If there’s one thing that the flexibility-challenged masses clamor for, it’s to be able to touch their toes.
“Really?” I ask. “It’s very easy. Bend your knees, reach down and you’re touching your toes.”
“No, no!” they reply. “When I was younger, I used to be able to bend over and touch my toes.”
Somehow touching your toes has become the universal determinant of whether you’re flexible as a blade of grass or brittle as… peanut brittle. From my perspective as a yoga teacher, being able to touch your toes falls in the category of “nice, but who cares? It’s not like we’re going to save the world by reaching our toes.”
Still, in most people’s agendas toe-touching seems to come long before saving the world, so here’s my inside scoop on how to modify paschimottanasana, the seated forward fold, to develop faster that longed-for toe-touching flexibility.
Three quick things to keep in mind:
1. It’s probably not going to happen overnight. For your flexibility to develop organically, you need patience, repetition and more patience.
2. Did I mention patience? That means relaxing into the pose, not white-knuckle-yanking yourself into the pose because you think it’ll do the job done faster.
3. Low back, hip joints and hamstrings work together. It’s likely that all three need a little loosening up, so don’t get fixated on just one area.
Okay, so here we go:
For this you need a yoga strap (or a belt or towel), three minutes, and, oh, yeah: patience.
1. Sit down and place the strap or belt around the arches of your feet. See self-explanatory image.
2. Keeping your spine straight and keeping the back of your knees on the floor, grab the strap however close to your feet you can reach, loosely.
3. Check yourself. Your spine is straight, yes? Could you tie a broomstick around your back and everything from neck to hip would be in a straight line? Excellent.
4. Check yourself, part two: The back of your knees truly is on the floor, right? If not, back off till this is so. Otherwise I have no choice but to call out legendary yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, whose “B.K.S.” initials are rumored to stand for “Both Knees Straight.”
5. Though spine and knees need to be straight, loosen your elbows: keep them slightly bent, slightly sagging toward the floor. This assures you of relaxed shoulders.
6. Now, here’s the variation: start rocking gently and slowly side to side. Close your eyes if you want. Breathe slowly. Don’t work at it: play with it. Relax with it. Take a few seconds to rock to one side, a few seconds to the other.
7. If, after half a minute of doing this, you notice a little slack on your strap, great: it means your back/hips/hamstring axis has loosened a bit. Walk your hands up the strap a little more and take up the slack. But remember: straight back, straight knees, loose elbows, loose shoulders.
Benefits: The gentle rocking motion engages the parasympathetic nervous system. It soothes away muscular tension the same way you can soothe a baby by rocking her in your arms.
Avoid if: You experience lumbar pain, hip joint pain, or sciatic-nerve pain (this is the nerve that runs along the back of your legs and when inflamed, results in sciatica). It is still possible to do this pose if, upon backing off a little, your lumbar spine or your hips feel okay. But if the hold-up is sciatica, wait a few months until it’s gone, and then try again.
Final thoughts: If you take three minutes two or three times a day to do this simple pose with the rocking variation, you’ll be well on your way to reaching your toes naturally and effortlessly. Which means that then you can check “be able to reach my toes” off your to-do list and let “save the world” move up a notch.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta