Forward bends are like a cuddle.
In the space of the day, humans are subjected to constant change. Life is fast paced and the mind only speeds up the process, through its observing, analysing and evaluating. We remain constantly on the look out for danger and our focus is externalised. One way we can escape the feelings of stress, low self esteem and dejection is to reposition our perspective.
Through internalising the focus, everyday ordeals take on a smaller role, our thoughts are clearer and our reactions are safer. As we fold our bodies inwards through forward bends, the mind follows, drawing us into ‘the inner mysteries and dynamics of our lives’ (Stephens, 2010).
This given, a forward bend sequence is particularly rewarding just before bed. As the body and mind prepare to wind down for sleep, it helps us let go of vicious, circling thoughts. Sometimes at the end of a day, you just want to crawl back into your shell, and give yourself a big old hug. The sequence flows through more dynamic forward bends, finishing with those that are more deeply ‘nurturing’ (Stephens, 2010).
Few items of housekeeping:
- Those who have any sort of sensitivity in the lower back should be careful not to overstretch in forward bends.
- If the forward bend is seated, ensure that the seated bones are well grounded.
- Keep the back as flat as possible, and don’t allow the shoulders to collapse forwards. Yoga always aims to generate space in the spine.
- Forward bends are best attempted once warmed up, the hamstrings can be particularly tight. I’d suggest running through a few sun salutations, both A and B. When you’re ready, come to meet me in chair pose.
Chair pose (UTKATASANA)
Check to make sure your back is flat and work on tipping the pelvis under as you deepen the bend in your knees.
Keep the shoulders relaxed, and the arms lifted, focussing on the hands. Inhale to lengthen the spine and sink lower on the exhale.
Take a twist to either side to warm up the oblique muscles. Place the hands together in front of the heart, and rotate from the hips to hook opposite elbow to knee. Keep pressing the hands together, opening and lifting the chest and drawing the upper collarbone away. Be sure to keep the knees level; do not let one come further forward than the other.
Eagle pose (GARUDASANA)
From the basic chair pose, bring the arms into prayer position. Place the right arm over the left and entwine. Lift the left leg and place it over the right. If the leg muscles will allow it, wrap the foot around the back of the calf.
Maintain balance while bending the right leg. Curl the body inwards and point your hands towards the floor. Through concentrating on maintaining good balance, enjoy letting go of any lingerings worries or mindless chattering in the brain.
Slowly release the posture and repeat on the other side.
Standing forward bend (UTTANASANA)
Come to stand in mountain pose release over the front of the legs as you would during a sun salutation. As always, keep the spine straight, bending from the waist. Come to hang like a rag doll, grabbing opposite elbows with your hands, and sway for a minute, enjoying the release in the backs of the legs and lower spine.
Wide leg forward bend (PARIVRTTA PRASARITA)
Raise the head and toe-heel the feet apart, aligning them with your arm span. Fold forward, once again from the waist. This time enjoy the added release of the inner thigh muscles. Grab the toes and coax the crown of your head further towards the ground. Inhale to lengthen the spine, and exhale to fold deeper, lifting the hips and straightening the legs.
Come to sit on the floor, with the legs extended out in front, ready to enjoy winding down during the latter half the sequence.
Staff pose (DHANDASANA)
Although the pose looks simple, the body should be active and the muscles engaged. Keep the feet flexed, the chest raised and the abdominal muscles taught. With both legs in front, bend one knee and draw the foot up to be placed against the inner thigh of the opposite leg. Root down with the seat bones, press the thigh and foot together and lift the arms in preparation to fold over the leg.
The fold should be initiated on an exhale. Do not aim to place the head on the legs, but moreover to press the face towards the big toe. This maintains the length and space in the spine.
Squeeze the air out of the lungs and compress the body forwards and downwards. The hands can hook over the feet if they reach. On every inhale draw the face forwards and on every exhale use the abdominal muscles to pull the body further down onto the legs. With every breath, stale air is removed from the body, making space for fresh oxygen in the blood, brain and heart. Repeat on both sides.
Tortoise pose (KURMASANA)
The forward bend sequence so far has helped to warm up the muscles needed to finalise the sequence with tortoise pose. Just as the pose is more demanding and rewarding physically, so it is mentally, and feels just like a retreat into a shell.
Stretch the legs out in front, as before but in a wide stance. Walk the arms forward and slide them under the lower leg. Use the pressure between the backs of the knees and elbows to pull yourself further into your shell. The process can take many breaths, and it’s important to be patience. Enjoy the retreat and encourage your mind to quieten as your gaze turns inwards.
Whenever you feel ready to come out of this pose, bring yourself back to child’s pose and allow the benefits of your practice to settle. Child’s pose is a simple forward bend and the most appropriate to finish on.
We are in this position during nine months of gestation and naturally return to this fetal position to nurture or protect ourselves.
Stephens, Mark, Teaching Yoga, (California: North Atlantic Books, 2010), p.214.