True to Yourself
The promise of yoga is freedom from suffering. As the sage Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutra, the first step toward this freedom can be found in the practice of the yamas, or restraints. Although restraint and control are often confused with negative concepts like repression or lack of creativity, they guide us to the real goal of yoga: freedom. When you observe restraint in your yoga practice and in your life, you suffer less and cause less suffering for others.
The first two yamas named by Patanjali are ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truthfulness). Employing these in your asana practice means being present with what is happening in your body in each moment and respecting your limitations and boundaries instead of forcing your way into poses. In a pose like Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (Bound Half-Lotus Forward Bend) this means working smart before you work hard. Not a beginning pose, Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana appears early in the Ashtanga primary series. But it often stops students in their tracks, demanding that they recognize their limitations in a very tangible way. To achieve the illusion of the pose, and to move on in the sequence, students commonly push past their limits and distort the posture. They'll bend the knee of the standing leg, push the shoulder out of alignment to clasp the foot, or twist the knee instead of opening the hip to get into Standing Half-Bound Lotus.
But a posture done with integrity is much more beautiful than one based in ego and illusion. Beyond that, the tendency to push is not useful and can lead to a host of injuries. Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana is a pose worth learning for any student—it challenges the hips, ham-strings, and shoulders, and it requires balance. But a better alternative to forcing the pose is to cultivate the qualities of restraint and intelligence.
As you move through the sequence we've created, strive to understand the actions of the pose and then work them intelligently until you can increase the intensity. Pain in any part of the body should not be confused with an "opening"; it is your body sending you a message. In this case, the joint below will suffer for the joint above, so if your hips are tight and you force your way into Half Lotus, your knees will suffer. Instead, choose to honor ahimsa and satya by staying present with what is happening in your body and then adapting your practice, rather than forging ahead unconsciously.
When you approach yoga practice this way, it becomes a tool for observation. You can use it to reveal your limitations and boundaries, your strengths and weaknesses. Instead of practicing a mechanical series of poses, you'll feel fresh and alive with a spirit of wonder and investigation. When you feel the urge to force yourself into a pose, come back to being present with your own body and mind. Work with restraint and investigative intelligence. These qualities are more relevant to the practice of yoga than accomplishing any of the postures.
If you find Ardha Padmasana difficult, use the modifications and variations we've provided throughout the sequence as tools to help you explore. The word vinyasa means "to place in a special way," and krama means "steps." The expression vinyasa krama reminds us to learn things gradually, in stages. If you feel overwhelmed, simplify the work by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable pieces and working on the areas of your body that need opening. Be patient and let your body evolve gradually.
Sucirandhrasana (Eye-of-the-Needle Pose)
We wouldn't normally teach this as the first pose in your practice, but it is such an excellent way to safely open the hips that we wanted to include it. If you regularly incorporate it into your finishing postures (especially if you have difficulty with Half Lotus), you'll notice a dramatic change in the flexibility of your hips over time.
Center yourself on your mat with your legs up the wall. Bring your sitting bones close to the wall unless your hamstrings are stiff, in which case you may need to move slightly farther away from the wall. If your hamstrings are tight and you're too close to the wall, your buttocks will lift off the floor and your lower back will round. Give yourself enough space that your lower back stays extended in its slight natural curve. Now straighten your legs and reach through the heels.
Glide your shoulder blades toward the wall, then use the mat to anchor them into the ground. Broaden across the collarbones and lift your breastbone away from your navel. Done correctly, this will open your chest and press your sitting bones toward the wall. Place your arms at your sides and rotate the upper arms and hands open. Close your eyes for a few moments and focus on your breath.
Again, observe the position of your sacrum and lower back. Aim for a neutral pelvis by aligning your frontal pelvic bones and your pubic bone on a level plane. This will create a gentle, natural curve to your lumbar spine (the degree of curvature will vary from person to person). If the pelvis is not aligned correctly, the work will not be deep or accurate in the hip.
Take a few breaths, and then bend the right knee, placing the outside of the right ankle below your left knee. As you flex the right foot, extend through the inner and outer heel. Gently move the right knee toward the wall. Do not use your hands to press your knee; find the action from inside. Keep the sitting bones even and the pelvis neutral. Resist rounding the lower back as you work the sitting bones and chest away from each other.
To increase the work, bend your left knee and press the sole of the left foot into the wall. Continue to move the right knee away from your chest. There should be no pressure in the knee and no distortion in the sitting bones or the lower back; the work should come from deep inside the hip socket. Over time the left foot will move down the wall and the right shin will be parallel to the floor, but do not be in a hurry! Stay present and true to the moment and to your Self. Stay for one to five minutes on the right side, bring both legs up the wall, and switch sides.
Now you are ready to begin the full practice. The standing sequence in the Ashtanga series is a wonderful warm-up for Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. You may also create a sequence using poses that emphasize external rotation in your hips, like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), and Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II). Repeat these poses in addition to Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) several times, to prepare yourself thoroughly for the poses that follow.
Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
In Uttanasana, your ankles, knees, and hips should be aligned vertically. Since it's common in standing forward bends to distort the body's vertical plumb line by leaning back and putting too much weight in the heels, use a wall as a reference point.
Stand with your back to the wall. Place your feet about a foot away from it and fold forward. Walk your feet back until your heels, sitting bones, and the backs of your legs are touching the wall. If your hands do not reach the floor, use blocks or even a chair for support.
Next, separate your feet hip-width apart. Position your feet so that the inner edges are parallel to each other; point the second toe forward and align it with the center of the heel. Spread the soles of your feet open. Place equal energy on the inner and outer foot and on the front and back of each foot. This is your foundation! Stand on your feet equally. Pay attention to your existing habits or tendencies. Walk your hands forward to lengthen the front of the body. Reach the crown of your head away from your tailbone, draw your shoulders down away from your ears, and broaden across your collarbone. Extend your sternum away from your navel as you gaze softly downward.
Lift your inner and outer ankles up. Draw energy up your legs and firm each side of your thigh evenly—the front, the back, the inside, and the outside. Notice if one side is sleepy and wake it up with your attention. To stabilize the pose, firm your outer hips in and draw the inner legs up. If this is difficult, start by visualizing these actions.
Now, let the wall inform you of how straight your plumb line is. The sitting bones should be in line with the heels, but they should not spread farther apart or the sacrum will become hard and hollow, which can injure the sacral area. If you are more flexible, you can work harder to draw the sides of the thighs in toward the midline of your body.
The bottom of the leg and the top of the leg should be vertical. If your calves touch the wall sooner than the backs of your thighs, you might be using your knees to straighten the legs. Instead of forcing your knees back, bend them slightly and then resist your calves away from the wall toward the front of your shinbones as you simultaneously firm the tops of your thighs to straighten your legs.
Finally, release the torso straight down, lengthening all four sides evenly. Do not concern yourself with getting your forehead on your shins. Instead of rounding your back, work on lengthening your spine in the forward fold. Allow the top of your head to release toward the floor. Keep your shoulders away from the ears and soften your facial muscles. Stay here for 10 breaths.
Standing Pigeon Pose
This variation establishes the actions you'll need to complete the final posture. Before moving into the pose, visualize the right alignment and remember your intention. Avoid using the force of your will—do not mistake force for intensity. Instead, use your intelligence, set your intention to work within your boundaries, and then add intensity. In other words, work smart, using restraint when you need to, and then work hard.
Stand tall with your weight balanced between both feet in Samasthiti (Equal Standing). Bend your right knee and draw the right leg up toward your chest, keeping your standing leg engaged. Cradle your ankle from below with both hands to avoid injuring your right knee—this instruction is very important. If you reach over the top and hold the front of the foot, the knee joint can close, putting pressure on the inner knee and overstretching the outer knee. Next, flex the right foot and extend out evenly through the inner and outer heel. Avoid puffing the outer ankle or sickling the right foot, which will overstretch that ankle.
Bring your attention to your standing leg and draw your outer left hip toward the midline. Level and square the two frontal pelvic bones and see that your pelvis is in a neutral position. Resist rounding your back by drawing the top of your standing leg toward the back of the leg. Now lift the frontal pelvic bones to help elongate the lower back. Open the chest and heart, and softly gaze straight ahead. Stay for 5 to 10 breaths and then repeat the pose on the other side.
If this variation is challenging, stop here. This is a safe and intelligent place to work toward the final pose. Maintain the integrity of the work you have been doing. If you treat yourself with compassion, the pose will naturally unfold over time.
Standing Half-Bound Lotus
Now, from Standing Pigeon, rotate your thigh from deep inside the hip and begin to move toward Half Lotus. Draw your right heel toward the front of your navel as you release the knee down away from the hip. Eventually the heel will rest directly below your navel and the rest of the foot will nestle high up on the crease of the thigh. Again, avoid puffing the outer ankle; keep the inner and outer heel reaching evenly.
Keep the shoulders square with the front of your mat. Maintaining that, slowly reach your right hand behind your back and try to clasp your right foot on the big-toe side. Hold your right wrist with your left hand.
If your standing knee bends or your hips distort when you clasp, it means that you need to work on opening your hips. Come back to your intention and use restraint. Remember the meaning of vinyasa and take a gradual, step-by-step approach. Try clasping the foot with the left hand. Wrap your right arm behind your back and hold on to your left wrist with your right hand. If your body is still distorted, go back to a previous pose that feels more appropriate to your body.
Gaze forward and pause here, working to intelligently open the right leg: To rotate the leg from deep inside the hip, lengthen your right inner thigh toward the inner knee as you draw the skin of the outer knee up toward the hip. Continue this loop of energy to protect the knee and open the hip.
As the knee extends downward from the hip, draw the knee back to line up with the standing leg. Lift the frontal pelvic bones up and keep the hips level. These actions will further stretch the Half Lotus thigh and challenge the groins. When you have the correct form and intention, and you feel a natural opening in your right hip, you can increase your intensity by moving onto the next (and final) posture. Otherwise, be content where you are and breathe smoothly and deeply.
Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (Bound Half-Lotus Forward Bend)
It's helpful to learn Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana without clasping first. Begin in Standing Half-Bound Lotus without clasping your foot. Maintain all of the Samasthiti and Padmasana actions in your legs as you exhale and fold into Uttanasana. If you cannot reach the floor, either work on the previous pose or place your hands on blocks.
Place both hands on the floor and line up your fingers with your toes. Inhale and lengthen your torso as you would in Ardha Uttanasana (Half-Standing Forward Bend). Remember that lengthening your spine is friendly to your body, while rounding and forcing happen when your ego takes over. If you notice that your standing foot is wobbling, emphasize the work you did in Uttanasana with the feet and ankles to create stability. Press all four corners of the foot down strongly as you firm the outer ankle in and lift the inner arch up. Now, exhale, bend your elbows straight back in line with your wrists, and lengthen into Uttanasana.
Find the intelligence of Uttanasana in the standing leg by firming all four sides evenly and aligning the upper leg with the lower leg so that the leg is vertical and not bowing back. Then look at the Half Lotus knee and make sure that it is in line with, or forward of, the standing leg—it will have a tendency to move behind the standing knee. Square your hips and make them level.
Finally, check in with your intention. Are you forcing, or are you present and calm, breathing freely? Try wrapping your arm and clasping your foot. It is easier to clasp while you are in the forward bend than while upright. To come up, release the clasp. This will help you come up with a straight leg. Maintain the actions in the standing leg, press strongly into the foot, lengthen your spine and chest, and inhale back up to standing.
Once you have taught yourself to come up with a straight leg, it's time to begin clasping in the upright position. Create the actions of Samasthiti in your left foot and leg and slowly bring the right leg into Half Lotus. Without distorting your body, take your right arm behind you and clasp the right big toe. Pause and find all the actions previously taught in your legs and hips; maintain these actions as you move into the pose.
On an exhalation, fold forward and place the left hand on the ground next to the left foot, fingertips in line with your toes. Inhale and come halfway up to Ardha Uttanasana. Lengthen all sides of the torso evenly; make the front of the body as long as the back. Draw the shoulders away from your ears, keeping them level and square. Gently draw the back ribs into the body as you elongate the sternum forward.
With an exhalation, bend the left elbow straight back and lengthen your torso into Uttanasana. Relax your neck and let the crown of the head fall toward the floor rather than toward the shinbone. Eventually the chin will rest on the shin and you'll gaze softly at the big toe. Do not let this tempt you to push and lose integrity.
Stay here for five breaths. To come up, press down with your left foot, keep your leg very active, extend the chest, and inhale to come up. Pause in this position before you release the leg. Gently release the foot and pause in Samasthiti before you do the other side.
When you practice Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, remember that the depth of the pose is not the goal. Look for the simple, honest, and quiet nature of each posture and you'll find that no asana is difficult or easy; it is just truth unfolding. When you practice with the focus on ahimsa and satya you'll experience yoga's promise of freedom—peace in your mind and in your body.