Forward Folds: Going Back Home

November 17, 2014    BY Claudia Cummins

I fall forward. My body folds into some exotic yoga pose with an unpronounceable name. I settle down into the earth and fall away from anything that hustles or bustles, far from anything that has a name. My nose nestles toward my knees and my mind sinks into darkness, into a daylight version of night, into unknown and mysterious lands. I feel calm and still, cool and humble, wet and clean. And finally—fully breathable.

When I emerge I feel refreshed. I feel a little taller—balanced, intact, and unruffled. My body feels anchored in a peaceful oasis of goodness and ease. And my brain feels rinsed clean, as it would on a sultry summer afternoon with no big deal of an agenda. Thus, in climbing back into my own skin and watering my inner roots, I seem to gain a faithfulness that nourishes me and carries me through the day.

It’s no wonder we bow forward in devotion and thanksgiving. And it’s no wonder I’ve recently come to love the way I feel when falling into forward bends likepashchimottanasana, settling my legs deep into the ground, challenging them to be alert yet at ease. I love the way my body briefly flies up when I move into the pose, as if wondering whether to arc backward before deciding to dive forward instead. I even love that first pull of resistance that always surprises me (I could go farther than this yesterday) and the brief flash of ambition that urges me to push hard, go far, bury my nose deeper than it’s ever gone before.

It’s no wonder we bow forward in devotion and thanksgiving.

And then comes the whisper that less is more, that slow is sweet, that patience is well rewarded. Then that gentle give, the swallow that lets the clingy parts inside release so I can melt a little farther forward. And then I drop again, and water my pose with breath and patient attention. Most of all, I love the gentle slumber of disappearing altogether in this little nest of a pose, settling into that same oasis of calm and peace that must lie at the heart of the whole wide world.

I’ve fallen into forward bends through the back door. Generally I like mountaintops and thick coffee and electrifying sunrises full of possibility. Neither my body nor my brain stay still for long, and I thrive on challenge and effort. It’s probably no surprise, then, that I’m endlessly captivated by exotic and sky-shifting backward bends. So entranced, in fact, that a few years ago I asked a teacher if it was possible to do too many backward bends. “For you,” he proclaimed, “Four days of forward bends a week!”

I’m not one to follow instructions blindly—especially ones I don’t particularly like—so I didn’t exactly dive headlong into forward bends. But after finally mustering up the courage to explore the teacher’s suggestion, I can see why I was offered the forward-bending prescription. If backward bends are fireworks—big and expansive and attention-grabbing—then forward bends are those clean and quiet moments after a spring shower when the rain has passed and freshness lingers on. They demand deep flexibility and freedom in important realms of our body. They also require tremendous reserves of patience, perseverance, and humility. They’re the antithesis of being active, bold, caffeinated, and extroverted. Perhaps that’s why they feel so un-American.

Forward bends are all about going back. Back inside. Back to the beginning. Back to the night, to our roots. And back to the oft-neglected lands inside that only make themselves known with calm and patient attention. There’s a quieter, more soulful presence that evolves from this way of being. A quietness that comes from being arced and rolled, softened and nurtured deep within the curl of a long and lovely forward bend.

Lately I’ve found myself sprawled out on my sticky mat, pouring through yoga books like a world traveler plotting the next forward-bending expedition. Some poses call out for no apparent reason, even ones I’ve never seen before. Guided by a photo in a book, I find my way into akarna dhanurasana, which really does feel like the name implies—an arrow pulled back tautly in its bow and ready to be launched across the landscape. I’ve also made friends with kurmasana, the turtle pose, which some texts say is sacred to a yogi for the feeling it evokes of having awakened from a deep and blissful sleep. And I’m drawn to the rather daunting pose chakorasana, just because it’s named after a mythical partridge that feeds on moonbeams. I see these amazing shapes and my body yearns to transmute itself into a spider, a cricket, a bird, a primordial creature oozing across the oceans of the world.

Some poses call out for no apparent reason, even ones I’ve never seen before.

Some days my forward bends are as quiet as a windless pond, as still as unmoved earth. I do nothing but settle in. As I do, I grow aware of the quiet throttle of my inner motor—like the little engine that could, never stopping, never resting. But after a few minutes, my energetic gears begin to shift and settle quietly into neutral. Thankfulness descends and I idle happily for a little while.

Other days my forward bends crave movement. I inhale and my belly rolls up, picking my back up with it. I exhale and my belly surges forward in a deeply satisfying pulse. This action continues, guided by my breath, until my spine becomes as fluid as the waves rolling up and down the beach. I bob and soar and sink and roll, as my torso sails unfathomably forward. Yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli once wrote, “There is such happiness in this undulation!”

Here’s my recent favorite recipe for falling forward: I start out in the most supported child’s pose imaginable, with my whole torso—from hips to head—supported on a pile of blankets, my arms and legs dangling toward the floor like Tarzan’s vines hanging from the trees. I rest here for several minutes, until I reluctantly tear myself from the quiet safety of this pose. Then I slide my hips off the bolster, rearrange my legs into upavishtha konasana, and rest my upper body on the support before me. I nestle a few beanbags underneath my belly, my heart, and my forehead, so these vital energetic centers can release completely.

Then I let go. I breathe, I settle, I surrender into that same deep peace I feel after a week away at the beach with not a care in the world. My front body relaxes in ways that seem unfathomable when I’m holding my head up high. And the chain of armor inside my chest—that part of me that lifts and hardens and strains to say, “I am here!”—begins to quietly erode.

After a moment or two, I slip one blanket out from under me, slowly sliding my torso a little closer to the floor. Every few minutes I repeat this, my bolster growing smaller and my body melting deeper into the pose. At some point along the way my breath begins to unfold from a deeper and more primal place, giving way to long and gentle waves of exhalation. Only after this shift do I recognize how painfully abbreviated my normal exhalations can be. This realization, along with my newfound baby’s breath, never fails to bring a smile and a big fat sigh of relief.

As I’ve been falling forward, I’ve begun to see more clearly the relationship between will and surrender, between effort and release, between pose and repose, between change and acceptance. My body has found new and quieter ways of being in the world. I’ve gotten a little better at waiting, at letting go of the reins I sometimes cling to so fiercely, and letting things blossom in their own remarkable way. Lately I’ve been just a little more content to settle in and watch the passing show.

My body has found new and quieter ways of being in the world.

I’ve also begun to wonder whether enlightenment may just be the simplicity that comes with letting go of melodrama. When I’m deep within a forward fold I can sometimes actually see the wild fantasies swirling up inside of me, grasping and groping to pull me off my mark. When I’m patient and courageous I can outwait these illusionary dramas until they drop away completely and I begin to see life as it really is, here and now, fresh and unimpeded. Breath by breath, falling forward returns me to that state of “bare attention” the Buddhists love so much—simply attending to the raw and wonderful ingredients of the moment. Often we need less, not more.

So perhaps forward bends help us remember the middle way. They help us see that life moves forward as well as back, that endless running in one direction may be the easier solution, but it’s not often the wisest or most healthy. They help us see that sitting still, quiet and undisturbed, can be as interesting and rich as big-bang epiphanies, and that surrender sometimes tastes even sweeter than will.

Yoga is about having the wisdom to see what we need and having the courage to seek it.

I love the idea that yoga is about equanimity, that we’re seeking not the extremes but the middle way. That yoga is about finding a calm and clear home inside and staying rooted there regardless of the passing outer weather. That yoga is about having the wisdom to see what we need and having the courage to seek it. Sometimes we need just the opposite of what we think. And sometimes the path winds deep into unexplored territories in ways we never could imagine, merely to lead us happily back home.

Claudia Cummins
Claudia Cummins lives, writes, and teaches yoga in Mansfield, OH.