When it comes to the physical body, yogis are primarily concerned with two areas: the spine and the abdomen. The most powerful and highly regarded asanas target one or both of these areas. Forward-bending poses focus on both, which is why they constitute such an important part of any asana practice, and why there are many different forward bends, each with its particular benefit and focal point.
On the physical level, forward bends lengthen the spine; stretch the erector spinae muscles along the spine from the neck to the sacrum; stretch the shoulder girdle muscles and the back of the legs; and improve circulation to the legs, spine, and abdomen. They massage the abdominal organs, improve digestion and elimination, and tone both the reproductive organs and the kidneys. They’re great for those who sit too much and do too little; they’re important for those who engage in vigorous exercise like jogging or tennis and need to stretch their overworked legs and back; and they can benefit those with back problems by releasing tension in the lower back.
On the energetic level, forward bends bring energy through the spine, pelvis, lower back, abdomen, and legs. The energy-flow through the pelvis into the legs is often blocked—tension locks up the sacrum and hip joints, and stagnant energy accumulates in the abdomen—so opening the flow through the spine, pelvis, and legs is important and necessary for healthy physiological and mechanical functioning. That is why releasing tension patterns with forward bends is deeply rejuvenating and energizing.
On the mental level, forward bends are soothing and quieting. They engender an inward focus, making them effective counterposes to more vigorous practices like backward bends and inverted poses. They are also a good preparation for meditation or pranayama, and an antidote to anxiety and impatience. Those of us immersed in the pressure cooker of modern life with its undercurrents of unease and angst will particularly benefit from properly practiced forward bends.
Janu shirshasana, the head-to-knee pose, is one of the more popular and accessible seated forward bends. If you are a bit stiff in the lower back and/or the back of the legs, janu shirshasana is particularly effective since it works one side at a time, allowing you to more fully open the back of the leg, release tensions in the sacrum, and adjust the alignment of the pelvis. Janu shirshasana is also an excellent preparation for the more demanding forward bends like paschimottanasana, the full posterior stretch.
Begin in dandasana, the stick pose. Sit erect and stretch your legs straight out in front of you. If you are unable to sit up straight with the spine and legs forming a right angle—in other words, if your lower back is rounded to the back, and the lumbar spine has reversed its normal curve—you will need either to bend the knees or to elevate the base of the spine with a cushion or folded blankets to achieve the correct alignment.
Extend up through the crown of the head and down through the tailbone. Keep the legs active: the kneecaps pulled up, the thigh bones pressing down, the heels reaching out, the toes spread and stretched up, the inner edges of the legs and feet stretching out. Press the fingertips or hands into the floor to help extend the spine up. This basic alignment is the foundation for janu shirshasana.
Now bend the left knee and bring the heel to the pubic bone and the toes to the inner right thigh. Press the left knee and thigh into the floor. Extend out through the right leg, draw the kneecap up, press the thigh bone into the floor, and spread the toes as you press the heel away from the body. If you need support under the hips, use a folded blanket or cushion as in dandasana, or bend the right knee to free up the lower back and allow the lumbar spine to lift.
A forward bend from dandasana comes from a rotation around the hip joints that allows the torso to fold over the legs. If the lower back or the back of the legs are stiff and prohibit this forward tilt of the pelvis, you will strain the lower back and sacroiliac joint if you try to force yourself into a forward bend. A prop under the sit bones (or bending the knee) may free up the lower back enough to allow the pelvis to tilt forward. Without this correct alignment there is little benefit in attempting a forward bend, and in fact you may overstretch and injure your back.
With the correct alignment in the spine, rotate the pelvis forward, using the abdominal muscles to draw the pelvis over the thigh. Center the torso over the extended leg, and extend the spine up as you rotate the pelvis forward. Keep the spine, including the back of the neck, long in this first step. Place the hands on the floor alongside the leg (or on the leg) and draw the shoulders down.
Slowly deepen the pose forward: elongating on the inhalation, and deepening forward on the exhalation. Lead with the chest: lift the chest away from the pelvis on the inhalation, and draw the pubic bone down with the exhalation. Avoid the common problem of collapsing the chest over the pelvis in an effort to make the pose appear more complete. Press the left (folded) knee into the floor, and keep the right leg active, toes and kneecap up.
Continue drawing forward, keeping the spine extended, and bring the abdomen over the thigh, the chest over the knee, the face above the shin. Contract the deep abdominal muscles above the pubic bone to draw the pelvis forward. Roll the right leg in slightly to counter the tendency for it to roll out. If the toes are within easy reach, grasp the foot with both hands, and gently pull against the foot to encourage the upper back and the shoulders to extend.
Do not hunch the shoulders or struggle to reach the toes! The extension comes from the spine and the length of the torso and rotation of the pelvis. “Head beyond knee pose,” my first teacher insisted. Her choice of prepositions was a reminder to lengthen the whole front of the body over the leg and to lengthen the entire spine. Eventually you may reach the arms beyond the foot, clasping the wrist with one hand to get this feeling of extending the upper back.
If the feet are not comfortably within reach, keep the hands on the shin or floor, or wrap a strap around the foot and gently lengthen the upper back as you draw against the foot. Be gentle and maintain a sensitive awareness in your back so that you use the strap to deepen the stretch and connect the lines of energy in the legs and upper spine.
Keep the abdominal muscles active so the lumbar spine is drawn forward with that action, not from pulling on the foot. Also be careful not to hyperextend the knee. Keep the knee joint firm, but not locked. Feel the stretch from the heel evenly through the whole length of the leg. Stretch from the heel to the knee and from the knee to the hip. Avoid tension in the joint, and draw the kneecap up.
If you immediately meet with enormous resistance and discomfort, don’t be discouraged! Changing your attitude and adjusting the way in which you work the pose will enhance the benefits. If you are struggling and fighting with yourself, you will exacerbate the physical limitations you are hoping to overcome. Cultivate an attitude of contentment, ease, and surrender.
Breathe and focus on diffusing the intensity of the resistance, and be aware of the lines of energy-flow through the whole body; don’t hone in on the resistance you feel. Draw the tension out of the pattern of holding and direct it elsewhere with your awareness. Be easy everywhere in the body, so that the lines of flow are open when the tension starts to release. Be easy but alert, relaxed but aware, and don’t hesitate to back off a little if the pose becomes too intense. Sometimes releasing our defenses makes us aware of corrections that paradoxically allow us to deepen the pose even as we back off it. Enjoy the pose! Stay for at least a minute, and gradually work up to several minutes.
To come out of the pose, release the inner exertion and release the hands. Inhale and lift the spine from deep within the abdomen, extending out and up as you come back to center. Then unfold the left knee. Shake out any tension in the knees. Then fold the right knee out to the side and repeat the pose on the other side.
If you are adept in the half lotus pose, you’ll also want to try ardha baddha padma pashchimottanasana, the half-bound lotus posterior stretch, a more difficult seated forward bend that intensifies many of the benefits of the head-to-knee pose by deeply stimulating the abdomen and aligning the pelvis as it stretches the hip rotators.
A seated forward bend in the half lotus position focuses energy in the abdomen and lower back, aligning the sacrum, deeply stimulating the abdominal organs, and magnifying the effects of janu shirshasana on the abdomen. The strong stretch to the hip rotators also makes the half-bound lotus a good preparation for the full lotus. The first requirement is comfort in the half lotus pose (ardha padmasana). A leg cradle will prepare you for the half lotus by opening up the hip joint.
From dandasana bend the left knee out to the side and hold the bottom of the foot with the right hand, and the knee with the left hand. Maintaining an erect spine, draw the leg toward your chest, keeping the foot and the knee equidistant from the torso. Rotate the hip open and move the thigh out to the side, gently drawing the lower leg toward the chest. Lift the lumbar spine and stretch out through the right leg, keeping the toes and the knee straight up. You may be able to place the sole of the left foot in the crook of the right elbow, and the knee in the left elbow, cradling the lower left leg in the arms. Hold for a minute or longer, rocking very slightly and gently from side to side if you like, softening the hip joint. Avoid torque or rotation in either the knee joint or the ankle joint. Bring the thigh closer to the body to open the hip joint.
Now lower the left foot onto the top of the right thigh so that the heel presses into the lower right abdomen, the outer edge of the foot rests in the crease between the thigh and pelvis, and the toes extend over the edge of the hip. You should feel no strain in the knee. If you are not comfortable in this position, go no further! Return to the leg cradle and janu shirshasana.
If you are comfortable in half lotus, proceed into a forward bend as for janu shirshasana. Rotate the pelvis forward on the exhalation by contracting the abdominal muscles you can now feel under your left heel. Press out through the inner edge of the right heel and the ball of the foot. Square the pelvis and chest over the right leg. Lift the chest up away from the pelvis as you deepen the bend at the hip joints step by step. If possible, grasp the outer edges of the right foot with your hands and extend the torso forward from the hip joints as before. Breathe deep into the abdomen.
If you are comfortable here, try the half-bound version of the forward bend. First lift the torso enough to roll the left shoulder open and to slip the left arm behind the waist, and grasp the left toes which are extending beyond the hip. Then again square the pelvis and chest over the right leg, lift the chest, and extend the spine forward. Keep the back of the neck long. Reach out through the top of the head. Draw the abdomen to the thigh, and the chest and head out over the leg, bringing the face to the shin as before, if possible. Enjoy the fullness of the breath.
The half-bound lotus version of the forward bend draws the shoulder and chest open, keeping the front of the torso broad and encouraging the front side to lengthen. This pose has pronounced effects on the abdomen, lower back, and back of the legs; it also strengthens the shoulders, knees, hips, and ankles.
Stay for a minute or longer. Then release the hand and arm, and stretch out and up to lift the torso back to center. Gently unfold the knee and massage it to release any tension. Then draw the kneecap up, and stretch the leg out on the floor. Repeat the pose on the other side.