For Beginners: Supta Padangusthasana
Although we've all seen images of yogis effortlessly draping their torsos onto their thighs, for most beginners the moon seems closer and more attainable than a forward bend. In my beginners classes, I hear a steady chorus of "My hamstrings are so tight!" And such complaints make sense. When your hamstrings are tight, forward bending, twisting, inverting, and just plain sitting become much more difficult—and much less enjoyable.
Yet even though stretching your tight hamstrings should be a high priority, standing and seated forward bends pose dangers. Tight hamstrings pull down on the sitting bones, rotating the bottom of your pelvis forward. With your pelvis tucked under and your ego demanding that you bend forward anyway (everyone else in class is doing it!), you can easily stretch your lower back instead of your hamstrings—a perfect recipe for lower back strain (or even more serious injury).
Fortunately, the benevolent yoga deities gave us Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose), a safe method for stretching your pesky hamstrings, bringing more freedom to your back, pelvis, and hips, and thus opening the door to many other poses. In this reclining pose, gravity won't force your back to bear the weight of your torso, as it does in standing and seated forward bends; instead, once you can bring your leg to a vertical position, gravity helps you stretch your hamstrings. As long as you keep your hips and back releasing into the floor, you won't strain your lower back.
To practice Supta Padangusthasana, begin by lying on your back with both knees bent and your feet on the floor. Bend your right knee into your chest, place a belt around the ball of your right foot, and straighten your right leg toward the ceiling. If your leg ends up further away from you than directly vertical, congratulations! You're a member of the Tight Hamstring Club. Your hamstrings will tend to curl the base of your pelvis up off the floor. To counteract this, bend your right knee until your sitting bones drop toward the ground.
Holding an end of the belt in each hand, keep your elbows straight and the weight of your arms falling from your right foot so that your shoulder blades remain on the floor rather than hunching forward. If you are more flexible and can hold your right big toe with the first two fingers of your right hand while keeping your shoulder blades on the floor, you can dispense with the belt and bring your left arm to the floor. Whether you're holding a belt or your big toe, don't use a death grip; soften your hands, relax and lengthen the back of your neck, and let your backside muscles release into the floor.
Allow yourself to relax into the pose even as you concentrate on the stretch. Breathe deeply and evenly, soften your face and eyes, and keep your peripheral vision gently active as you gaze with concentration at your right big toe. If your big toe is out of sight, focus on a single spot on the ceiling. Every time you inhale, feel your breath slightly strengthen your legs. Every time you exhale, feel your muscles release and your hip joints gratefully open. Let your back muscles drop into the floor and your belly relax back into your spine as the pose soaks into your body.
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