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Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) are challenging poses—especially for men. It can take quite awhile for the hips, lower back, and hamstrings to open up enough to allow the full range of motion in these asanas. I’d like to first congratulate you for asking about modifications. You may be a new yogi, but you certainly are a wise one.
Pushing, pulling, or any kind of aggression in yoga will only backfire, creating more tension and possibly injury. So, my first recommendation is to take a long view of your yoga practice. Over time your body will unfold. If you maintain your level of curiosity rather than having a specific goal or agenda, you will discover how everything changes all the time.
That said, there are some practical things that you can do to work on these asanas. First of all, when you do Janu Sirsasana and Paschimottanasana, as well as other seated poses such as Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and Marichyasana III (Marichi’s Pose) , elevate your pelvis by sitting on a cushion or block. Lifting your seat will help you deepen your groins, which will enable you to fold at your underwear line, rather than your waistband.
You may have noticed that Janu Sirsasana is similar to several standing poses, such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose) . The bent leg in Janu Sirsasana also works the same way as the bent leg in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) and Uttitha Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle). When you are working on these standing poses, begin to explore how to create external rotation in the bent leg by softening your outer hip creases and creating space there. Try working with less effort in your hips. Imagine that your hip joint is spacious like the Grand Canyon. Feel your breath like a warm wind blowing through the canyon, softening the rocky ledges, nooks, and crannies in the valley of your hip joint.
Work on Paschimottanasana by doing Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) . In Uttanasana, bend your legs and fold forward as if you were a pair of pants draped over a hanger. The hanger should be at the junction of leg and pelvis. Feel your upper body cascade out of your strong legs like a waterfall. Deepen your breath, watch, and wait.
My biggest tip is a simple one that you can try to incorporate into your daily lifesit on the floor as much as you can. Part of the reason our hips are tight is because we sit in chairs so much. One of my students took this advice to heart. He bought a huge desk and instead of sitting at his desk, he began to sit right up on top of his desk with his computer. He told me thats when his hips really began to open.
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM yoga center in New York City. She is a longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and has been teaching yoga for over 20 years. Cyndi is the author of OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice(Chronicle Books) and the upcoming Yoga Body, Buddha Mind (Riverhead Books). For more information, visit www.omyoga.com.