by Amy Ippoliti, ToeSox Ambassador. Amy Ippoliti is an international yoga instructor, earth conservationist and writer. She is a pioneer of yoga education, cofounding 90 Monkeys, a school that’s enhanced the skills of yoga teachers in 44 countries.
One of the quintessential goals of many a seasoned or aspiring yoga student is to be able to touch their toes in a standing or seated forward bend.
Most believe that if they could just touch their toes, life would be complete. In fact, being able to touch your toes has become a measure of whether or not you are “flexible”. This outlook prevails in Pilates, and many other fitness methodologies as well as yoga.
If you have stiff hamstrings, or if you’ve spent a lot of time as a runner or an athlete in life, chances are your toes seem miles away and there is no hope.
The good news is that if you approach the goal of touching your toes with patience and persistence, you can get closer, and reap the benefits of not just greater flexibility, but bonus – a healthier lower back!
Let’s break this down from the perspective of attitude, anatomical understanding, and a mindful practice so you can eventually get closer to achieving this illusive skill.
Adjust Your Mental Attitude
If you’re overly ambitious and attached to the outcome of touching your toes when stretching, you will block your ability to achieve it. Softening around your attachment to getting there will help you tremendously in working gradually toward the goal and coaxing your body versus burning out your hamstrings, and possibly tweaking your lower back in your pursuit. It’s better to approach this mindfully. For this reason, you’ll notice I won’t go over seated forward bends (the most challenging of forward bends) in the practice below.
Get in the Game by Committing to Protect Your Lower Back First and Foremost
Remember the health of your lower back is much more important than whether or not you can touch your toes!
Repeat that statement out loud: “The health of my lower back is more important than whether or not I touch my toes!”
The difficulty you’re experiencing in touching your toes, as you might have guessed, stems from tight hamstrings. When the hamstrings are tight they shorten and pull the pelvis into a tucked position, which flattens the lumbar curve (lower back).
Although we were all born with a healthy lumbar curve – sitting in chairs, a cultural influence on our posture, has caused us to flatten our lumbar curve.
To have proper posture and healthy alignment, it is essential to maintain a natural lumbar curve throughout life, but most of us tuck our pelvis way under and have little or no lumbar curve. Not exactly a recipe for flexible hamstrings.
Many people can actually touch their toes in a seated forward bend, but only if they bend in their spine (ie. round their whole back, tuck their butt way under, and reach their fingers forward), thus flattening their lower back curve and not really getting a stretch in their hamstrings as illustrated by this photo:
Furthermore, if you reach for your toes aimlessly, as shown below, hanging there hoping will not help. It will only stress the lower back muscles that have to hold up the weight of your torso, and again the hamstrings are not actually stretching all that much because of the tucked under pelvis.
Instead, when you prioritize the lumbar curve over how far you can get your hands toward your toes, you’ll bend at your hips instead of your spine.
In the photo below, a less deep forward bend is shown, but at least here, the lower back curve can be prioritized since the knees are bent (which effectively “disables” the hamstrings) and the forward bend is not as intense. Therefore, the lumbar curve is much easier to create, thus elongating and holistically stretching the hamstrings.
You may not touch your toes yet, but you’ll protect your lower back and thus gain better range of motion in your hamstrings over the long haul. This powerful opening in your hamstrings will ultimately get you toward the goal. But if you keep trying to touch your toes with your butt tucked under you’ll only tighten more over time.
Prepare Your Body for a Successful Practice Session
Private Pilates instructor, Summer Jessee, likes to help her clients loosen tight fascia in the feet as an indirect way of opening the hamstrings. She explains, “Fascia is a massive sheath of connective tissue that’s located all over our bodies. The fascia at the bottom of your feet, runs all the way up the backs of your legs, and onward up your back, neck and head. Therefore working to release any tight connective tissue prior to stretching can be helpful in achieving a deeper stretch”.
Before stretching, Summer recommends the following:
- Find a tennis ball or baseball
- Stand on one foot and place a tennis ball or baseball under your other foot and roll around for 30 – 60 seconds. Pause on any extra tender spots to release the tension.
- Take two or three deep breaths into those tender areas and then allow your entire body and foot to relax more into the ball as you exhale. (During this process be sure to relax your shoulders. We often tense our shoulders when something is uncomfortable, thus preventing ourselves from relaxing and benefiting as much as we could).
- Switch and repeat with your other foot.
Standing Forward Bend
Now you’re ready to try the stretching practice. It can be helpful to modify the stretch a bit by using two yoga blocks, especially if you have stiff hamstrings. Using blocks will give you the chance to focus on your lower back form and gradually open the hamstrings, which again, is the key to eventually reaching the goal.
- Find two yoga blocks (or two water bottles are a good substitute).
- Put the blocks on the floor in front of you, a little wider than hip width.
- From a standing position, place your hands on the blocks, bend your knees, firm your legs, and work to create an arch in your lower back by lifting your sitting bones and elongating your hamstrings. It can be helpful to lift your chest and straighten your arms. Hold this for a few breaths. Your lower back should look like a ski jump and none of the lumbar vertebrae should be visible because they are all moving forward toward your belly.
- If you are unable to achieve the lumbar curve you will look something like this:
If this is the case, put your hands on a wall at hip height or higher than the hips. Walk your feet back until your arms are straight. Repeat the same steps that you would with the blocks. The added height for your hands just means that you’re not as tightly bent (flexed) at the hips and will have an even better shot at lengthening the hamstrings and creating lumbar curve. Once you’re able to do this, move the hands lower and eventually to blocks.
If you look more like the picture below, take the hands up the wall even higher (above the head is fine!) to take even more forward bend out of the hips:
- After several months of practice you might see that it’s possible to put the blocks on a lower setting. Some try to do this without a prop by putting their hands on their shins but don’t discount the power of being able to ground into something connected to the earth, other than your self – it will make a huge difference to ground.
This asymmetrical stretch isolates one leg at a time.
- Come into a lunge with one foot forward and your back knee down on the ground. If your butt is very tucked under and you find yourself bending at your spine instead of your hips, you’ll want to come into more of an upright position vs. folding your body toward your front leg. You can either put a block beneath each hand to help you achieve this position or if it’s really difficult to get a lumbar curve, you can even put your hands on two chairs on either side of you.
- Straighten your front leg, flex the front foot and remember to prioritize the lumbar curve as you drag your front heal toward you isometrically (energetically) feeling a stretch in the belly of the muscle of your hamstring.
- Switch and repeat with the other leg.
Remember, a lot of people can touch their toes if they curve and bend in the spine enough. Besides that approach being awful for your lower back and more tightening in the long run to your hamstrings, it’s just not attractive!
If you do this practice daily, while prioritizing lumbar curve and healthy hamstring stretching, versus reaching unconsciously toward the glory of the goal, in due course you will be able to touch your toes not only in these exercises but in seated forward bends as well!