"I'm so inflexible I can barely touch my toes." As a yoga teacher, I hear this again and again. I've even seen people spontaneously bend over to reach for their feet to demonstrate their tightness. I try to explain that you don't have to be flexible when you start practicing yoga: The act of doing yoga helps you build the flexibility and strength you need. Even if you can easily get your hands to your toes in forward-bending poses, that's not necessarily a good measure of your overall flexibility. What really matters are the actions you take to get them there.
If you focus on going deeply into a forward bend, such as the seated forward bend Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), and your hamstrings and glutes are tight, you'll bend from the spine: The tailbone will tuck under, the upper back will round, and the backs of the knees will pop off the floor. In this case, even though you might still be able to reach your toes, you'd be missing the true benefit of the pose. The goal of a forward bend is not, in fact, to "bend" but instead to fully extend and lengthen your spine while stretching the back of your body—your hamstrings, gluteal muscles, and spinal muscles—to the extent that's appropriate for you. Although you don't want to bend your spine in Janu Sirsasana, there are three joints you do want to bend in the pose: the hips, the knee of the bent leg, and the elbows. Learning to bend in all the right places allows you to create length and extension in the spine.
Bending at the hip joints is crucial in any forward bend. It allows the torso to extend forward while the spinal muscles stay relaxed. If your hamstrings and glutes are tight and you feel your tailbone tucking under, sit up on a folded blanket or two. Feel as though you are sitting directly on top of your sitting bones and that your pelvis is tilting forward.
Having one knee bent in Janu Sirsasana makes it different from other seated forward bends. The action of bending one leg helps alleviate the pull of tight hamstrings and gluteal muscles on that side of your body. The added mobility allows you to extend the abdomen farther forward.
The final bend in the pose is at the elbows. When you clasp your foot (or a strap) and bend your elbows, the pull of the arms helps lift the chest upward, which lengthens the upper spine. And gently pulling the shoulders back helps maintain this extension. Practicing the variations taught here will help you find extension in your spine. In the first variation, focus on balancing your weight evenly on both sitting bones and on stretching your arms upward. Lengthen the sides of the waist equally to lift the spine and tone the abdomen. In the second variation, focus on bending at the hips as you lean forward and hold your foot. Firm your arms to lift your chest and extend it forward as you press the back of your legs to the floor. In the final variation, lengthen your spine completely from the bottom to the top. Bending your elbows out to the sides allows the chest to further expand and frees the upper spine to move inward toward the heart.
Extending the spine and stretching the back body in a seated forward bend can have a calming effect. Practicing these poses can improve digestion and soothe the nervous system. You experience these benefits by practicing a progressive series of actions: stretching and releasing tension in the back of the body, bending at the joints with skill and attention, and lengthening the spine before folding forward. When you practice Janu Sirsasana this way, not only will touching your toes become easier, but you'll be getting the benefits of fully extending your spine and expanding your chest.
A Deeper Stretch
After practicing Janu Sirsasana, a one-legged forward bend, you'll be better prepared for a full, two-legged stretch. Practice the pose several times on each side, and then stretch both legs out and join them in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Reach for both feet and see if you are able to bend forward more easily in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend).
Step 1: Stretch the Sides and Lift the Spine
Reach your arms tall and press down through your sitting bones.
Set It Up:
1. Resting your hips on a blanket, sit upright, and extend both legs forward. 2. Bend the right knee, pressing the heel into the inner right thigh, with the toes touching the inner left thigh. 3. Keep the left leg straight, resting on the center of the calf with the toes pointing up. Refine: As you inhale, extend the arms up. Bring the arms toward the back of the ears, and then take a deeper, fuller breath to extend the arms completely and lift the torso. Keep both sides of the pelvis in line and distribute your weight evenly on both sitting bones. Finish: Lift the bent-leg side of the torso with a little more effort and attention to ensure that the torso lengthens evenly and that your spine is lifted. Create space in the abdomen by pressing the thighs down as you stretch the arms up. Move your shoulder blades in toward the spine and your abdomen back and up under the ribs. Maintain this position for a few breaths to energize your spine.
Step 2: Extend Forward to Reach the Foot
Keep lengthening, not rounding, the spine.
Set It Up:
1. Resting your hips on a blanket, sit upright and extend both legs forward. 2. Bend the right knee, pressing the heel into the inner right thigh, and letting the toes touch the inner left thigh. 3. Keep the left leg straight, resting on the center of the calf with the toes pointing up. 4. Inhale and extend the arms upward. Exhale, and reach forward to hold the left foot with both hands, or loop a strap around the foot. Refine: Pull strongly on the foot, as you press it into your hands or the strap to lift your torso up. Straighten and fully extend both your arms. Press the entire back of your left leg to the floor, from the upper thigh to the back of the heel, while also pressing the right leg downward. Finish: Lift from the waist to the armpits to create equal length on the sides of your body. Move the back ribs in toward the chest and lift the chest even higher. Continue pressing the outer right thigh and knee down and turn from the right side of the waist until your entire torso is facing forward. Hold this variation for several breaths to lengthen the front of the spine and make the back more concave.
Final Pose: Janu Sirsasana
Fully extend your spine as your fold forward.
Set It Up:
1. Sit upright and extend both legs forward. 2. Bend the right knee, pressing the heel into the inner right thigh, and letting the toes touch the inner left thigh. 3. Keep the left leg straight, resting it on the center of the calf with the toes pointing up. 4. Inhale and extend the arms up. 5. Exhale and reach forward to hold the left foot with both hands or loop a strap around the foot. Refine: Press both legs down as you lift the waist toward the armpit. Use your inhalation to draw the abdomen back and up while you spread and lift the chest. Maintain the steady effort of the legs and arms as you exhale and stay in the pose. Inhale again and extend the front of your body forward until the hips fold more deeply. On your exhalation, bend your elbows directly to the sides and broaden the collarbones and chest. Keep the elbows lifted and wide apart. Finish: With each breath lengthen the front of the spine and move the back muscles into the body. Now the knee, hips, shoulders, elbows, and wrists are all bending to support your spine to extend.
Optimize Your Pose
Explore these modifications of Janu Sirsasana:
- To Open Your Hips: Move the thigh and knee of your bent leg farther out to the side, while still keeping the outer knee down.
- To Relieve Knee Pain: Place a rolled-up sock or a strap behind the back of your bent knee to make more space for the joint.
- To Lengthen Your Spine: If you can reach your toes with your hands, reach beyond the foot and clasp one wrist with the opposite hand.
- To Quiet the Mind: Place a blanket or bolster across your shin and rest your head on it. Relax here with even breathing for 2 minutes.
Elements of Practice
In hatha yoga asanas, the back of the body is referred to as the west (paschim in Sanskrit) and the front of the body as the east (purva). Both sides are given equal importance and reflect balance and harmony in the body. The sun rises in the east, energizing our bodies for the activity of the day, and sets in the west to prepare our bodies for rest and sleep. When you practice forward-bending poses and stretch the back of your body, you will discover that they can help you relax, become quiet, and even sleep better. Watch a video of this practice.
Nikki Costello is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher living in New York City.