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To Roll or Not to Roll: Coming Up from Standing Forward Bend in Yoga
In many yoga classes, it’s common to hear the instruction to “roll up to standing” from a standing forward fold. This isn’t something that’s found in traditional yoga practices. In Ashtanga yoga, you always rise from a forward fold with a flat back. I also haven’t encountered it in my (admittedly limited) experience with Iyengar yoga.
It seems to be an instruction that has made its way into yoga classes via dance. Although it might seem like a harmless alternative, it is something I never teach anymore, and I teach my students in teacher trainings not to teach it either.
What Happens When You Roll Up From a Forward Bend
So what’s so terrible about rolling up to standing from a yoga forward bend like Uttansasana? When you roll up to standing, you usually tuck your tailbone under, let your arms and head dangle and you round through much of the back. The first item, tucking the tailbone, causes a stretch in the lower back muscles, which will flatten out the lumbar lordosis and place strain on the back muscles (erector spinae, or paraspinals).
With the pelvis already tucked under, the hamstrings and gluteal muscles are relatively ineffective lifters, which puts most of the burden on the back muscles. More important, the ligaments surrounding the vertebral column will also stretch, especially toward the back. This type of stretching, combined with the pressure on the front of the vertebrae, sets the stage for a disc to herniate toward the back of the vertebral body, where it might impinge on a spinal nerve.
The second item, letting your arms and head dangle, will exacerbate the problem described in the previous paragraph. The added weight of the arms and head hanging heavy will put more pressure on the lower back, further straining an already vulnerable area. Because of the rounding of the back, the upper back isn’t able to assist much with the lift of the arms and head, so the burden again falls to the lower back.
In a healthy individual, these things may not be a big deal. Over time, however, this movement will put strain on the body that could lead to an unhealthy outcome. I was very healthy and fit when I herniated a disc; That area of my body was not able to bear the weight of the load I was asking of it. (Note: I did not herniate a disc rolling up to standing, but by attempting an advanced pose with relatively little attention to what I was doing.)
What Happens When You Rise Up with a Flat Back?
How does rising to standing with a flat back help? To get the “flat back” position, you need to engage your back muscles to keep the pelvis and the spine acting as a single unit. This helps to prevent you from rounding too much through the spine.
When you lift this single unit of back and pelvis, you are using the back muscles to maintain the relationship, and then the powerful glutes and hamstrings to actually do the lifting. If you rise to stand with your knees slightly bent, then you are further leveraging the strength of the hamstrings and glutes to help you stand.
Additionally, if you reach your arms out to the side to come to stand, you are using the muscles of your upper back and shoulders (trapezius and deltoids) to lift the weight of the arms, rather than just having them hang as dead weight for the lower back to carry up. This ensures that the entire column of back muscles is being utilized, as opposed to relying solely on the muscles of the lower back. It distributes the work among all the erector spinae muscles. More muscles involved means less overall work for any one section, reducing the risk of strain or injury.
Image: Flat back showing the engagement of the back muscles, forward tilt of the pelvis, glutes, and hamstrings ready to lift.
The movement of rolling up from a standing forward fold is usually done towards the beginning of class when the body is not very warmed up. It’s easy enough to replace this with a lift to stand with a flat back, or even a transition into chair pose.
Although the movement might feel good to you, it doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. It doesn’t even mean that it’s not doing damage. Repetitive use injuries occur because the movement that is causing them doesn’t feel problematic at first. It’s only after a habit is established and the body repeats the movement over a long period of time, that repetitive use injuries can arise.
I choose to err on the side of safety and caution for all, and simply don’t include this as a part of any of my classes. It’s not something that’s greatly missed by students. Although it might feel good to roll slowly up to your Tadasana, it’s not worth the strain on your back and the potential for future injury.
More yoga and anatomy from Sara Doyle, Ph.d. - Extend Your Spine: How Backbending Supports Respiratory and Cardiovascular Health.
Reprinted with permission from Sara Doyle Yoga and Anatomy.
Image courtesy of Sara Doyle
Sara Doyle (Ph.D., E-RYT 500) has a Ph.D. in Anatomy and has taught anatomy to medical students, residents, and undergraduates at Duke University since 2003. She has a thorough understanding of the human body and the anatomy of movement. Sara has spent thousands of hours in the anatomy lab and participated in the dissection of hundreds of cadavers, giving her a unique perspective on how the body works and the anatomical variation between individuals. Her yoga classes and workshops reflect a science-based perspective and include the most current research available.
Sara has completed two 200 hour trainings - the first with Sarah Trelease, and the second more recently with Srivatsa Ramaswami, a direct student of Krishnamacharya. She has also completed a 300-hour training. Currently, Sara is enrolled in the MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) teaching program at the UMass Center for Mindfulness.