So many beginner students walk into their first class with one simple wish, “I just want to touch my toes.” Forward folds, as demonstrated by a yogi established in their practice, exude a deep sense of peace, serenity, and grace. And truly, forward folds have a rich calming effect on our cardiovascular and nervous system, allowing us to draw our attention inward to our true nature. However, the journey to our toes can be rather frustrating and those ten tiny appendages can be almost allusive at times.
What we need to remember is that we must honor what is behind us… both literally and figuratively. Our backside and all of it’s mechanics allow us to stand tall and face the challenges of life. Our experience is deeply rooted in the past, which also gives us the strength to come to the mat each day. The essence of Hatha Yoga is not to erase patterns on one side or the other, but rather to bring balance to both allowing you to master the present.
The Sanskrit root “Ha” translates to sun and “Tha” means moon, Hatha Yoga implying a means to bring a sense of equanimity between our solar nature and our lunar nature. From sun up often to sun down, we relentlessly tap into our solar nature: walking, working, and even battling everyday complexities. But, what about resting, nurturing, and listening to the guru within? Those of us still trying to grasp those piggies may be startled at the imbalances on and off the mat.
If our mat is a mirror, then our practice is the reflection. And, it is important to accept the reflection and work from where (and when) you stand. Fortunately, the mat allows us to look within and feel through the postures, rather than an aesthetic approach. And, if we were to turn our awareness internally during a forward fold, you will most likely find tension behind the knees and in the lower back. These are the areas where tension manifests, however the forward bend begins at the hips… which is often overlooked, or under played in most asana classes.
The hip extensors, the hamstrings and gluteus muscles especially, pull the sitting bones downward in a standing position. And the spinal erectors, or the back muscles, hold the torso upright. These are going to be the two areas to dynamically work with in practicing forward fold, but the area of origin–or starting point–is going to be the sitting bones and pelvis.
Begin by sitting with legs extended on the floor with your spine flush up against the wall in Dandasana. If the back is rounded, place blocks, books, or a wedge underneath the sitting bones until the pelvis is no longer rocking back. Inhale, extend the arms overhead, arch the back, lift the heart, extend the legs and flex at the ankles, hold for 3-4 breath cycles. Then soften the knees, maybe even place a rolled mat or small bolster behind the knees. Hinging at the hips with a straight spine, begin to close the gap at the hip. When your inner guru tells you that you have reached your limit, support your weight with your arms (you may need blocks), and surrender your spine and your legs to gravity. Practice this dynamically 3 or 4 times with each practice. Paschimottanasana means stretch of the west, signifying the surrender of the sun as it sets over the west. Relinquishing our solar nature and turning toward our healing, lunar nature.
Trick: very often the hamstrings are the culprit. Which means, since it is muscular, that it is mind over matter, because our nervous system controls tension in the muscles. There are two ways to go about “tricking” your nervous system.
1. Bind at the attachment. The hamstrings begin at the sitting bones and attach behind and below the knee. Try Janu Sirsasana binding or creating a tourniquet above the knee while the knee is bent and the hamstrings are soft. Extend the leg and begin to fold forward from the hip again. Rather than feeling the stretch behind the knee, you may feel it in a lower decibel in the belly of the muscles. The sensation of pain or tension is sent from the attachment. Once your release the bind, you mind has already decided that you have safely made it through the stretch.
2. PNF. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation is using targeted flex and stretch technique to “trick” the muscles. Utkatasana (chair pose) and Uttanasana (standing forward fold) are a perfect example of this dynamic. Come into Uttanasana and observe the distance from your fingertips to the floor. Then settle into chair pose for 6-8 breaths. Inhale the arms up, and exhale as you push the hips back and gently swan dive forward into Uttanasana again. Note the progress.
By learning to open the hips first, then gradually soften the muscles of the hamstrings, and finally surrendering the spine, we take many of the highly advertised contraindications of the disks and spinal column out of the equation. We shift our awareness and attitude toward deeper movement, honoring our constitution, and listening to our inner guru, the Atman. Namaste