“I can’t even reach my toes” is an exasperated statement I hear commonly in both my chiropractic clinic and yoga classes from both men and women. I interpret this statement to mean, “I want to, but I have limitations.”
Sometimes, it is said in the context of genuine interest, “Look how inflexible I am. Should I try yoga ?” Other times it is a more hopeless declaration and less of an inquiry: “I’ve stopped caring and my toes are unimportant, so why even try.” It seems most of these statements come from the idea that as a chiropractor and yoga teacher I think toe touching has significant merit. And I agree. It does. However, I do not place value on being able to touch your toes or how much you do or don’t do yoga as a means to hamstring flexibility.
I place value on prevention and conditioning and toe touching becomes a great measure with regards to lower back health. Touching your toes is a great goal but an even better goal is the journey to your toes. There is some good stuff that happens to your body on your way down there. There is even better stuff that comes with making your toes a priority.
Toe touch, forward bending is one of the most common motion patterns of the human body. It is mostly the unconscious action of how we pick up things we drop on the floor and similar to the motion of sitting to tie your shoes. Mostly unconscious, unless you are suffering from back pain, and then, even the smallest of bends becomes painful. If you are doing a lot of unconscious bending it increases the potential for repetitive wear and tear and/or injury. If you work at developing a conscious and safe bend you reduce the chances of injury and early degeneration. The goal is not to touch your toes as much as to move in the direction of your toes with good body mechanics.
Bend over. Check it out. From my perspective this one motion tells me about your back, your legs, your core strength and your center of gravity. Not to mention, your level of comfort or anxiety while folded in a standing ball. Unlike the inner voices of the bender, I am not judging if your hands barely reach your knees or if you can touch your elbows to the floor. One is not better than the other. Too flexible is not better than inflexible. How far you bend is not as important as how you bend. What matters is if you can touch your toes but not at the expense of your lower back, hamstring muscles or other body parts.
When I watch someone bend forward I am looking to see, how far they bend in order to see if they are supporting or hanging on their frame. I look to see if their lower back arches outward (flexion) instead of staying in a neutral spine position which protects the muscles and discs. I am looking to see if their hamstrings are too tight, which limits the motion of the pelvis and lower back. I am looking to see if their belly or breasts are in the way of their bend and how that may create too much of an arch in the lower, or mid-back or strain on the shoulders or neck. I look to see where the center of gravity is distributed and if you can maintain balance while hanging upside down. I notice if you remain calm or if you fidget, and keep looking up and around.
The point of forward bending is not to traction your lower back. Most people have strained lower backs from sitting poorly. Slouching on the couch, in your desk chair and in your car are all positions that put remarkable pressure on the muscles and discs of the lumbar spine. To continue to round the lower back while forward bending is not traction, it is just more flexion in an unsupported and weighted position. The way to improve lower back pain and problems is to strengthen the lower back and core muscles and improve sitting postures and pelvic motions. It is also to gain confidence and ease of movement relating to structures and positions involving the lower back. Not only do we need to move safely, we need to trust and know our movement limits.
For the record, let me say that if you can’t touch your toes it’s okay. Let that notion go. In yoga we call this position “utanasana” or standing forward bend. There are many benefits to incorporating this pose into your daily stretching or exercise routine, but for now let’s forget about making it the measure for participation in yoga or exercise in general. Let’s start looking for the good stuff that comes with working on forward bending. Stuff like, moving safely, knowing our limits and gaining confidence and ease of movement relating to the muscles and motions of our lower back. This idea can be translated to the bigger pictures of cleaning the garage, loading and unloading the car, picking flowers, or bending to take the hook out of a fish’s mouth before your kid’s trophy picture. There is usually a forward bend in every day, every weekend. You might as well enjoy it.