Though the term “forward bend” is commonly used to describe this month’s asanas, forward folding is probably a better way to think of them. Standing forward bends are more muscular than seated forward bends, but it is best to practice the standing forward bends first because they offer less margin for error. In seated poses, the femurs will not move as easily into the hamstrings, which makes it more difficult to ground them. In addition, without weight on the soles of the feet, the challenge of keeping the leg joints parallel increases.
Basic Principles Regarding Forward Bends
Although the text descriptions may be to the left, you should always perform for- ward bends to the right first, as this is most complimentary to the movement of the colon.
I. Originate movements from the hip joints • Create groin depth. • Create groin length. • Broaden the sacrum and pelvis. - Let the sacrum release into the pelvis. • Rotate the pelvis around the heads of the femurs to create the primary movement.
II. Maximize the straightness of the leg when applicable It is important when lengthening a hamstring that the leg be as straight as possible. If the knee is bent this implies that the hamstring is contracted. Trying to lengthen a muscle that is contracted will likely stress the ends of the muscle, known as its origin and insertion, and not effectively lengthen its center, which is called the belly of the muscle.
• Extend through the heel and flex the foot without the heel coming off of the floor. This will bring the muscles close to the bones. This action also draws the muscles towards the body and helps to deepen the groins. • Keeping the length of the Achilles tendon, press through the ball mount of the big toe and then the big toe itself, while keeping the outer four toes drawn back. This action extends the bones out through the sheath of the muscles, helping to create groin length. • Let the work of the foot minimize calf tone so the back of the knee can release to the floor without hyperextension of the knee.
III. Sustain the length of the belly and front spine as the back body lengthens When first performing forward bends, we tend to either collapse into the front body or grip the back muscles to keep front body length. What we want is to keep the front body open and still soften the back muscles. To do this we must find stability and softness in the inner body. This stability comes from the front of the spine as we use the exhalations to create visceral softness. • For beginners, pregnant women, or people with tight hips, teach forward bends with a neutral spine. • Keep the belly and diaphragm open and soft.
IV. Forward folds are typically quieting for the nervous system.
Maha Mudrasana - Noble closure pose maha - noble or great mudra - to close or seal asana - pose
Two of the most difficult aspects of forward bends are to sustain the length of the inner body and the front spine. This asana is a good preparation for all of the other sitting asanas because it maximizes the length of the inner body before folding forward.
Yoga utilizes inner body actions that help to seal in and/or direct the movement of prana. They are called bandhas. Bandha is a Sanskrit word, which means lock. There are three bandhas, which will be discussed in greater detail in future lessons. In this asana, all of the bandhas are naturally performed.
1. Sit in dandasana 2. Bring the right heel to the right groin 3. Keep the length of the inner body as you catch the left foot 4. With an inhalation, roll to the inner front edges of the sitting bones and lift the sternum toward the chin.
Dandasana is the reference pose or model for all of the seated asanas, just as tadasana is the reference model for all of the standing asanas. Maha mudrasana is begun by sitting in dandasana. Bring the right heel to the right groin. If this is not possible, place the right foot as close to this position as you can, being careful that the right foot is not underneath the left leg. As you bring the right foot back, the right hip will most likely also come back bringing the hips out of square with the left leg. To return the hips to square, draw the sitting bones back and out to the sides (using the hands if needed) and draw just the left sitting bone back as needed to square the hips with the left leg. These actions will help you to sit at the inner front edges of the sitting bones which keeps the hips open and rests the spine in its most neutral position.
Activate the left leg by flexing the foot without the heal leaving the floor. If the heel comes off of the floor, it is likely that the knee is hyper-extending. Keep the extension through the heel by flexing the foot, and press the ball mount of the left big toe forward. This should minimize the tone of the calf and assist the leg to straighten fully.
Keeping the spine as neutral as possible, reach forward and take the left foot. If this is not possible, use a belt placing it around the foot to bridge the gap. Then with an inhalation, lift the inner walls of the ribs away from the pelvis, and roll more deeply onto the inner front edges of the sitting bones. Keep the lift of the inner body even as you breathe. The belly should remain long, soft and responsive to the breath.
Lift the sternum toward the chin. The chin can release toward the sternum, but this should be done without hardening the back of the neck or completely losing the cervical lordosis. To accomplish this, keep the lift of the sternum and shoulders, and gently extend the head forward from the jaw. To release this asana, exhale and lift the head. Straighten the right leg and return to dandasana.
Repeat on the other side.
Janu Sirshasana - Knee head pose janu - knee sirsha – head asana - pose
In janu sirshasana, as in maha mudrasana, the straight leg is internally rotated while the bent leg is externally rotated. For this reason the challenge of keeping lateral symmetry of the torso when folding forward is greater in this asana than in all of the other seated forward bends. Most of the seated forward bends should be performed on the right side first, as this is most complimentary to the movement of the colon.
1. From dandasana, keep the pelvis reasonably square to the left leg and bring the right heel to the right groin. 2. Inhale and lengthen the inner body as you rotate the belly to the left. 3. Exhaling, keep the length of the belly as you fold forward. 4. Hold the foot or clasp the right wrist with the left hand in front of the left foot. Sit in dandasana. Bring the right heel as close to the right groin as possible with the sole of the right foot facing up. To untuck the sitting bones, use the hands to draw the sitting bones back diagonally. Draw the left sitting bone back a little more than the right one to keep the pelvis reasonably squared to the left leg. These actions should help you to sit on the inner front edges of the sitting bones.
Though this is not actually considered a rotated asana, there is a twist. To initiate this action, use the left hand for support on the floor along side the left hip as you catch the outer left foot, or shin if necessary, with the right hand. Then inhaling, lift the inner body. Particularly lengthen the left side, as this will be the difficult side on which to sustain length when folding forward. If you cannot hold the foot, there is no point in trying to go further with this asana. Go back to working with maha mudrasana, placing a belt around the foot.
With your exhalation, let the sacrum sink into the pelvis and rest the length of the belly onto the thigh. If the length of the belly rests comfortably on the thigh up to the bottom ribs, keep the length of the belly, and let the back softly round, resting the head on the leg.
Bring the left arm forward and catch the right hand or wrist in front of the left foot. Keep the shoulders toward the back body. This not only keeps the chest open but also actually helps to release the hips. Let the inhalations cultivate inner body length as the exhalations release the back muscles away from the spine. Breathe a little dominantly into the left lung to move the torso into greater lateral symmetry. Let the softening of the back body release the buttocks down. Inhale to come out of the asana and extend the legs forward into dandasana. Repeat on the other side.
This pose will not be accessible to everyone. It requires that the hips be open enough to perform padmasana (lotus pose). Padmasana is primarily a hip opening posture and should not stress the knees. Attempting this asana prematurely can place stress on the bent knee. If the foot of the bent leg does not hook over the straight leg with the knee on the floor, continue working with the lunge with external rotation (from month one) to assist this opening. This will help the hips to open directly without stressing the knee. If the foot does hook over the thigh but the knee does not reach the floor, you may do this asana, but only with a vertical spine and without the forward bend. The full asana provides a deep visceral massage as the foot presses into the belly.
1. From dandasana, hook the left ankle over the upper right thigh. 2. Inhale as you lift the left arm and exhale as you sweep the left arm behind the back to catch the left foot. 3. Hold the right big toe with the right hand and bend the elbow if necessary. 4. Again inhale and lengthen the inner body. Then with an exhalation, fold forward over the right leg.
Begin by sitting in dandasana. Bend the left knee. Support the left leg at the knee and foot with the hands, and lift the left leg to the left. Feel how this opens and stabilizes the hip. Then cross the left ankle over the top of the right thigh. At this time the ankle will hook over the thigh. Check to be sure you are still sitting on the inner front edges of the sitting bones. If not, restore this position as needed.
With an inhalation, lift the left arm and lengthen the inner body. Then with the exhalation, sweep the left arm around the back and grab hold of the left foot. If this is not possible, this asana may be performed with both hands on the foot, or with a belt if needed, to bridge the gap.
Hold the right big toe with the first and second fingers of the right hand so that the thumb can touch the tip of the big toe. Inhale and lengthen the inner body, again drawing the sacrum into the pelvis. Then exhale and fold forward over the leg. Continue to extend the leg through the heel and big toe, to fully straighten the leg. Keep as much length in the belly as possible and let the back muscles soften. Keep the scapulae flat on the back.
Breathe evenly in this asana for a half-minute or more. Then with an inhalation come up and return to dandasana. Rest before performing the asana on the other side.
Trianga Mukhipada Paschimottanasana - Three limb face to one leg extend the back body pose tri - three anga - limb mukha - face eka - one: (eka between a and a consonant becomes i) pada - leg paschimo - literally means, “west”, referring to the back side of the body uttana - intensely extended: a and u conjunction become o asana - pose 1. From dandasana, bend the right knee and bring the right foot outside of the right hip with the right foot facing straight back. 2. Hold the left foot and inhale to lengthen the inner body. 3. With the exhalation, keep the length of the inner body as you fold forward over the left leg.
From dandasana, bend the right knee and bring the right foot outside of the right hip with the shin on the floor. The foot should face straight back so there is equal weight on the big and little toe knuckles (though it is more likely that the little toe knuckle will be slightly off of the ground). With this setup, the crowns of the thighs will be reasonably parallel and vertical. If the right ankle or knee experiences discomfort, some elevation may be used beneath the hips. If there is no discomfort, but the sitting bones are not bearing equal weight, you may need to use the left hand for support on the floor outside the left hip. If this is the case then take the forward bend with just the right hand to the left foot rather than both hands.
If you cannot reach the left foot without losing length in the belly, use a belt to bridge the gap from hands to foot. If you are using a belt, use the breath to cultivate length of the inner body, and move your weight to the inner front edges of the sitting bones.
If you can reach the foot and keep the length of the belly with the weight on the inner front edges of the sitting bones, you may then seek a deeper asana. To do this, inhale to lengthen the inner body and then exhale forward. Rest the length of the belly on the thigh first by releasing from the hip joints. If the length of the belly rests on the thigh up to the bottom ribs, keep the shoulders toward the back body and rest the chest and head toward the thigh. You may hold the foot with both hands or catch the right wrist with the left hand facing the palms away from you.
Stay in this asana for a half-minute or more and breathe evenly. To release, inhale as you come up. Extend the right leg and return to dandasana. Rest for a moment before performing the asana on the other side.
Paschimottanasana - Posterior extension pose paschima - literally means, “west side”; here it refers to the entire back side of the body uttana - intense extension (“a” and “u” in conjunction become “o”) asana - pose
1. From dandasana, inhale and lengthen the inner body. 2. Keep the leg joints parallel and the belly long as you exhale and fold forward.
Although this is not a complicated asana, as is janu sirshasana, it is a difficult asana to do well. In doing this asana, dandasana needs to be understood very well, as the actions are virtually identical in both dandasana and this pose. If you need hip elevation to achieve a neutral spine when performing dandasana, then paschimottanasana should not yet be attempted.
If the spine is comfortably neutral in dandasana, reach forward and take hold of the feet with the hands (If you cannot reach your feet, use a belt to take up the gap.) Then with an inhalation, lengthen the inner body. With the exhalation release the sacrum into the pelvis and rest the length of the belly on or toward the legs. Keep the depth and length of the groins. This will keep the legs in internal rotation so the sacroiliac joints will stay open. The knee joints should remain parallel. If the knees turn out, this implies that the sacroiliac joints and groins are tight.
Keep the shoulders toward the back body. Keeping the sternum open in this way will help the hips to open. If the sternum is permitted to collapse, the front body will move toward the back body and this will tend to defeat the hip opening. If the length of the belly up to the bottom ribs rests on the thigh, let the thoracic spine softly round, and rest the forehead onto the shin. You may continue to hold the feet with the hands or clasp the wrist in front of the feet with the palms facing forward. Stay on the inner front edges of the sitting bones and let the back muscles soften along the width and length of the back.
Breathe evenly in this asana for a half-minute or more. Then with an inhalation, come out of the pose and rest in dandasana.
1. From dandasana, separate the legs 90-120 degrees. 2. Keep the length of the inner body as you hold the big toes and fold forward. 3. Keep the knee joints vertical throughout.
Sit in dandasana. Keep the weight on the front edges of the sitting bones and separate the legs anywhere from 90 - 120 degrees. It is unlikely that the legs will not separate at least 90 degrees. But, separating the legs more than 120 degrees will begin to put the hips into a different opening, which in forward bends, can create hyperextension in the hips. To keep the hip joints stable, the knee joints should remain vertical.
If the hips are tight, the knees will tend to turn out, and if the knees do turn out, it is likely that the lumbar spine has lost its lordosis. To restore the spine to a neutral position, use some elevation beneath the hips. At this stage, no further forward bend should be taken. Just sit with the hands on the floor behind the back and let the hip joints release asm you work the legs in internal rotation to bring the knee joints to a vertical position. (see preparatory stage)
If the hips are loose, the knees will tend to turn in. In this case, you will need to work the outer thigh muscles strongly like an external rotation. When the knees are permitted to turn in during a forward bend, they become a destabilizing action for the hips, this should be avoided. Whatever the status of the hips, the legs should remain engaged throughout. The legs extend out through the heels as a primary action and through the big toes as a secondary action. These actions should permit the legs to straighten fully by releasing the tone of the calf.
When possible, hold the toes with the first and second fingers so that the thumbs are able to touch the tips of the big toes. This grip of the toes helps keep the chest open by encouraging external rotation of the shoulders. Then with an inhalation, draw the inner edges of the scapula down the back, and lengthen the inner body. Use this action to broaden the pelvis. With an exhalation, let the sacrum release into the pelvis as you fold forward. Go only as far forward as you can without letting the ribs put weight on the diaphragm.
Breathe evenly for a half-minute or more and then with an inhalation come out of the asana. Return the legs to dandasana and rest.
Supta Hasta Padangusthasana - Resting hand to big toe pose supta - dormant or resting hasta - hand padangustha - limb of the foot; typically the big toe asana - pose
This is probably the best asana to simply lengthen the hamstrings. With the spine supported by the floor, there is virtually no possibility for any compression in the front spine. Begin by lying on the back. Extend both legs out through the heels to deepen and lengthen the groins. The lumbar spine will have a soft lordosis. Sustain the groin depth and length as well as the lumbar lordosis throughout.
Bend the right leg and hold the big toe with the first and second fingers so that the thumb can touch the tip of the big toe. Inhale and lengthen the inner body. Keeping the inner body length, with an exhalation straighten the leg. The scapulae should remain flat on the floor and both legs should be straight. If this is not possible, use a belt to bridge the gap between the hand and foot. The most common way to use the belt is to place it across the ball mounts of the toes.
Although the right hip joint is really in internal rotation, work the thigh muscles in a slight external rotation. This will keep the leg joints parallel and the knee supported. It will also help to keep the torso symmetrical. Extend the right leg out through the heel and the ball mount of the big toe. If you are holding the toe with your fingers, then also hold your fingers with the toe. This will maximize the stability and extension of the leg.
Work the left leg in internal rotation as you continue to extend out through the heel and ball mount of the big toe. Remain in this asana for a minute or more with even breath.
Keep the belly responsive to the breath as you slowly return the right leg to the floor. Bend the right knee if necessary so you do not harden the belly. Repeat on the other side.
BENEFITS OF FORWARD BENDS
1. Soothes and calms the nervous system.
2. Gives intense stretch to entire back side of the body.
3. Lengthens the entire back side of the body.
4. Improves the circulation of blood throughout the entire body.
5. Increases space and circulation between the vertebrae, so the nerves are freed, nourished, and healed.
6. As the spine and backside are being stretched, the front side is firmed and toned, thus stimulating digestion and elimination.
7. Stimulates the endocrine glandular system which regulates chemical balance.
8. Cools the mind and reduces anger and frustration.
9. Removes mental distractions and improves the attention span.