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Yoga Anatomy of Forward Folds


Did you know that forward folds form a large chunk of Asana practice? an estimate of almost 40-50%.

Fundamentally, in a typical forward bend, whether it is seated or standing, the upper body meets the lower body. It is literally an action where we bring our abdomen and thighs closer together.

Understanding the anatomy of forward folds helps with safe & effective yoga practice & gives us a deeper insight into our body. 

Anatomy of forward folds

What is a Forward Fold?

At a physical level, a forward fold intends to stretch any tightness in the tissues at the back of the body. This stretch extends from the soles of the feet and goes all the way up to the ligaments between the spinal vertebrae. A forward bend requires us to rotate our pelvis around the upper leg bone (also called the femur). In anatomy terms, it is called the anterior pelvic tilt or forward tilt of the pelvis. Only when this is achieved should there be a forward bend of the lumbar spine?

Forward folds require the spine to move into its primary curve; this is exactly the shape (fetal position) we assume when we are in our mother’s womb and it the most universal way of seeking comfort and safety. So while backbends stimulate the body, forward folds are exactly the opposite They are more soothing, restorative and calming. Forward folds invite us to learn the essential meaning of yoga which is simply to go within and tune into our inner voice; drawing our energy and attention to what’s happening inside. 

What happens in a forward fold?

As asana practitioners, what we intend to do in forward folds is to tilt the whole torso forward in one line at the hip junction. What we want to avoid doing is rounding the spine by compressing the abdomen. This happens by folding the front of the torso between the abdomen & the rib cage. 

Forward bends, when done correctly, stretch the back and allow the front of the chest, abdomen and spine to expand. This helps with an optimal stretch of the intra-spinal ligaments and oxygenation of the blood and reduces any compression on the intervertebral discs. When forward folds are done incorrectly, however, they restrict breathing, increase pressure on the front of the intervertebral discs where the spine is bending & over-stretch the back. This could result in injuries to both the muscle & ligaments.

Anatomy of Forward Folds

The main muscles and skeletal elements used in forward bending yoga poses include -  


Anatomy of Forward Folds

These skeletal muscles are situated at the back of our thighs and cross two major joints: the hip and the knee. This group of muscles is responsible for extending the hip (moving the leg backward) and flexing the knee (bending it). In forward folds, the main muscle targeted is the hamstrings. We have three hamstring muscles at the back of our thighs. We also use these muscles actively for all leg movements.

Hip Flexors:

Hip flexors are located opposite the hamstrings. These muscles on the front of the pelvis and thighs help control the forward bending motion. When they are flexible and strong, they help get deeper into the pose with more stability and improve the flexibility of the hamstrings.


Pelvis is an important bone structure in the body, bearing a significant amount of the body's weight. It consists of two hip bones, one on each side. (Where the top of the thigh bone connects with the pelvis, we have the hip joint (a ball and socket joint). Due to the need to support the body's weight and absorb shock, this joint has to be very stable, which is why it comprises numerous ligaments for stabilization.

 The Sacroiliac Joint is located where the two hip bones meet at the back of the sacrum. This joint is also the foundation of forward folds and the lumbar spine. 

Piriformis Muscle in Yoga Anatomy

It is an external rotator muscle. In forward folds, mainly forward seated folds, the piriformis muscle and other external rotator muscles help stabilize the hip joints and the position of the pelvis. While we do hip opening asanas and forward folds, when the legs are externally rotated, the piriformis is stretched actively and helps improve hip mobility.

The Surrounding Core Muscles:

It includes the rectus abdominis (front abdominal muscle) and the obliques (side abdominal muscle), which provide stability and support in bed. This helps protect the spine and encourage seamless forward movement.

Lumbar Spine:

This is the lower portion of the spine, which bends forward during the pose. A safe forward fold aims for an even curve in the lumbar region, avoiding excessive rounding and ensuring the movement comes from the hips rather than the back.

Thoracolumbar Fascia & Erector Spinae Muscles:

The previous blogs have highlighted the role and essence of the fascia. So in forward folds, particularly the thoracolumbar fascia (a sheet-like tissue structure located at the lower back) and erector spinae muscles (the muscles located along the spine) work in harmony to provide stability and support the spinal column. During a forward bend, the fascia offers support while the muscles stretch. This helps keep the spine straight.

Now that we have an overview of the anatomical aspects of forward folds, it's important to know the three types. All three types require the spine to be in a neutral position while the pelvis stays still to bring the thighs closer to the abdomen.

In all three folds, the primary and maximal movement is at the hip joint, and there is a certain amount of spinal flexion in both seated and standing forward bends. Let’s explore the three forward folds in a nutshell.

Standing bends

Move with the forces of gravity, which facilitates the movement of the torso towards the thighs, so much so that the muscles along the back of the torso, legs, and outer hips contract to control the descent. All this happens while maintaining stability in the standing forward bend. Examples of standing forward bends are Utanasana, Padottanasana and Parsvottanasana.

Seated bends

Seated bends also move with gravity, much like standing bends. The position of the pelvis in such asanas is fixed, and the rotation of the femur in the hip sockets is limited to the degree to which we can bring our abdomen to our thighs, and therefore, it varies from one person to another. Examples include Paschimottanasana & Janu Sirsasana.

Supine bends

Supine poses bring the abdomen and the thighs closer. The torso is on the floor and the legs come closer to the thighs. Such asanas move against gravity. The back of the torso and the hips are supported by the floor and are in a neutral position. The legs move towards the torso at the hip joint. Supine forward bends don’t necessarily stretch the tissues through the back of the torso but provide a good leg stretch, particularly for the back of the legs.


 Last but not least, let's always consciously remember to stay humble in our practice and keep our egos at the door. Our egos often drive us to push too far, too soon.

Let that go first. Move slowly as you progress through the steps of these poses, pausing when you meet your limits and listening to your inner voice and your body. Be a silent witness to the transformation happening within, and celebrate your asana practice.

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