Just as trees are stripped of their leaves in the fall, so too can we be stripped of all that is covering up our authentic selves—to let go of that which is no longer useful and go forward, to discover and unabashedly embrace what we truly feel passionate about. One of the ways we are able to bare our authentic selves is to move inward.
Forward bends are the pinnacle poses of self-reflection.
Forward bends are the pinnacle poses of self-reflection. Practicing and finding comfort maintaining a forward bend takes time and patience. As you move into a forward bend, your head is last to go, finally bowing down toward the body or the floor, drawing your attention away from the busy world around you. In fact, without being prompted, many students naturally close their eyes in forward bends to turn their attention inward even more, perhaps further revealing the introspective effect of these poses.
Yoga teachers who are interested in teaching forward bend practices can utilize the following tips to enhance their sequencing skills and to bring students deeper into the reflective practice of folding forward. As a yoga student, you can use these same steps to help structure your home practice and to safely explore calming, grounding poses that help you to slow down and turn away from the hustle and bustle of the external world.
The Key Elements of Forward Bending
Exploring the Anterior Tilt
There are a few important aspects of alignment that should be addressed when sequencing toward forward bends. The first of these is exploring the anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis (this is the action of the pelvis in the "cow" part of "cat/cow") and how it differentiates from the posterior (backward) tilt of the pelvis (the action of the pelvis in the "cat" part of "cat/cow"). Without an anterior tilt, there is no forward bend.
Teachers can help their students understand the pelvic tilt through demonstration, practice, and repetition.
One way to create a physical marker, or "imprint," of the tilt is to come to constructive rest pose (lying on your back with the soles of your feet on the floor, knees pointing up toward the ceiling) with a neutral pelvis, and place your hands on your two frontal hip points (anterior superior iliac spines). Practice the pelvic actions of cat (the backward tilt of the pelvis) and cow (forward pelvic tilt) to get a sense of the difference between the two. Feel with your hands how your hip points move down toward the thighbones in the anterior tilt, and move away from the thighbones in the posterior tilt. Remember what this anterior tilt feels like so that you can easily come back to it later. Repeat a few times, and then return to neutral.
Flexion of the Spine
The spine rounds in a forward bend. The thoracic spine (mid and upper back) naturally rounds—that’s its tendency due to its structure—while the cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (lower back) naturally arch, curving the spine inward toward the front body. In a forward bend, we want to smoothly and continuously flex the whole spine like the long elliptical side of an egg.
Just as there isn’t a jagged flatness to an egg’s curve, when you are in a forward bend you want to create a sleek, continuous shape.
Just as there isn’t a jagged flatness to an egg’s curve, when you are in a forward bend you want to create a sleek, continuous shape, rounding the lower back slightly, continuing the length of the curve in the upper back (don’t overdo the rounding in the upper back here by moving as deeply as you can into flexion, as you might in cat pose), and softly finishing that curve by releasing the head down and curving the cervical spine.
You can use a variation of balasana (child’s pose) to find (or teach) this continuous curve of the spine. With your arms extended straight in front of you, sit your hips back over your heels, keeping your chest lifted. Reach your hips back, deepening the crease of the hips (where the body folds in half). You can use your hands as leverage here by pressing them down into the floor as your hips move further back. While the hips are moving in the direction of the heels, keep your spine long. When you can no longer move the hips back any further, slowly flex your spine; begin by flexing the lumbar spine slightly, thoracic spine slightly, then the cervical spine. Notice if one part of the spine flexes more than the others, distorting the continuous curve of the spine. If that starts to happen, back out of the pose and re-establish the length in your spine. You can also use a support like a bolster or blanket under the chest to help you to flex your spine.
To prepare for more challenging forward bends, follow up this work in child's pose by sitting up in virasana (hero’s pose), and opening the upper back with a self-hug or garudasana (eagle) arms. Then, to release the latissimus dorsi, come into table pose and sit your hips halfway back between table and child’s pose. Then walk the hands to one side (out to about a 45-degree angle), and sit your hips as far back into child’s pose as you can. Stay for a few breaths, and then come back to table and repeat on the other side.
The Connection Between the Anterior Tilt and Spinal Flexion
Remember that anterior tilt we explored earlier? The anterior tilt of the pelvis is critical to safe forward bending of the spine. Often, yoga students will "fold" from their lower backs, which places too much pressure on the lumbar spine and can lead to injury. A safe forward bend is initiated with a hinge at the hips, which requires a slight anterior tilt. You can tell that you're hinging from your hips (not from rounding the lower back over the pelvis, which actually creates a posterior pelvic tilt) if you can feel the deep crease where the body folds in half from the hips. It's from the action of the pelvis that a smooth, continuous flexion of the spine is possible.
A great way to capture this sensation is to stand with your feet about hip-distance apart, knees bent (you can even go as far as utkatasana, chair/fierce pose), with hands on the hips. Keep your knees bent and maintain the natural curve of your lower back as you hinge at your hips, and with your hands, feel your hip points dipping down toward your thighbones (anterior tilt). Once you feel a restriction (meaning that you can't hip-hinge any further), take one hand to your lower back and pat along your spine, feeling as the back flexes while you release into a bent-knee uttanasana. Take a few breaths here, turning inward and sensing the elliptical, egg-shaped spine—long and curved. To come out, bend your knees, tone your belly, and place your hands on the hips. Press your feet down into the floor, and slowly come up with a long spine.
Sequencing Forward Bends
When putting together a practice, the general sequence is to practice supine forward bends first, then standing forward bends, and then seated forward bends.
Supine forward bends—such as supta padangusthasana (reclined big toe pose), and knees-to-chest—are the gentlest of the three main types of forward bends because the majority of the flexion at the hip occurs from the thighbone moving at the hip joint, and the floor prevents the upper back from excessive rounding.
Standing forward bends, like parshvottanasana (intense extended side stretch, or "pyramid pose"), urdhva prasarita eka padasana (standing splits), and prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend) come next in sequencing because they warm the body quite efficiently. The movement at the hip and spine is easier than it is in seated forward bends because the pelvis isn’t fixed, and standing forward bends allow the muscles of the legs to become more pliable, better preparing the body for seated forward folds.
Seated forward bends, like paschchimottanasana (west stretching pose), janu shirshasana (head to knee pose) and upavishta konasana (seated wide-legged forward bend) come last in the sequence. The body is now accustomed to the movement of the forward bend, and the appropriate muscles have been sufficiently lengthened to allow the practitioner to move into the forward bend more safely. Seated forward bends are also harder, because with the pelvis more fixed in the seated position there is less mobility for anterior tilt, and the leverage of gravity (otherwise available when standing) is diminished.
Forward Bends Are All About the Hamstrings, Right?
Forward bends are not just about stretching the hamstrings. Of course there needs to be reasonable focus on the hamstrings—identifying these muscles and how they affect the body in forward bends, and including preparatory postures that open up all three of the hamstring muscles—especially if you're sequencing toward a pose like paschimottanasana. In fact, any straight-legged forward bend requires considerable hamstring attention. But what if you are doing a forward bending pose like baddha konasana (bound angle pose)? The knees are flexed, so a hamstring stretch isn't going to be your main focus in the pose itself. Tight hamstrings can still affect the pelvis and spine—pulling down on the sit bones, and causing the pelvis to tilt posteriorly—but they're not the only muscles that you need to focus on, especially when it comes to poses like baddha konasana, agnistambhasana (fire log pose), and forward bending variations of padmasana (lotus) and ardha padmasana (half-lotus).
You can determine which poses you need more of depending on which forward bend you choose to work toward.
If you're working toward this type of forward bend, be sure to include more externally rotated asanas in your sequence, like virabhadrasana II (warrior II), parshvakonasana (extended side angle pose) and trikonasana (triangle pose). Also include preparatory asanas that lengthen the adductors (inner thigh muscles), abductors (outer hip muscles) and piriformis. Some of the poses great for lengthening these hard-to-reach areas include virabhadrasana II and lizard lunge for the inner thighs, reclined gomukasana (cow face legs) and revolved triangle pose (for the abductor group), and any variation of pigeon or figure four for the piriformis. You can determine which poses you need more of depending on which forward bend you choose to work toward.
When utilizing the key actions of forward bends and sequencing them appropriately, forward bends create a path for turning inward, connecting more deeply to both what is happening in the body physically, and what is happening on an emotional level. They offer us the opportunity to release muscular tension, let go of unhealthy movement patterns, reflect on how we feel in the present moment, and to cherish an inner quiet.
As a tree has no attachment to the leaves that fall from its branches in autumn, we can let go of that which is no longer serving us. This allows us to move forward, rediscovering ourselves amidst the quiet felt in forward bending.