This is the first of a regular series in a new series of blog posts exploring some of our favourite asana (postures), and ways to deepen your experience and understanding of them. We’d love to receive your feedback - let us know thoughts, advice or queries in the comments or at the studio!
Simple in concept and form, the seated forward fold can be underrated or perhaps, anxiety causing as a posture.
The common misconception is that one needs to completely hinge forward at the hips in order to experience the ‘full’ shape. This of course, doesn’t happen for all of us, and doesn’t happen on all days - there are skeletal variations (like the shape of your bones and joints) as well as muscular forces that determine your fold.
As with all the postures we practice, there is so much internal nuance to explore beyond the appearance of the shape, and so many benefits to receive.
The Sanskrit name for this asana is quite a mouthful, so it’s fine to use its descriptive name: seated forward fold. Interestingly the Sanskrit translates to ‘intense stretch of the west’ (pashima, ‘west’ / uttana, ‘intense stretch’).*
*Traditionally yoga asana was performed facing the direction of the rising sun (ie. East), which means that the back body becomes the West side, and in this shape, the side receiving an expansive stretch.
Commonly the stretch is cued or felt most intensely in the hamstrings and the lower back: two areas of compression in the lifestyle of the typical Western body (think chair culture). In reality, paschimottanasana is a deep release for the entire back chain of the body, helping us connect to the intrinsic threads of muscles and deep connective tissues that weave from the back of your skull all the way to the thick fascia at the soles of your feet.
This is a wonderful posture before bed, after a long meeting or day, or any time you wish to withdraw from the noise of the outside and tune inward. Perhaps to find a little more quiet, a little more space within.
Physiologically, releasing the back chain of the body can soften into a lot of tension around the shoulders, lumbar and hamstrings.
Energetically, it nurtures a sense of introspection, and a way to re-member the parts of you literally and unseen.
So if you are reaching forward a little, feeling stuck and not much ‘bend’, or if you have so much room in the back body that you don’t feel intensity in the stretch, what can you do to explore the shape?
Tension is the ‘tightness’ we experience on the side of the body being pulled or lengthened. If you are feeling tension along the spine, hips or back of legs, here are a few possibilities:
Elevate the sacrum | Sitting on a cushion or block creates more space for the pelvic bowl to ‘tip forward’ - ie. the belly button moves closer towards the ground. The pelvis is like the soil for the spine, so tilting here creates a longer lumbar spine and more space to hinge at the hips rather than bending into the smaller spaces between the vertebrae.
Bend the knees | If you wish to access the stretch more into the spine, bending the knees softens the tension here and offers more sensation around the lumbar or thoracic (mid) spine.
Use a strap around the feet | Props are around to assist and enhance our practice, so don’t be shy about utilising these! A strap (or scarf, or long sock) gives you an extension to your hands, which means you can draw the strap around the soles of your feet and use each breath to deepen. Inhale - push feet, pull strap, heart forward; exhale, sit-bones draw back towards the ground as you gently fold. Ease into it, breath by breath.
CREATING MORE DEPTH
You might have a forward fold where there is plenty of space to move into, yet it feels more on the side of floppy. Here the challenge might be a sense of strength and containment as we enhance the shape.
If you use your hands around the feet, keep the elbows bent and the collarbones with each inhale; with each exhale it is a bow towards the Earth.
Remember that 'deeper’ does NOT necessarily mean the shape appears more bendy - it is a deeper connection to how the breath affects the shape and your experience of it.
Add length to your legs | Place a block, blanket, book flat against the soles of your feet as an extension for your hands to hold onto. Keep the knees at a micro-bend as you fold. There is a focus on the breath - inhaling to broaden the ribcage and heart forward, exhaling to draw the belly close, sit bones back. Hands and feet/extension of feet are actively interacting to deepen or soften the stretch all along your back chain. Notice where in this chain is most intensely felt, for this day (often hints at our body’s response to the day or week’s activities).
Use a sandbag | This can placed gently along the length of the spine, or perhaps elevating the heels of the feet. The first offers more depth through the action of gravity; the latter creates a longer space for the back of your legs, and thus more room to stretch into.
The sandbag is particularly great for a more Yin approach to the shape - less effort, more yielding into a longer-held release.
Open up space for the belly | Before folding, widen the feet to hip distance or a little broader. This gives you space to fold the abdomen into. Blocks under the feet can also give more room for a deeper hamstring stretch. On the exhale, try pressing the heels forward and down as you simultaneously reach the sit-bones back and down into your mat. This may initiate more intensity along the backs of your legs.
Inhale laterally, and towards the back of the heartspace. Each exhale might scoop the lower belly in and up to help traction the spine.
Try with a partner | Because it’s fun. And because it’s like a sandbag, only better! We do recommend inviting someone of a similar size. The height can be adjusted by adding a block underneath the hips (as pictured). They get a lovely heart-opening backbend too!
Each asana can serve to highlight a spectrum of different qualities within the body.
Depending on how you wish to experience the shape, and which part of the body feels most in need of attention, you can choose your intention for each time you create the posture. You get to choose how you inhabit the home of your body, and that is a pretty empowering place to be.
Did you try the ideas above?
Do you have other suggestions?
The best learning is done together. Email this to a friend, share your thoughts via the comments below, or chat to us next time you pop in the studio!