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Forward Bends

The Purpose of Forward Bends

• Induce an experience of deep peace and tranquility.

• Open the astral spine so that energy can flow to the brain more easily.

• Internalize awareness, helping you feel the life-force and subtler states of consciousness.

• Cultivate your ability to surrender.

Alignment and Technique

Whether you are standing, sitting, supine, or inverted, the actual bending movement in a forward bend is focused in the hip joints, not in the spine. Any bending that takes place in the spine should only be through relaxation.

Limiting Factors

Hamstring muscles attach to the back of the pelvis at the "sitbones," extend down the back of the leg, and insert on both sides of the leg just below the knee. Their functions are flexion of the knee and extension of the hip joint.

Many activities as well as inactivity cause the hamstrings to shorten and tighten over time. Then as you bend forward, the hamstrings  prevent the pelvis from rotating (tipping) farther forward along with the upper spine; if you keep going forward after that point, you'll be bending forward from the waist, not from the hips. This causes the lumbar spine to bow backward, diminishing or even reversing its natural curve. If you are using excessive force to make "progress," this reversal may dangerously compress the intervertebral discs in the lumbar spine, or pinch nerves as they exit the spinal column.

Tightness in the external rotators of the hips, the spinal erectors and other "back muscles" can also hamper forward bending.  It is advisable to warm up  the hamstrings, and the back muscles and the muscles in the hip region.

When doing a seated forward bend, you want to place a cushion under the sitbones to tilt the rim of the pelvis forward, helping to maintain the natural curves of the spinal column as you move forward into the asana.

It's important to stretch the spine in all directions. If we don't, we will eventually lessen both the flexibility and health of the spine. Use caution, however, because it's safe to allow the spine to round only if:

• The spine is healthy and there is no discomfort. (For some conditions—e.g., a bulging or herniated disc—one would definitely not want to lose the natural curves.)

• One maintains conscious awareness of what is happening with the spine.

• Rounding is slight and happens only as a result of relaxation, of softening—not of straining to go farther into the forward bend.

The Two Phases of Forward Bends

In the first phase—the "active" phase—keep the spine very long and straight (i.e., preserve the natural curves) as you bend forward from the hip joints. If you're going to stretch actively in the pose, do it in this phase. Use the breath to stay focused and to help create length and softness in the hamstrings or other muscles where you're tight. To enter the second phase, inhale and lengthen the spine one last time, then exhale and soften into the pose. (It's okay if the spine rounds somewhat, under the conditions described above.) Do not strain to go further into the bend; it's about release, softness, and surrender, not achievement. Breathe into the pose and hold for some time—this "surrender phase" is the heart of the pose. Relax your effort and go deep into the inner stillness. Exit on an inhalation; your first movement should be to recapture the spine's natural curves.


Cautions for Forward Bends

• When actively stretching forward, be sure to maintain the natural curves of the spine.

• Allow the lumbar spine to round backward only under the conditions described earlier.

• Those with spinal injuries (herniated discs, pinched nerves, etc.) should be especially cautious, usually doing no more than the supine leg stretch (described above) and various therapeutic forward bends.