, forward folds allow your head to come below your heart, which calms the mind, relieves stress, and can even help headaches. And, the folding of your torso also works to improve digestion. A win-win!
The bottom line.
The bottom line is, we might do so many forward folds throughout our vinyasa classes, we forget to fully show up for the pose and work with all its benefits. But if you're feeling stressed, bloated, or want to help your body move into a parasympathetic state, a long, drawn-out forward fold is definitely worth a shot.
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Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.