“I’m so inflexible I can barely touch my toes.” As a yoga teacher, I hear this again and again. I’ve even seen people spontaneously bend over to reach for their feet to demonstrate their tightness. I try to explain that you don’t have to be flexible when you start practicing yoga: The act of doing yoga helps you build the flexibility and strength you need. Even if you can easily get your hands to your toes in forward-bending poses, that’s not necessarily a good measure of your overall flexibility. What really matters are the actions you take to get them there.
If you focus on going deeply into a forward bend, such as the seated forward bend Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), and your hamstrings and glutes are tight, you’ll bend from the spine: The tailbone will tuck under, the upper back will round, and the backs of the knees will pop off the floor. In this case, even though you might still be able to reach your toes, you’d be missing the true benefit of the pose. The goal of a forward bend is not, in fact, to “bend” but instead to fully extend and lengthen your spine while stretching the back of your body—your hamstrings, gluteal muscles, and spinal muscles—to the extent that’s appropriate for you. Although you don’t want to bend your spine in Janu Sirsasana, there are three joints you do want to bend in the pose: the hips, the knee of the bent leg, and the elbows. Learning to bend in all the right places allows you to create length and extension in the spine.
Bending at the hip joints is crucial in any forward bend. It allows the torso to extend forward while the spinal muscles stay relaxed. If your hamstrings and glutes are tight and you feel your tailbone tucking under, sit up on a folded blanket or two. Feel as though you are sitting directly on top of your sitting bones and that your pelvis is tilting forward.
Having one knee bent in Janu Sirsasana makes it different from other seated forward bends. The action of bending one leg helps alleviate the pull of tight hamstrings and gluteal muscles on that side of your body. The added mobility allows you to extend the abdomen farther forward.
The final bend in the pose is at the elbows. When you clasp your foot (or a strap) and bend your elbows, the pull of the arms helps lift the chest upward, which lengthens the upper spine. And gently pulling the shoulders back helps maintain this extension. Practicing the variations taught here will help you find extension in your spine. In the first variation, focus on balancing your weight evenly on both sitting bones and on stretching your arms upward. Lengthen the sides of the waist equally to lift the spine and tone the abdomen. In the second variation, focus on bending at the hips as you lean forward and hold your foot. Firm your arms to lift your chest and extend it forward as you press the back of your legs to the floor. In the final variation, lengthen your spine completely from the bottom to the top. Bending your elbows out to the sides allows the chest to further expand and frees the upper spine to move inward toward the heart.
Extending the spine and stretching the back body in a seated forward bend can have a calming effect. Practicing these poses can improve digestion and soothe the nervous system. You experience these benefits by practicing a progressive series of actions: stretching and releasing tension in the back of the body, bending at the joints with skill and attention, and lengthening the spine before folding forward. When you practice Janu Sirsasana this way, not only will touching your toes become easier, but you’ll be getting the benefits of fully extending your spine and expanding your chest.
A Deeper Stretch
After practicing Janu Sirsasana, a one-legged forward bend, you’ll be better prepared for a full, two-legged stretch. Practice the pose several times on each side, and then stretch both legs out and join them in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Reach for both feet and see if you are able to bend forward more easily in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend).
Step 1: Stretch the Sides and Lift the Spine
Reach your arms tall and press down through your sitting bones.