Thursday, March 22, 2007

Forward Bends; love ‘em or leave ‘em

Some students love forward bends. Their calf and thigh muscles are very flexible and they enjoy the challenge of stretching those muscles enough so that they can (almost) rest their torsos on their legs. Other students can’t stand them (the poses, not the flexible people). As hard as they try, they can barely reach their knees and only if they round their upper backs. The poses aren’t fun or invigorating—they hurt.

No matter which camp you fall in, it is important to remember that forward bends can improve with practice, but that you need to be very aware of how your lower back feels while you are doing them. It may be that the construction of your spine and pelvis is such that you will never be able to reach past your knees. The flexibility of your legs has something to do with your forward bend “ability”, but it is more related to the length of the muscles and ligaments surrounding the pelvis and lumbar spine. Always respect the sensations of the lower back as you bend; this will tell you if you can work on deepening the pose, or if you are as far you should stretch.

Unless forward bends are really painful, there are simple modifications that you can do to the poses so that they will work for you (lift the sitbones with a higher blanket, use a belt around the balls of the feet). If they are always uncomfortable, just skip them…there are plenty of other asana that open the backs of the legs and are more supportive of the lower spine. We did this sequence in class this week. Try it, and see if it works for you!

Forward Bends
Sukhasana (Easy Pose) Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position with the sitbones on a folded blanket. Increase the height of the blanket if you can’t sit without rounding the lower back. Take a few minutes to really concentrated on balancing the pelvis and lengthening the spine.

Dandasana + Hastasana (Staff Pose + Overhead Arm Stretch) Extend the legs out in front of you, pressing the soles of the feet away evenly and engaging the thigh muscles. Raise your arms to the side and keep the shoulders away from the ears as you lift your arms overhead. After your initial stretch, begin to fold forward from the hips; keep the arms long and the side ribs lifted. Lead with the belly button as you lengthen the backs of the legs. Come back to center and relax.
Paschimottanasana (Forward Bend) Wrap your belt around the balls of the feet and begin to pull yourself forward, leading with the belly button. You are now tipping the pelvis forward to lengthen the back of the legs. Don’t round your lower back and keep the side ribs lifted as you did in the previous pose. If it’s comfortable, release the spine and fold further over the legs.
Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)-Lie on your back and breathe deeply into the back of the legs as you draw your right foot towards you with the belt and press the back of the left thigh to the floor. Try to keep the pelvis balanced (there will be space at the lower back). Lower the leg to the side and rest the thigh on a block so you can concentrate on opening the hip joint instead of tipping over. Bring the leg back to center and lower. Repeat on the other side.
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-legged Forward Bend) Fold your blanket into thirds, so you have a higher base for the sit bones. Spread the legs to either side, but not so wide that you can’t keep the knees and toes pointing to the ceiling. Lengthen the backs of the legs as you press the soles of the feet away, like Staff Pose. Stretch the arms overhead, lengthen the side ribs and begin to fold at the hip crease. As with the earlier Forward Bend, if it is comfortable, release the spine and fold towards the floor.
Tadasana (Mountain) Come to standing and realign the spine, paying attention to the balance of the pelvis. Lift up through the top of the head as you ground through the soles of the feet.
Chair Pose, with a Twist Step the feet hip distance apart, with the inside edges of the feet parallel. Sit back, as if in a chair, as you bend your knees and fold at the hip crease. Stretch the arms overhead and lengthen the side ribs. Fold further forwards and place your right hand on the floor or a block and twist to the left while reaching the left arm towards the ceiling. Repeat on the other side. Come back to standing.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) Come into this pose softly to release the lower back. Keep the knees slightly bent as you fold from the hip crease. Cross your arms and let the weight of the upper body stretch out the spine. If you want a little stretch in the backs of the legs you can slowly straighten them by lengthening the backs of the thighs. Bend your knees to come back to standing and unfold slowly.

Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Bend) From Mountain, step the right foot back and straighten both legs. Make sure the hips are square and you are lengthening the backs of both thighs. With the arms folded at your lower back, stretch the chest forwards and fold at the hips, so the torso is parallel to the floor. Keep the hips square and the right heel grounded. Release the spine and round over the left leg, if you can. Return to center and repeat on the other side.
Viparita Karani (Legs Up The Wall Pose). Lie on the floor with the backs of your legs and hips resting against the wall and the feet lined up over the hips. Feel the pressure draining out of your feet and ankles. Keep the spine long as you relax the back into the support of the floor. Stay in this relaxing pose as long as you like.
©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved.


_Richard_ said...


I was recently inspired by an article I read somewhere (I believe Yoga Journal) regarding the author's 1/2 hour forward folds when taking Iyengar's classes. I've started with 10 minute holds and am working my way up to a 30 minute. It's so intense!

For years I've avoided the hamstrings. All the signs the universe is giving me to open them up is great. My guess is, there's some emotional or wisdom baggage in the stings too, that I don't want to deal with. It's time I love 'em!

Wonderful articles! Peace,


Brenda P. said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I love forward bends, but it's a bit chicken and egg-y; I've always been fairly flexible, so they've always been pretty easy.

I did a 3 hr. Iyengar forward bend class in January and could barely walk afterwards (in a good way, if that is possible)!


Nadine Fawell said...

Hi Brenda!
Lovely post, thank you. Thank you also for including me in your link list -I have done the same.
Also, congratulations on your article in the latest issue of Yoga Journal's My Yoga Mentor! I just received it.

Brenda P. said...

Finding new links is becoming a favorite hobby...there are starting to be a lot of very useful yoga blogs. I can always use new inspiration!


Marilyn P. Sushi said...

I'm with the first group, I love love love forward bends. It is wonderful that you wrote this, there are some great tips. :)

Brenda P. said...

Dear Cupcakes,
...and I can't get enough of your pictures of the delicious treats on your blog. What a great combo.

Thanks for reading!