Forward bends are the introverts of the asana spectrum. While backbends have a spacious, majestic quality, forward bends turn us inward and create the conditions for greater calmness and ease. These postures even have a grounding effect for students whose hips, hamstrings, and spine present resistance. As teachers and students, it’s important to return to the foundational actions of these postures in an organized, clear way in order to ensure that we are getting the most from our practice. Here’s a primer for some and a reminder for others:
- Ground your thighs
Grounding your thighs provides you with a deeper, more focused stretch in the hamstrings. Even more, this action helps you lift and lengthen your spine in postures. In order to do this, bring your awareness to the top of your thigh-bones and pull back toward your hamstrings. If you’re in a seated forward bend, this means that you’ll be rooting down into the floor near your sitting bones.
- Spiral your thighs—internally, externally or both
Internally rotating your thighs helps tilt your pelvis forward. Externally rotating your thighs helps lengthen and your spine. Of course, different forward bends focus on one or more of these actions. For example, paschimottanasana emphasizes internally rotating your thighs while baddhakonasana focuses on externally rotating your thighs. Practice becoming aware of the primary rotation of your thighs in each of your forward bends and use these actions to deepen your posture.
- Rock your pelvis forward and fold from your hip creases and groins
Tilting your pelvis forward toward your thighs is the most essential action in forward bends—in fact, it’s this action that defines forward bending. By focusing on this action you will be less likely to round your lower back too much. When emphasize folding from your hip creases and groins, you create a hinge-like movement and increase the depth of the posture. Emphasizing this fold also spreads your awareness more thoroughly in the posture. Rather than focusing exclusively on the stretch of your back-body, folding from your hip-creases and groins will help bring attention to the front of your body. To emphasize this movement, you can press your thumbs or a belt into this crease while you do your forward bends.
- Lift your lumbar
Lifting your lumbar spine creates a greater feeling of space in your entire spine and lessens the tendency to round your lower back. Lengthening your lower back also intensifies the stretch in your legs and hips. To do this, focus on lengthening your back, bottom ribs away from the top of your pelvis.
- Gently arc your spine
Don’t confuse lengthening your spine with trying to make it straight or becoming rigid. If you are managing lumbar or sacral issues you may have to maintain the natural curve of your lower back. However, most spines will benefit from moderate, balanced rounding. After-all, spinal flexion is one of the normal, natural ranges of spinal movement. Allowing your back to gently round once you’ve engaged all of the previous actions will provide your spine with a nice stretch. More importantly, this action is calming to your mind, body, and nervous system. To do this, allow your back to round forward in your forward bends with the same degree of intensity as you allow your spine to round in child’s pose.
- Soften your sensory organs
Relaxing your muscles and softening your sense organs are both subtle actions. Relaxation and softening comes from letting go of tension. In fact, you may not be aware of how much tension you have until you let it go—just like you may not notice how annoying the hum of your refrigerator is until it turns off. Since forward bends turn you inward and decrease the amount of stimulation your senses perceive, they are the perfect poses to release accumulated tension in these areas. To do this, focus on relaxing your forehead and temples, releasing your inner ears, letting go of your jaw, and bringing a steady, relaxed focus to your eyes.
Jason Crandell was recently named one of the next generation of teachers shaping yoga’s future by Yoga Journal for his skillful, unique approach to vinyasa yoga. Jason’s steady pace, creative sequencing, and attention to detail encourage students to move slowly, deeply, and mindfully into their bodies. Jason credits his primary teacher, Rodney Yee, teachers in the Iyengar Yoga tradition such as Ramanand Patel, and ongoing studies in Eastern and Western philosophy for inspiring to him bring greater alignment and mindfulness to Vinyasa Yoga.
Jason is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal and has written over 13 articles for the magazine and website – many of which have been translated internationally (including Japan, China, Italy and Brazil). His integrative and accessible teachings support students of every background and lineage, helping them to find greater depth, awareness, and well-being in their practice – and in their lives. Follow Jason on Facebook and Twitter.