This is the season for turning inward—darkness surpasses light, animals begin to hibernate, and the natural world quiets down in preparation for the months ahead. Your practice can benefit when you align with the changing seasons. Take a break from striving on your mat by trying a forward-bending practice. "Forward bends are, by their nature, introspective and meditative," says Boston teacher Barbara Benagh. "Forward bends are calming to the nerves, soothing, and grounding. These poses teach us that yoga is as much about surrender as effort, if not more so."
Benagh's practice begins with reclining hip openers to relax your back muscles and warm your hip joints. From there, her sequence moves into seated forward bends that emphasize a passive stretch of the back muscles while providing a gentle abdominal massage. Hold each pose for up to five minutes to give your muscles time to relax and your breath a chance to deepen. Also, be sure to practice asymmetrical poses such as Ardha Ananda Balasana (Half Happy Baby Pose) and Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose) on both sides before moving on.
A willingness to surrender is your greatest ally in forward bends, helping to quiet the mind and to release the stiffness that is an obstacle to enjoying the poses. In the spirit of introspection, be more curious about the process than the destination.
Before you Begin
Warm Up Make sure the room is at a comfortable temperature, and wear layers so you don't get chilled.
Gaze Inward Take time to steady your mind by finding a relaxed breathing rhythm and focusing on your exhalation.
1. Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose)
Lie on your back, with the soles of the feet together and the knees open wide, each resting on a blanket, and with your arms by your sides, palms facing up. Allow the muscles of the abdomen and inner thighs to relax toward the floor.
1. Ardha Ananda Balasana (Half Happy Baby Pose)
Reclining in Supta Baddha Konasana, draw your right knee into your chest and extend your left leg straight along the floor. Raise your flexed right foot up toward the ceiling until the knee is bent at a 90-degree angle. Clasp the foot with both hands, and on an exhalation, gently draw it straight down toward the floor.
3. Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
From Ardha Ananda Balasana, release your hands and place a strap around the sole of the right foot. Strongly press the top of your sacrum against the floor to ground the pose before straightening the right leg. If you can straighten your leg without pain and without compromising your alignment, clasp the big toe with the thumb and index and middle fingers of your right hand.
4. Balasana (Child's Pose)
From Supta Padangusthasana, lower your leg and move into a kneeling position, sitting on your feet. Fold forward from your hips, allowing your torso to rest on your thighs, keeping your knees hip-width apart. Rest your head on your hands or on a bolster in front of you.
5. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
Coming out of Balasana, sit up and bring the soles of your feet together. Open your knees wide, resting them on blankets if you experience any pain in the knees. On an exhalation, hinge forward from your hips, bring your torso and forehead toward the ground, and allow your spine to gently flex into a curve. Rest your head on the floor, on your hands, or on a bolster.
6. Parsva Janu Sirsasana (Side Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
From Baddha Konasana, extend your right leg out in front of you and hold the outside of the foot with your left hand. Support your left knee with a blanket if you experience pain in the knee. Lengthen your spine up through the crown of your head and turn your torso to the right. Hinge forward from the hips, folding only as far as possible without letting the spine curve. Stretch your right arm out behind you at a 45-degree angle.
7. Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
From Parsva Janu Sirsasana, release the twist of the upper spine, and hold your right foot with both hands or a strap. Fold the torso forward over the leg, allowing your back to round slightly.
8. Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Sit with your legs spread wide and your torso upright and lifted. Hinge forward from the hips, making sure your kneecaps face the ceiling. If your torso doesn't reach the ground, support your upper body with your arms or a bolster.
9. Marichyasana III (Marichi's Twist III), variation
From Upavistha Konasana, lift your torso and bring your legs together. Bend your right knee, placing your right foot flat on the floor by your left calf for a variation on the pose. Twist from your core, using your left upper arm as leverage by pressing against the outside of your right knee.
10. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
From Marichyasana III, release the twist and stretch both legs out straight in front of you with the inner edges of the feet either touching or hip-width apart. Fold forward from your hips, holding the outside of each foot or looping a strap around the feet. Allow your belly to release toward your thighs, and rest your head on your shins, allowing the back to slightly round if necessary. If your head doesn't reach your shins, place several folded blankets on top of your legs to act as a headrest.
After You Finish
Bend Backward Use the internal calm you have cultivated to practice backbends like Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), and see if you can reduce the tension that often accompanies these poses. Breathe deeply, allowing the breath to maintain the sense of quiet and ease in your body.
Rest and Recline Take Savasana (Corpse Pose) for a minimum of 5 minutes, and unfold into the ultimate asana of undoing.