Yoga invites curiosity about how the body and mind work. Early on, you get to know your body by practicing the postures. For instance, you might be in a forward fold and feel sensation in the backs of your legs. Suddenly you are aware of your hamstrings! You knew, of course, that you had muscles back there, but now you understand what it means to feel a deep stretch in your hamstrings. Once you are familiar with the "macro" sensations of stretching, it's time to tune in to the "micro," or more subtle, actions behind the stretch. In the case of a forward bend, for example, the macro stretch is in the hamstrings, but the actions that deepen the stretch lie in the small movements of the thighbones, hip joints, and spine. Learning to apply macro- as well as micro-awareness in forward bends will result in better alignment and greater self-awareness. Ultimately, by deepening your understanding of the individual actions that make up a forward fold, you'll achieve a deeper posture with more integrity, no matter what your level of flexibility.
Action Plan: To access a deep forward bend, you must tilt your pelvis forward so you can lengthen and decompress your spine. In this practice, you will do this by anchoring the head of your thighbones (the top part that connects to the hip joint) back and down. The quadriceps hold the key to supporting this action.
The End Game: When you focus on the smaller movements of the thighbones, hip joints, and spine, you'll refine your forward bends, deepen your self-exploration, and open your hamstrings to a deeper stretch.
Before You Begin: To do these 3 postures as a stand-alone practice, warm up and prepare with a 1- to 2-minute Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and a couple rounds of Ardha Surya Namaskar (Half Sun Salutation). If you want a longer practice, consider including Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) before launching into this sequence.
1. Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Propping: You will use 2 straps for this pose. One will be looped from the ball of one foot and around the top of the opposite leg. The other will allow you to hold your top leg.
Why This Works: The strap that wraps around your thigh and opposing foot anchors your thighbone. The strap that connects your top foot and hands encourages the shoulders to stay relaxed.
How to: To prepare, take 2 straps—it's best if they are at least 6 feet long (most straps indicate their length on a tag located near the buckle)—and make a large loop in the longer strap. A loop that is approximately the length of your leg will get you in the ballpark. While sitting up, wrap the loop around the ball of your left foot and straighten your left leg. Hold on to the top of the loop, and lie back. Bend your right knee into your chest and wrap the end of the loop that you're holding around your right hip crease. It should fit snugly so that the strap is taut between the ball of your left foot and the right hip crease.
Wrap the second strap around the arch of your right foot, and straighten your right leg. If the loop around your right hip crease feels too loose, sit up and tighten it. But if it's restricting your top leg from straightening, loosen it. Once the strap feels tight but not restrictive, gently draw your right foot toward your upper body until you find the sweet spot in your hamstrings where they are being stretched without strain.
Now it's time to focus on the deeper actions of the pose. Start by pressing through the ball of your left foot as though you're pressing on a gas pedal. This will pull the top of your right thigh away from the front of the hip. Support the action by pressing the top part of your right thighbone away from you. Complement this by pressing the right sitting bone and outer hip in the same direction as the thigh. Keep in mind the amount of movement that you will perceive is very small, but the effect is significant. Take 5 to 10 smooth, steady breaths before lowering your leg and practicing the second side.
2. Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)
Propping: You will need to use a wall and 2 blocks for this version of Ardha Uttanasana with a wall.
Why This Works: The wall is a firm surface to press your sitting bones against, as well as a landmark to press your thighs toward. The blocks help you lift and lengthen your spine.
How to: Uttanasana is the quintessential standing forward bend. In this variation, you'll use 2 blocks and a wall, which will provide your body with feedback and leverage to ground your thighs, root your sitting bones, and lengthen your spine.</p.
To prepare, place the short side of your mat against the wall. Stand with your heels approximately a foot and a half away from the wall—you'll fine-tune the exact location of your feet soon. Separate your feet hip-width apart, lean back so that your sitting bones are against the wall, and place your blocks next to your ankles. Rock your pelvis forward toward your thighs—you'll feel your sitting bones slide up the wall—and fold forward. Lean the weight of your pelvis into the wall. If your feet are too far from the wall, you will feel pressure in the backs of your knees and your feet may feel like they are sliding forward. Make any adjustments to your feet that will help you find the right balance.
Now focus on the deeper actions of the pelvis, thighs, and spine. Root your hands into the blocks and lift your chest up away from your thighs so that you are in Ardha Uttanasana. Bend your knees slightly and feel the crease at the top of the thighs deepen. Firmly press your sitting bones into the wall—as if you were going to create two little indentations in the wall—and continue to lengthen your spine forward. Feel how pressing into the wall gives you a clear point of contact from which to extend your spine. Slowly straighten your legs by sliding your sitting bones higher up the wall. Keep your hip creases deep and feel the tops of the thighs continue to press toward the wall as you straighten your legs.
Retain this grounding and lengthening relationship between the pelvis and spine for 5 to 10 deep breaths. To release, bend your knees slightly, and slowly roll up your torso to standing.
3. Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Propping: You will sit on a folded blanket while pressing a foot against a wall.
Why This Works: Pressing the bottom of your foot into a wall will help to activate the quadriceps and anchor the thigh. The blanket will lift your pelvis, which will help you to lengthen your spine as you come into the pose.
How to: Sit facing a wall. Place a folded blanket under your pelvis and have another blanket handy. Press the sole of your right foot into the wall. Bend your left knee, and place the sole of your left foot against your inner right thigh. Press your fingertips into the blanket next to your hips and lengthen your spine. To determine how many blankets you need, place one hand on the back of your pelvis. Rock forward as if you were going to come into a forward bend. Feel the angle of your sacrum and lower back. If they are able to tilt forward a few degrees or more, you are probably sitting high enough. If your mid- to upper back moves toward the wall, you need more support in the form of another blanket or a block.
Once you've established your setup, it's time to shift deeper and emphasize the actions of the posture. First, feel the points of contact that your body has with a firm surface—your feet against the wall and your legs, sitting bones, and fingers against the floor and blanket. Press firmly into these surfaces and feel the rebound energy surge through your body. Capture that energy to lengthen your spine and activate your quadriceps. Now, tilt your pelvis forward, lengthen your spine toward the wall, and take hold of your right inner arch with your left hand. Continue to press your right hand into the floor beside your right thigh. Press your right foot even more strongly into the wall. Feel how this action activates the quadriceps, grounds the thighbone, and enables you to lengthen your spine more than you could without the resistance. Take 5 to 10 deep breaths. Then lift up, and repeat on your second side.
Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.