Guest Post by yoga teacher, Flo W. Ryder…
I am not very flexible and would love to be able to fold up and touch my head to my knees. I asked yoga teacher, artist and writer Flo Ryder for guidance on the forward bend pose. Here is her article:
Paschimottanasana – The Yogic Forward Fold
Touching your toes can feel a bit of a struggle when you have tight hamstrings, a tight lower back or even tight hip flexor muscles, but practicing the yoga pose, Paschimottanasana, or seated forward fold has many benefits.
Not only can you increase the flexibility in the lower half of the body, as well as gently stretching and aligning the spine, the position of the body in Paschimottanasana also provides the internal organs with a little self-massage. By stimulating the liver, spleen, pancreas, intestines and kidneys, you can encourage stronger digestion and elimination of toxins from the body.
For women, this stimulation is beneficial to the uterus and ovaries so can help keep these precious parts nourished, and can even help alleviate menstrual cramps. That being said, take it easy during your moon days and don’t over-do it if any discomfort is caused. Same goes for those with inflammation in the intestines or diarrhoea: avoid or practice with care and bodily intuition.
Easing into the pose is key. Going too fast and forcefully can be problematic as tight muscles are more vulnerable to over-stretching, and then you’re out of action until they recover! The safest and most effective attitude is to do regular practice and not too much in one go! Little and often if you can.
Uttanasana – standing forward fold
Preparatory poses are recommended, and come with a lot of their own benefits. You can try Uttanasana – the standing forward fold. This is a little easier to attempt as gravity is on your side. If you are falling backwards when sitting up straight on the ground then this is the best place to start. From a standing position, simply fold your upper body over your legs and hang down, bend your knees to protect tight legs and backs, and just let the forces of nature and your own body weight. Let your arms, shoulders and neck loose, and from here you can sway your upper body from side to side to encourage stretching all around your legs, hips and back. You should feel a great stretch but also feel in control to adjust your knee bend to stay comfortable.
Uttanasana is also great for allowing you to relax your upper body as well as letting the blood flow to the head. Like “inversion” poses such as the shoulder-stand and headstand, this can even help feelings of depression, and allowing your heart to hang lower than your head is especially useful in bringing you into a parasympathetic state and therefore alleviating stress and anxiety. Deep breathing here is also highly recommended for easing tension in the mind and body.
Janu Sirsasana –head-to-knee forward bend
Another good preparatory pose is Janu Sirsasana, or the head-to-knee forward bend. This is a half-way forward fold and provides a more stable seated hamstring, back and hip stretch. Simply sit on the ground and bend one leg in towards your groin leaving the other stretched out in front of you.
Inhale and lift your arms above your head in order to stretch your spine to its maximum, then slowly fold over your straight leg reaching your arms forwards towards your toes. Don’t worry if they don’t make it! Lots of good things are happening here aside from toe-grabbing.
As well as the hip and hamstring stretch, the spine is engaged in a gentle, yet healthful twist, and the belly is getting a little one-sided massage. Come up out of the pose on an inhale and relax for a moment or two letting the spine ease back naturally. Repeat for the same amount of time on the other side.
Seated Forward Fold, with legs outstretched
When you feel you are ready to try the seated forward fold with both legs outstretched, yet are still feeling a little unstable as you get into position with your legs out in front of you, you can use a cushion/pillow/block to tuck under your tailbone. This helps to tilt your hips forward so you feel more comfortable as well as encouraging you on your folding journey.
Tools – yogic strap
Another useful tool here is a strap. By looping a yogic strap, or tie, or even thin scarf around the balls of your feet and holding the ends in your hands, you should feel very supported in your initial seated position, whilst having some excellent leverage to bring your upper body down.
Some people also like to stretch their hamstrings by lying on the ground and using the strap in a similar fashion. Give it a try! Again, this takes the pressure off your own muscles, letting them concentrate on being stretched rather than providing you with stability. Eventually however, both qualities are needed to progress into a self-sufficient Paschimottanasana.
Good habits: Keep your back straight
So, with or without your props, folding forward in Paschimottanasana can induce a particularly bad habit that is best to bear in mind from the beginning. Remember that it is much more important to keep your back straight during this pose than getting your head on your legs, or your fingers on your toes. If you can’t yet touch your toes, the props are invaluable in allowing your spine to remain straight.
If you can already touch your toes, remember the little rule that, until your abdomen is on your thighs, you should still be looking at your toes. Holding your toes in the “yogic toe grip” is very useful in keeping your shoulders back and spine straight, or any other hold that works for you is perfectly fine.
Lastly, use your breath to help you progress in this pose. After inhaling your arms up, then exhaling your arms down into the pose, use the inhale to focus on straightening your spine, and the exhale for allowing yourself to go deeper into the pose if the space becomes available to you. This is a great way to focus your mind on your goal to release tension in your tight muscles and encourage flexibility and blood flow all around your body.
Flo W. Ryder: Author’s Bio
Flo Ryder is a yoga teacher, artist and writer. She is one of the few yoga teachers who specialises in yoga for gut health. She provides one-to-one teaching in London and is just about to release a new yoga for gut health course, which can be found on her website – www.SpacetoFlo.com. She also has an instagram account which showcases some of her art work.
I recommend you go and check out her work!
- Makko Ho (真向法): 4 simple Japanese exercises to regain a loose, flexible, childlike body again
- Geoff Pike’s Pa Tuan Tsin: The Eight Precious Sets of Exercise
- A Good Sweat: Physical Activity and a Long Life
All images taken by Flo Ryder
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