Sunday, July 19, 2015


“I was doing too many backbends…; one day I made up my mind to do forward bends like Janu Sirsasana—I could not stay in it even for a few minutes. My spine and back muscles became sore and I couldn’t bear the soreness… It was as if somebody was using a sledgehammer on my back. Then I determined that if I could do backbends, I should learn to do forward bends too.”
B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga Wisdom & Practice, 16

Whereas back bending postures create broad and expansive arches, forward bends are more about precise edges and crisp creases. That’s not to say that forward bends are severe or unpleasant. The opposite, in fact, is true. When performed well, forward bends are soothing and rejuvenating; they also provide their own kind of expansive softness. They just require a different kind of action, and they create a different kind of shape for the body to experience. Back bends bring to mind Roman architecture and orbiting planets. Forward bends are more reminiscent of origami.

The key to successful forward bending, or to making origami art, is knowing how to apply the right balance of commitment plus suppleness in order to fold in the right places with the right amount of pressure. Also like origami, forward bending poses require beginning with simple and basic folds. And the more intricate the fold is, the higher the risk that something could go wrong.

Seated forward bends always have their foundation in Dandasana (Staff, 112). Its 90-degree bend at the hips makes it the first and most basic fold. From there it would seem like the least complex and most straightforward next step would be to fold the body over the legs into what is known as Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward-fold, literally “intense stretch for the back-body pose”, 166). This asana has been called the king of all forward bends, and its potential positive effects are abundant, including improved cardiovascular health, rest for the nervous system, and stimulation for the circulatory system. But it’s a mistake to confuse its apparent simplicity for easiness to perform. While it primarily consists of just one crisp fold at the hips, it is actually a more intricate shape to achieve than it appears. In fact, Light on Yoga states that this pose is only truly accessible after mastering the complex and asymmetrical seated folds.

Four poses are said to be the “preparatory poses for the correct Paschimottanasana.” They are Janu Sirsasana (Head-toward-knee, 148), Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Forward fold, 155), Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (Three Parts Facing West Forward fold, 156), and Marichyasana I (Marichi’s Twist first variation, 160). While these four poses certainly have more components involved, more folds to manage, they also “give one sufficient elasticity in the back and legs so that one gradually achieves the correct Paschimottanasana” (161).

We worked on Janu Sirsasana in class together last week, so let’s start there. It is an intricate shape wherein the necessity for precision is great, but if we carefully unfold the posture, we can see that it is just a series of much more basic shapes and folds bundled together.

There are three important basic shapes to recognize in the legs and hips. First, the foundation is, of course, Dandasana, and the front leg maintains that shape throughout—straight, strong, and anchored. The back leg is a little more complex as it is a combination of two different basic shapes. So the second important thing to recognize is that the back leg is externally rotated at the hip as well as bent deeply at the knee in a shape which mimics Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle, 128) or, maybe more accurately, Siddhasana (Adept’s Seat, 120). Finally, the distance between the two legs is important and often gets overlooked. The instructions are to “push the [back] knee as far back as possible” so that the “angle between the two legs [is] obtuse” (149). That means the position of the thighs is like that of Upavistha Konasana (Wide-angle Forward fold, 164). Take a look at those poses next to each other, and see if you recognize the repetition of shape.

The upper-body includes familiar shapes as well. The asymmetrical work of poses such as Parsvakonasana (Side Angle, 67) and Parighasana (Gate, 86) prepare the trunk, shoulders, and hips for Janu Sirsasana by concentrating on just one side of the body at a time. But the full form of Janu Sirsasana aims to eliminate any asymmetry above the hips, which means it definitely has threads of relationship to poses such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I, 71) and Vrksasana (Tree, 63).

Mr. Iyengar and Light on Yoga are not the only sources of high praise for Janu Sirsasana and its closely related postural cousin, Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana. That’s a lot of Sanskrit, I know. It sounds something like tree-AHNG-mook-eye-kuh-PA-duh POSH-chee-moh-tan-AHS-uh-nuh. And the English translation is not any better—“three parts facing west seated forward fold.” It’s a tongue-twister, for sure, and, unfortunately, practicing the pose can feel as awkward and foreign as trying to pronounce its name. If you were in class with me this week, you got a sense of that for yourself as this was our focus for practice.

They are challenging, yes, but I promise that these poses are worth learning—posturally and linguistically. Both of them are part of the Ashtanga Primary Series as well as Light on Yoga’s “Course One.” One of my favorite texts which expounds on the Ashtanga system of practice is called Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy by Gregor Maehle. Even if you don’t practice Ashtanga Yoga, it is a fantastic manual. And it is my go-to resource second only to LoY.

In it, Maehle says that, other than the jump-backs and jump-throughs which are a pivotal part of the Ashtanga practice, Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana is one of the “main producers of abdominal strength” in the Primary Series. That is because it is abdominal strength which keeps the sitting-bone of the bent leg anchored against the ground. He says that a student first learning this pose “often makes the mistake of focusing too much on the forward-bending aspect of the posture. It is much more important to ground the [buttock of the bent leg], which works directly on the hip and develops abdominal strength” (77). He calls it a “humble posture” which is “one of the most underestimated” (78).

Light on Yoga also comments on the abdominal strengthening aspect of this pose. It says that “this asana tones the abdominal organs and keeps them free from sluggishness,” and then goes on to say that we often “abuse our abdominal organs by over-indulgence and by conforming to social etiquette” which causes disease. We can gain “longevity, happiness and peace of mind” by practicing these two essential postures (157).

About Janu Sirsasana, Maehle says that it, “like no other posture, combines the two main themes of the Primary Series—forward bending and hip rotation.” That also happens to be a primary theme of LoY’s Course One. Maehle describes Janu Sirsasana as being identical to performing Paschimottanasana with one leg and Baddha Konasana with the other, and that “there may be more exhilarating postures in the sequence, but it is [this pose] that most lets us experience the underlying principles of the [Primary Series]” (79).

Maehle also emphasizes the benefit of patiently practicing the “back bended stages” of these two poses as well as other seated forward folds. He says that, while it might make you look or feel stiff, it is more elegant, and, more importantly, knowing how to maintain “the inner integrity of the postures makes the practice far more effective” (78).

Creating the proper elongation, precise edges, and crisp folds which these poses require is not easy. It takes time, patience, and humility, among other things. It is an art form, and your body is your medium. Like an origami artist with her paper, there must be both precision and yielding. With attention to the details, you fold and bend and twist to create something beautiful and affirming from the inside out.

We will continue to explore these poses, and similar ones, in the weeks ahead.

Iyengar, B.K.S. Yoga Wisdom & Practice: For health, happiness, and a better world. London: DK Publishing, 2009. Print.
Maehle, Gregor. Ashtanga Yoga Practice & Philosophy. Novato: New World Library, 2006. Print.

Monday, July 6, 2015


There are two separate groupings of postures specifically focused on seated forward bends in Light on Yoga. The first is on pages 148-79, and herein are the most basic (and most commonly practiced) poses within this category including Janu Sirsasana (Head-toward-knee, 148-51), Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Forward fold, 153-56), and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward fold, 166-70), among others. The second (more advanced) set of seated forward bends is on pages 288-308. It begins with Kurmasana (Tortoise, 288-92), and grows increasingly more difficult as it proceeds through a series of poses in which one or both legs is hooked behind the head.

When we start to practice seated forward bends in class next week, it will be based on the poses presented in and around the first section, the more basic ones. I mention the more advanced set just to highlight a point. If you look closely, there exists an interesting (and I think significant) pattern and repetition of shape within the sections of poses preceding both sets of seated forward bends. The pattern is noteworthy because it both directly and indirectly informs the work of the seated forward bends. Let’s look at it.

The sequence opens with a very long series of standing poses in which the major joints of the body (namely shoulders, spine, and hips) are taken through a full range of motion all with the feet and legs as the primary point of foundation (pages 61-99). The next section is an introduction to basic back bends (100-09). That is followed by a section of poses with two simultaneous agendas taking place: (1) creating stability in the core and the arms, and (2) creating mobility in the hips, knees, and ankles (110-148). Postures found here include Navasana (Boat, 113), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing dog, 110-11), Virasana (Hero, 120-23), and Padmasana (Lotus, 129-32). Notice that these poses are nearly exclusively performed with the body seated upright and no more than 90-degrees of flexion at the hips. After that is the first of the two sets of seated forward bends (149-79).

Then all of that (or something strikingly similar to it) is repeated.

Standing poses aren’t seen again in a concentrated way. However, their primary function—taking the major joints of the body through a full range of motion utilizing a central, stable point of foundation—is. In a lot of ways, the Sirsasana and Sarvangasana cycles (Headstand and Shoulderstand, 179-237) are the inverse of the standing poses section. They repeat nearly every form which was introduced to the body in the very first section of postures, but here the foundation is the head or shoulders rather than the feet. For example, Salamba Sirsasana I (Supported Headstand I, 183) is the inversion of Tadasana (Mountain, 61), Parsvaikapada Sirsasana (Side One-legged Headstand, 202) is the inversion of Trikonasana (Triangle, 64), Halasana (Plow, 217) is the inversion of Uttanasana (Standing forward fold, 93), and Supta Konasana (Reclined Angle, 222) is the inversion of Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-legged Forward fold, 83). And there’s more if you look carefully. Do you see the repetition of shape here; can you find a shape like Revolved Triangle in the inversions section? These sets of postures (standing, Headstand, and Shoulderstand), and their repetition of shapes, share a common and important purpose: to cultivate balance and stamina while conditioning the central axis of the body.

Following the original standing poses is a section of basic back bends. Many of those shapes are likewise repeated during the inversions section. The most explicit relationship is the similarities between Ustrasana (Camel, 88 [technically in the standing pose section]), Dhanurasana (Bow, 102) and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge, 229), but you can find components of the basic back bends in a couple of other places throughout the inversions section if you pay close attention. Of course, gravity plays a different (more demanding) role here, and, therefore, the back bending postures within the inversions section are more challenging than those within the basic back bends section even though the shapes of the body are essentially the same. These poses are designed to make the spine strong. The spine must be strong before it can be flexible or you risk overstretching tissues and/or damaging joints.

After the inverted back bends is another round of focused-attention on simultaneously developing upper-body stability and lower-body mobility just like in the first half. Postures such as “UPP” (Leg-lifts, 240-42) and Vasisthasana (Side Plank, 309-11), for example, are the more challenging versions of postures seen earlier such as Navasana and Lolasana (Pendant, 116-17), each of which are designed to create strength and stability in the trunk and/or arms. Also here, the hips, knees, and ankles are taken into deeper ranges of flexibility with poses such as Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half-lord-of-the-fishes, 259-62) and Malasana (Garland, 262-66) which are similar to, but more challenging than, poses seen earlier such as Gomukhasana (Cow-face, 115) and Marichyasana I (Marichi’s twist, 160). Notice again that these poses are also nearly exclusively performed with the body seated upright and no more than 90-degrees of flexion at the hips. These shapes are direct preparation for the forward bends without the added stress which folding forward entails.

And, as I mentioned earlier, the second section of seated forward bends begins with Kurmasana, and is, overall, more challenging than the introduction to seated forward bends seen earlier in the sequence. However, the additional challenge is essentially proportionate to the difference between the standing shapes and the inverted shapes, or between the first set of hip-openers and the second.

So there’s the pattern. What does it mean?

Well, I think one way (not the only way, not the best way, just one way) to look at this pattern of events is as a deliberately gradual expansion of physical conditioning from the core of the body (i.e. the trunk or axial skeleton) to the periphery (i.e. the limbs or appendicular skeleton), and also from those poses which are the least to the most stressful.

Many of the seated forward bends target the most peripheral parts of the body—they require fine-tuned use of feet, ankles, knees, hands, wrists, and vertebrae (I don’t consider the spinal column to be part of the peripheral body, but the joints of the spinal column are vulnerable here in a way which is similar to the peripheral joints). So these distal, oft overlooked, and sensitive body parts are first placed into positions of atypical tension (bent, stretched, tucked, folded, rotated, clasped, etc.), and then the heavy trunk of the body is laid down on them to create additional compression. In other words, you compact and then you smoosh. That is a lot of physical stress for the body to undertake without diligent preliminary work. That is why seated forward bends come at the end of the pattern of sections within the sequence. They are poses designed to target the most peripheral parts of the body with the most amount of compressive stress.

On the other hand, standing poses (and their inverted cousins as well), target the most centrally-positioned parts at the core of the body. These poses help us understand the relationship between our body as a whole and space around us. They focus on big, “easy” to manipulate, “easy” to palpate parts in the middle of the body—stomach, ribs, chest, shoulders, and pelvis, for instance. They utilize fairly big and overt movements, and rely less on the more fine-tuned actions which show up in later postures. And, comparatively speaking, they include much less compressive stress on the peripheral body. They come first because we are naturally better equipped to access them in the early stages of practice.

The sections of postures which follow standing/inverting seem to gradually expand toward more and more acutely focused movements—broad areas of the trunk, then specific areas of the spine, then shoulders and arms, hips and thighs, and outward into the extremities. Along the way, more and more weight-bearing and joint-compression are being implemented. The body is slowly developing strength, stamina, mobility, suppleness, balance, and control in more and more localized places and particular ways. With each section of postures, you are learning more how to come into yourself, both physically and energetically, which is a necessary element of safe and effective seated forward bends. And how that happens is by conditioning the body from most-core/least-stressful to most-periphery/most-stressful until you have something like Vrksasana (Tree, 63) transformed into Marichyasana II (163), or Shoulderstand into Yoganidrasana (Sleeping Yogi, 306).

The sequence of events happens twice because you need the whole first set of postures as a solid foundation of physical conditioning for the body before you can move into the more challenging (although similarly shaped) variations which is the second set. You need each of the poses within their particular sections in that particular series of events. It’s like learning to play music—you learn individual notes, then you learn chords, then you learn a song, and each step along the way has its own patterns and purposes. Or how a child learns numbers and then learns how to multiply them. She learns 1, 2, 3, 4… first, and then 7, 14, 21, 28… She doesn’t have to learn all new numbers, only a different kind of pattern within the ones she already knows. You can’t multiply before you can count, and you can’t harmonize before you can pluck. Likewise, you can’t sit and fold before you can stand on your own two feet.

More on this soon…

The pattern summarized:

     1. standing poses (61-99, cultivate balance and stamina while conditioning the core axis of the body with the feet/legs serving as the foundation)

     2. basic back bends (99-109, stabilize and mobilize the body’s posterior chain of muscles)

     3. basic core- and arm-strengtheners plus basic hip-openers (110-47, develop strength in the upper-body and flexibility in the lower-body)

     4. first section of seated forward bends (147-79)

     5. inversions (179-237, cultivate balance and stamina while conditioning the core axis of the body with the head or shoulders serving as the foundation)
          *Sirsasana cycle: 179-205; Sarvangasana cycle: 205-37

     6. inverted back bends (continue to develop strength and flexibility in the body’s posterior chain of muscles via a shift in the relationship to gravity)
          *found throughout Sirsasana and Sarvangasana sections

     7. more challenging core- and arm-strengtheners plus deeper hip-openers (237-88, increase strength in the upper-body and flexibility in the lower-body)
          * two separate sections: (1) core-strength, leg- and hip-openers, and seated twists (237-76), and (2) arm-balances (277-88)

     8. second section of seated forward bends (288-308)

Can you see any repetition of shapes in these poses, and, therefore, how they could be part of a logical sequence of events?

Vrksasana to Marichyasana II

Salamba Sarvangasana I to Yoganidrasana