As yogis, we have learned that a disciplined practice yields positive results. We've also learned that we can usually produce specific results by doing certain poses or practicing a particular method. Some asanas will help an aching back, others relieve depression; one method builds strength, another is meditative, and so on. Since such benefits are both real and often predictable, you can be lulled into believing that the results are guaranteed, that you can "take" poses like a pill. Such a simplistic approach trivializes yoga and inevitably leads to disappointment and confusion, partly because it disregards the influence of individual variables like constitution and personality, but especially because it disregards the continuous fluctuations of each human mind.
One way yoga philosophy addresses the subject of how to deal with the mind's fluctuations is through the concept of the gunas, the three "strands" of the mind. The gunas consist of rajas, the active force that stimulates change; tamas, the opposite force of inertia that maintains the status quo; and sattva, a conscious state between rajas and tamas where balance and harmony dwell. The proportion in which these traits are present is transient and unstable, so that attaining true balance requires conscious internal attention and adaptation.
Let's look at how the concept of the gunas can be applied in the context of a yoga practice. Assume that after years of being a couch potato you've motivated yourself to do yoga. That's a proper use of rajas (action). Encouraged by your discipline and feeling better, you practice even more and feel full of life. Your activity is leading you toward the clarity of sattva.
Things go smoothly for a while, but suppose you begin to get chronic injuries or feel frustrated by your practice. The same poses that once inspired you are now a chore. And yet you may carry on, continuing a pattern that once worked so well. You are still working hard, but your efforts are now overly rajasic and leading you away from balance. There are mental elements of tamas (inertia) present as well, since your behavior flows from habit rather than conscious awareness. Now balance can only be found through poses that help you recover health and inspiration, even though they may not fit your expectations. As this example points out, the gunas provide a way of understanding how the personal patterns we each insert into our yoga practices influence the outcomes we get.
The influence of mind can be observed throughout your practice, but forward bends, particularly prolonged forward bends, are especially fertile ground for cultivating the understanding that yoga must involve so much more than physical effort. The simplicity and symmetry of Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) makes it an ideal asana in which to examine the ebb and flow of the mind.
Paschimottanasana is also called Stretch of the West, a name I prefer because it poetically evokes the ancient ritual of yogis facing the sunrise as they practiced. (Paschima means "west" in Sanskrit, and the yogis were literally stretching the west side of the body as they bent toward the sun). Like other forward bends, Paschimottanasana, when done correctly, provides practical physical benefits. Most obviously, forward bends stretch the muscles of the lower spine, pelvis, and legs. In addition, the upper back, kidneys, and adrenal glands are stretched and stimulated, thus making Paschimottanasana a potentially therapeutic pose for those with respiratory or kidney problems, as well as for those who suffer from adrenal exhaustion. When a student has progressed to the point where the torso rests on the legs, the pose also provides a massage to the abdominal organs and a profound calming effect.
While this information may motivate you to practice Seated Forward Bend, alas it makes the pose no easier. Quite simply, forward bends are a struggle for most of us. Many of the things we do for fitness, such as running and weight training, make us strong at the expense of flexibility. Sitting at a desk all day doesn't help, either. Therefore, if you're a stiff or beginning student, I suggest you introduce forward bends during the latter part of a practice when your body is thoroughly warm. Double this advice if you have lower back troubles.
Having said this, let me note that I now actually like to do Paschimottanasana near the beginning of my practice. Starting close to the floor can be deeply grounding. Also, warming up by paying attention to undoing tight muscles, instead of by a lot of movement, can set a deep, introspective tone that persists throughout your practice. But I recommend you try this approach only if you are flexible enough to bring your torso close to your legs without effort. I'll make a confession: This forward bend has been a difficult pose for me. I have empathy for your struggle, but I can testify that Paschimottanasana's benefits are well worth the effort. This asana has taught me much about humility, strategy, and surrender. Only in recent years has my experience been what I imagined it could be: deep inner focus and peace. Unless you're already extremely flexible, my advice is to begin this pose with little thought of bending all the way to your legs. Paschimottanasana, for most yogis, is achieved slowly and with great patience.
Prepare the Ground
There are a number of poses that can physically prepare you for Paschimottanasana. They include Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose), for the deep abdominal and inner hip release it provides; Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), in which your spine is lengthened by the pull of gravity; Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose), a hip opener and hamstring stretch; and Padmasana (Lotus Pose), which releases holding in the upper thigh.
Three hip openers in particular can help to dramatically improve Paschimottanasana. The first is Balasana (Child's Pose); by resting your torso on your thighs in this simple pose, you get a taste of the sensation of ease and calm that can saturate the body in a deep forward bend. The second is a variation of Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose), and the last I call Leg-over-Shoulder Pose. Let's look in depth at these last two.
To prepare for this variation of Janu Sirsasana, sit upright with the soles of your feet together and knees apart in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). If you can't sit with your pelvis at a right angle to your legs and your spine straight, place a folded blanket under your buttocks to help you rotate the pelvis forward. Exhale and straighten your left leg on the floor in front of you. Roll to the outside of your left hip and leg, letting your right knee and hip lift off the floor. Place your hands on the floor to the outside of your left leg and far enough forward so their position contributes to the forward bend. If you are particularly flexible, bend your right elbow and brace it against the outside of your lower left leg for a more challenging stretch.
By leaning to the left, you are using gravity to your advantage: Your abdomen relaxes toward the left hip, centering your torso over your left leg and thus creating a slight rotation of the spine that gently stretches the lower back. Help make your hip more receptive by relaxing the groin deeply with each exhalation. Don't be afraid to let go. Gradually, your hip joint will open and you may feel a slight stretch across the sacrum as your spine moves to the left. The deep penetration into your hip joint will increase as you linger and your ability to soften and dissolve muscular resistance increases. You can further enhance the effect by imagining the abdomen spinning clockwise, like a wheel, into the hip.
Paschimottanasana benefits greatly from this asana, which targets the hip for intensive opening and also gently reduces the lower back tightness that can restrict your forward bend. When you are ready, come out of the pose and repeat it on the other side.
Another very effective preparatory pose involves draping your leg over the back of your shoulder or upper arm. This hip-opening action is part of several asanas, including Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose) and Eka Hasta Bhujasana (One-Leg-over-Arm Pose). Be careful, though, because it stretches the sacral and lumbar areas and can exacerbate strain if your lower back is sensitive. Eventually, this deep stretch can be quite therapeutic—but don't rush it.
Sit on the floor or on a folded blanket, as in Janu Sirsasana, and stretch your legs straight in front of you. Raise your right leg, bend the knee, and reach your right arm along the inside of the right leg to hold your calf. At the same time, use your left hand on the sole of your right foot to draw the leg farther back and open the hip even more. Now for the fun part: Breathe in and lean back slightly, then exhale as you push your right leg back and place it over your shoulder or upper arm. (You want the back of your knee to rest as close to the shoulder as possible.)
Pause to collect yourself, and then put your right hand on the floor, gently pressing your arm out into your leg to deepen the hip opening.
The position of your leg on the shoulder requires that your back be able to round. Indeed, the stretch the back muscles receive helps you to create the fluid spine needed for Paschimottanasana. But avoid overrounding your back: Keep your chest broad and make sure you are able to maintain a steady rhythm in your breathing. This is not the time to be aggressive. Hold this pose but a few breaths if you find it extremely difficult. Several short repetitions are better than straining to prolong the position. Don't worry: You'll still notice the work on your hip when you move on to Paschimottanasana. When you're ready, release the pose and repeat on the other side.
A Delicate Balance
Now that you have warmed up by practicing preparatory asanas, you're ready for Paschimottanasana. Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose), sitting on the floor with your legs stretched straight out in front of you. Position your pelvis at a right angle to your legs and vertically extend your spine. Again, if you cannot do this, elevate your hips with a folded blanket under your buttocks. If you are fairly flexible, keep your feet together; if not, place them hip-width apart. Either way your legs should be parallel, so your knees face up, and your feet and legs should be active. I have noticed that sometimes when I direct students to be more active in their legs, they completely stiffen the legs, particularly the feet and upper thighs. But you should only engage your leg muscles enough to maintain the alignment and extension of the limb. Mistaking overeffort for vitality will just restrict you more.
Explore the difference for yourself. Roll your legs in and out a few times, beginning the movement in your hips. This movement alone can ease some of your muscular tension. Then just let your legs relax. With your thumb gently probe the area where your leg joins the hip. Along the outer top thigh you will probably feel the tendon of one of the quadriceps muscles: It's kind of ropy. Keep pressing the area as you tighten your leg. If you couldn't feel the tendon before, you will now because it will harden and pop up. Relax your leg again. Now, very slowly, extend the back of your leg, turning both legs so they are parallel and the kneecaps point straight up, while trying to keep the quadriceps tendon soft. Of course, it will display some action, but I want you to recognize the difference between using and overusing your quadriceps. Continue to play with this balance until you can dynamically extend each leg using minimal effort. Using less effort lets the thighs lift without tightening, liberates the hamstrings, and allows space in the hips, making the coming forward bend easier.
Now let's work on the actions of the feet. Begin by noticing their first cousins, your hands. Open your hands, feeling the stretch as the palms widen and your fingers spread. Replicate these movements in the feet, widening the instep and separating the balls of your toes. Extend forward evenly with all five toe joints and with the center of your heels. As with the leg action, seek a dynamic, attentive movement that isn't tense.
Continue these actions in your legs and feet and exhale as you ground your thighbones, rotate your pelvis forward, and hold the outer arches of your feet. Holding your feet is an anchor that may help you release muscle tension, but don't pull yourself over your legs with your arms; this may strain your back. Retain the quietness in your upper thighs so your pelvis will more easily glide over the head of the femur. Keep your chest softly open, your head in line with your spine, and your neck soft and long. Most importantly, maintain fluid length in your spine.
When we practice forward bends, our backs are strongly stretched. Like Goldilocks, finding what is "just right" can be a challenge. If you hold your back too straight, you may develop habits that make the muscles around your spine rigid. But if you round your spine too much, you compress your chest, put stress on the lumbar ligaments, and retard the forward rotation of the pelvis. A well-integrated spine barely curves, like a lens, rising gently and comfortably from the pelvis. To accomplish this "just right" spinal alignment, you may need to change your grip and hold your ankles or a strap looped around your feet. You may even have to bend your knees slightly. And every so often I encounter a student who, because of injury or extreme inflexibility, simply cannot approach this pose. For them, I suggest lying on the back with the legs up the wall, letting the hip joint open passively. Always remember that the integrity of your spine is of primary importance.
Once you have found a position that suits you, close your eyes and turn your attention inward as you begin to refine and deepen the asana. In our concern about the mechanical details, it's easy to overlook the internal environment of mind and breath. Your breath is a reliable guide as your progress in Paschimottanasana becomes more subtle. As your forward bend evolves, your exhalation should naturally lengthen. If it doesn't, you're forcing the pose.
As the difficulty of the pose increases, you may become so disappointed or frustrated that you are just going through the motions, no longer fully present. Or you may become so focused on getting your torso onto your legs that you miss the nuances of the process. With practice, you will realize your body has its own timetable, the pace at which it can change and grow. By following the pulse of your breath, you respect your innate process, develop insight, and, eventually, deepen your pose.
Staying in touch with your breathing, recall the quality of deep hip opening that you felt in Janu Sirsasana. As you did then, use an exhalation to coax space for your lower abdomen in your inner hips. At the same time, keep your upper thighs rooted and your spine neutral. Because of the angle of your torso, gravity is your ally once again. As your pelvis is freed, gravity will eventually pull your torso and head to your legs, allowing them to rest there.
Bolstering Your Practice
Please appreciate that I am describing a lengthy process! The changes I've outlined may take years, and you may encounter many boundaries where your resistance temporarily slows you down.
Supporting your torso on a blanket roll or bolster is one way to ease yourself through those obstacles. The key to using a bolster well is to position it so you can fully release your weight into it. Where you position your bolster depends on how deep your existing forward bend already is. If you are only a few inches from your legs, place a blanket roll or bolster under your forehead. If you can't get so close to your legs, place the bolster under your chest or abdomen and let your body fall into its support.
Here again, the mind can intrude, resisting the surrender that is required to fully benefit from bolster work. Explore the mental patterns you're bringing to the asana—an urge to push or a tendency to give up and space out—and redirect your attention to the sensations of letting go. As you deepen your pose by doing less, you may recognize how emotions stored in the body can mimic physical inflexibility—and your pose will most likely begin to move.
Here is another technique to help free your spine. Still resting on the bolster, cup the back of your head in your hands. Drop your elbows toward the floor and let your upper back spread. Then keep your shoulder blades wide as you inhale and raise your elbows, stretching them away from your sides. Press the back of your head into your hands as you open your chest and lengthen your torso forward. Expand this motion for several breaths and then release your elbows, chest, and head down again. You may find your forward bend to be both deeper and more extended. If you are supple enough to lay your whole torso on your legs, remove the bolster; otherwise, keep it in place.
As your pose grows quieter, supported by either a bolster or your legs, stay in touch with the form of the pose by sending delicate physical reminders to yourself whenever you feel the discomfort of misalignment disturbing your inner focus. Gently root your tailbone to earth. This action is not a tuck, since that movement will restrict the free rotation of your pelvis. Rooting your tailbone is really little more than keeping an awareness of your base and maintaining the idea that your tailbone is heavy. Keep your feet and legs active, as you have already practiced. Continue to deepen the sensation that your torso is at rest on your legs or the bolster, allowing your belly to feel liquid and cool. Let distractions diminish until they blur into the background and you find yourself immersed in the inner terrain of the pose.
Sustaining this inner focus is a challenge similar to what you might face in any style of meditation. The pose itself is a source of both struggle and inspiration as you dance between effort and surrender, between distraction and attention. As you become more successful at overcoming your physical impediments, the influence of your mind becomes more and more obvious. For example, you may be surprised by your resistance to prolonging the pose, particularly if you are quite flexible but not accustomed to long holds. Or maybe you're a technician, fussing with your pose too much, unable to relinquish control and just be present. Are you at the mercy of nervous energy, itching to get on the move and into the next pose? At this point, whatever your tendencies, the mental challenges you encounter are the most likely threats to deepening your practice. Pride, expectation, and a host of other emotions will pass across the screen of your attention—a veritable analyst's couch of behavior for your consideration. And you thought this was just a hamstring stretch!
Inevitably, as you deepen your pose, you'll encounter struggles that create agitation and sabotage a balanced, sattvic experience. Is laziness (tamas) trying to talk you out of persevering? Conversely, are you determined to stay no matter what, even though your whole being is begging for relief? Look to the inner rhythm of your breath for guidance. It can help you know whether the urge to stop arises from truth or your same old propaganda; it can help you find a second wind that calms your agitation and refocuses your mind; it can help you recognize when staying in the pose is overly rajasic and punitive. If you can recognize the balancing act of asana as the dance it always is, you can benefit from each insight that accompanies the process. With time and practice, Paschimottanasana can deepen into a prolonged, body-oriented meditation.
Erich Fromm, the twentieth-century social philosopher, observed that we are made anxious by freedom and that many of us prefer restriction to facing ambiguity. We encounter just such a challenge in Paschimottanasana. We want to find a formula that controls the process and guarantees success. Instead we are forced to deal with our attachments and habits, amending them or letting them go. By being consciously attentive to the ebb and flow of thoughts and sensations, you begin to understand that the mind can and does constantly influence your yoga. And you learn that the asana itself is not only a vehicle for physical restoration and well-being but also an effective tool for developing the psychological hardiness that grows from self-reflection.