Touching the Toes: It Matters. ~ Terra Milander

Via Terra Milander
on Sep 26, 2013
get elephant's newsletter

In classical yoga today, we are uniting the mind, body and spirit.

So, when I see all these pinterest quotes and facebook posts that “touching your toes doesn’t matter, it’s what you learn on the way down,” I start to ask myself …. but, doesn’t it? Isn’t that a point of yoga, to bring that balance back to your life?

I often remind my students that the focus of class isn’t to become more flexible or stronger, that will happen on its own. What should be focused on is the breath, how the body feels in that moment and how your mind reacts to the situations on your mat.

But a very real benefit and reason to practice yoga is the physical aspects, the “body” of mind, body and soul. I totally understand that those posters online are great encouragement for those people who cannot-yet touch their toes, and for letting the public know that toe touching is not a pre-requisite for a yoga practice. That’s all ego play.

It’s a common concern of all new students that they will look out of place in class and the other gumby yogis in the room will scour at their bent knees in forward fold.

As yoga advocates, we should share all the glories that a yoga practice can offer and inform everyone of the very simple ways they can balance out their life.

It’s a little misleading: touching your toes doesn’t matter, but hold this forward fold for 10 breaths and keep reaching the crown of your head to your toes. “What?! Not just hands to feet? Head to feet! Liars, you said I didn’t have to do this, you said I just had to learn!”

The physical truth is that flexible hamstrings can prevent injuries to the body and keep you in balanced health. As our society becomes more sedentary and we find ourselves sitting for the majority of our day, the hamstring (a group of muscles that run along the back of the thigh) shorten and stiffen as the knee stays bent.

Then as we get up to walk or even run, the tight hamstring has strain placed on it when it is extended as it pulls the body forward through your stride. Doing this work from an extended position places a greater risk of injury on this group of muscles.

Keeping the muscles supple, flexible and strong are great ways to keep the balance in the body and reduce the risk of mild to sever strain. Not to mention how it can strengthen your torso and improve your posture, allowing you to stand with a neutral spine that can take off pressure from so many other points in the body such as vertebrae, neck and shoulders and hips.

Keeping a long, straight torso in uttanasana can help counteract the daily rounding and weakening of the shoulders and back muscles.

And, if you can get to the point in your forward fold where your head is below your heart, you get all those great benefits of inversion such as calming the mind, relieving stress and depression and bringing that fresh rush of oxygen to the brain.

I am not at all saying to tell current of prospective students that the goal of yoga is for them to touch their toes. Obviously, we can all agree that it doesn’t really matter where you start, just that you start. And we never want to cue students to go past their abilities and hurt their bodies.

But, bringing that balance and flexibility back into tight hamstrings can bring a lot of relief to the body. And, after all, the body is an equal 33 percent of that trio we are uniting!

So don’t forget to unite the body with your practice, let your students know the physical benefits of poses as well as the mental and then gently remind them that this isn’t the focus of our practice, however, it is an important aspect of balancing the body overall that a yoga practice naturally brings.


Like elephant yoga on Facebook

Assistant Ed: Bruce Casteel/Ed: Sara Crolick



About Terra Milander

Terra Milander is a mother of three beautiful daughters who happen to fall into yoga and then fell in love with it. She has a bachelors degree in biology and loves to put that love of the human body into her yoga teachings.  Learning about how the body works and the world works can really put into perspective just how connected we all are in the universe.  Always sincere but never too serious, Terra uses her passions in life to help people live better whether it’s through the snack program she runs and sponsors at her daughter’s elementary school or bringing total health to her students.  On her best days, Terra likes to think of herself as the love child of Mother Teresa, Beyonce and Marie Curie as she hopes to radiate that love, rhythm, intelligence and strength.


One Response to “Touching the Toes: It Matters. ~ Terra Milander”

  1. Jessi Farley says:

    What really matters is that yoga teachers and practioners be educated on body mechanics, and anatomy, and lifestyle of the west. Then we will all be able to use our critical thinking and research based evidence to realize that touching our toes is not a beneficial position for our bodies, in fact the opposite. As a 10 year yoga practioner and a 6 six year yoga teacher, I was taught that forward folds were the third most important pose in yoga. I would hold a deep fold sometimes for up to 5 minutes a practice. I thought I was doing my body a favor. I loved to do the pose. I was “good” at at too. A couple years ago I was having hip and back issues. After much research, pt, orthopedic appointments, and finally rolfing, and chiropractic, I realized how short the front of my body, especially my psoas was, and how overstretched the back of my body was. I had overstretched my ligaments to the point that i destablized my stabilizers such as my sacroiliac joint. I began go think critically about what i was doing. Then i learned about Thomas Myers anatomy trains, the importance of the lumbar curve of the spine, and many other things about human anatomy and biomechanics. When you do a forward fold, you are perpetuating and exaggerating a seated posture. You are locking your body out long through your back line of fascia from the plantar fascia all the way through the back of the body to the eyebrows, just like you do when you sit. That Syrian of unbalanced tension makes it seem like your back of your body is tight when really it is over stretched. Meanwhile, the front of your body is getting very short and weak from sitting or folding. If you want back pain, stretch your back line and ignore your front. We need to be stretching and lengthening our psoas and the whole front of our body and strengthening the back of our body. Shift your practice to honor how the body is built to move and balance the tension in your body. Change your practice, change your posture, change your life.

    Ah, another article promoting lengthening the back of our bodies, and shortening the front of our bodies with no research behind it. Coming from the field of clinical mental health counseling, if a practice, theory, treatment, or article is not evidence based, research based, and found to be best pracrice, it is not good practice. This article would not be published or would be torn to shreds in that field. I comment on this, not to make the writer feel bad. At least your putting yourself out there and trying. I say it to challenge the yoga world, myself included to think critically and shift our teaching to evidence based styles that honor the true nature of our bodies.