Seat Borward Bend Pose
by Barbara Benagh
A Delicate Balance or Balancing on the Edge
Now that you have warmed up by practicing preparatory asanas, you're ready for Paschimottanasana. Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose), sitting on the floor with your legs stretched straight out in front of you. Position your pelvis at a right angle to your legs and vertically extend your spine. Again, if you cannot do this, elevate your hips with a folded blanket under your buttocks. If you are fairly flexible keep your feet together; if not, place them hip-width apart. Either way your legs should be parallel, so your knees face up, and your feet and legs should be active. I have noticed that sometimes when I direct a student to be more active in their legs, they completely stiffen the legs, particularly the feet and upper thighs. But you should only engage your leg muscles enough to maintain the alignment and extension of the limb. Mistaking overeffort for vitality will just restrict you more.
Explore the difference for yourself. Roll your legs in and out a few times, beginning the movement in your hips. This movement alone can ease some of your muscular tension. Then just let your legs relax. With your thumb gently probe the area where your leg joins the hip. Along the outer top thigh you will probably feel the tendon of one of the quadriceps muscles: It's kind of ropy. Keep pressing the area as you tighten your leg. If you couldn't feel the tendon before, you will now, because it will harden and pop up. Relax your leg again. Now, very slowly, extend the back of your leg, turning both legs so they are parallel and the kneecaps point straight up, while trying to keep the quadriceps tendon soft. Of course, it will display some action, but I want you to recognize the difference between using and overusing your quadriceps. Continue to play with this balance until you can dynamically extend each leg using minimal effort. Using less effort lets the upper thighs lift without tightening, liberates the hamstrings, and allows space in the hips, thus making the coming forward bend easier.
Now let's work on the actions of the feet. Begin by noticing their first cousins, your hands. Open your hands, feeling the stretch as the palm widens and your fingers spread. Replicate these movements in the feet, widening the instep and separating the balls of your toes. Extend forward evenly with all five toe joints and with the center of your heels. As with the leg action, seek a dynamic, attentive movement that isn't tense.
Continue these actions in your legs and feet and exhale as you ground your thighbones, rotate your pelvis forward, and hold the outer arches of your feet. Holding your feet is an anchor that may help you release muscle tension, but don't pull yourself over your legs with your arms; this may strain your back. Retain the quietness in your upper thighs so your pelvis will more easily glide over the head of the femur. Keep your chest softly open, your head in line with your spine, and your neck soft and long (Figure 3). Most importantly, maintain fluid length in your spine.
When we practice forward bends, our backs are strongly stretched. Like Goldilocks, finding what is "just right" can be a challenge. If you hold your back too straight, you may develop habits that make your spine rigid. But if you round your spine too much, you compress your chest, put stress on the lumbar ligaments, and retard the forward rotation of the pelvis. A well-integrated spine barely curves, like a lens, rising gently and comfortably from the pelvis. To accomplish this "just right" spinal alignment, you may need to change your grip and hold your ankles or a strap looped around your feet. You may even have to bend your knees slightly. And every so often I encounter a student who, because of injury or extreme inflexibility, simply cannot approach this pose. For them, I suggest lying on the back with the legs up the wall, letting the hip joint open passively. Always remember that the integrity of your spine is of primary importance.
Once you have found a position that suits you, close your eyes and turn your attention inward as you begin to refine and deepen the asana. In our concern about the mechanical details, it's easy to overlook the internal environment of mind and breath. Your breath is a reliable guide as your progress in Paschimottonasana becomes more subtle. As your forward bend evolves, your exhalation should naturally lengthen. If it doesn't, you're forcing the pose.
As the difficulty of the pose increases, you may become so disappointed or frustrated that you are just going through the motions, no longer fully present. Or you may become so focused on getting your torso onto your legs that you miss the nuances of the process. With practice, you will realize your body has its own timetable, the pace at which it can change and grow. By following the pulse of your breath, you respect your innate process, develop insight, and, eventually, deepen your pose.
Staying in touch with your breathing, recall the quality of deep hip opening that you felt in Janu Sirsasana. As you did then, use an exhalation to coax space for your lower abdomen in your inner hips. At the same time, keep your upper thighs rooted and your spine neutral. Because of the angle of your torso, gravity is your ally once again. As your pelvis is freed, gravity will eventually pull your torso and head to your legs, allowing them to rest there.
• Tones abdominal organs and kidneys
• Stretches legs and spine
• Calms the nerves
• Quiets the mind
• Lumber disc injuries
• Sacrolliac strain
• Acute depression
• If pregnant, position legs wider apart