I’ve been thinking quite a lot about forward bends this week. Very commonly, one of the first things people say to me when I say I’m a yoga teacher is that they’re not flexible — they can’t even touch their toes!
When I was in high school we had to do flexibility tests as part of our Personal Development/Health/Physical Education classes, and I always found them mortifyingly embarrassing. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t touch my toes, it was that I scored something like minus 20 on the scale — which meant my fingertips were 20cm from my toes when I reached for them. Most other people in the class had a positive score; that is they could touch their toes, and then reach further.
I grew quickly, and was unco-ordinated and gangly. My muscles just didn’t keep up with my bones. And, in the way of most teenagers, I was hugely self-conscious about my body.
These days, after years of yoga, I can touch my toes with ease. But I also now realise that folding forward in pashimottinasana or uttanasana is not about touching one’s toes. That might be one outcome, but forward bends are far more than that.
They’re about turning inwards, and surrendering. Energetically, they’re about calming and cooling. They open up and lengthen the back of the body — the back of the neck, down the length of the spine, the buttocks and the back of the legs. It’s true that they stretch out your hamstrings, but they also stretch and lengthen many other muscles besides.
But the level on which I find forward bends most interesting is the level of thoughts. Intellectually, they can be a huge challenge. Many yogis will reach forward and down with their head, rounding the spine, really struggling to touch their toes. I’ve done exactly this myself. But (with a few notable exceptions) rounding the spine in a forward bend is a big no-no. Instead, you should lead with the heart, which will help lengthen the spine. But our heads don’t particularly like being overruled. The mind is used to being heard above all else. Of course, our intellect deserves an awful lot of credit — it gets us through so much. But it also needs to learn to share.
And so, for me at least, the biggest challenge in a forward bend is telling my mind to be quiet for a moment, and, quite literally, letting my heart lead the way. Letting go of any expectations of myself in the pose, and just surrendering into whatever shape I can manage that particular day is often very difficult. But if I manage it, the reward is sweet. Often, surrender means the body lets go, and I can actually go deeper than I would have been able to were I trying to pull my way in. As well, letting go of this expectation of myself leaves me room to notice all sorts of other things about myself in the pose — physically, mentally, sometimes emotionally — that I would otherwise have been distracted from.
Some days surrender is far more of a challenge than other days, even though I’m well aware of the rewards. But that’s okay. And those changes themselves are interesting to notice.
Next time you’re practicing forward bends, see of you can forget for a moment about touching your toes or touching the floor. You might be surprised at what you notice.
I’d be interested to hear what your experience of forward bends is — do you love them? Hate them? What do you like about them or find challenging about them?
[Funnily enough, this morning in my inbox came an email directing me to a great article on forward bends on the Yoga Journal website. Have a look at that article here.]
Update: I just found this picture of a penguin attempting a forward bend. For reasons too silly and complex to explain here, I drew this little guy a few months ago. His frustration typifies my response to those days where I’m bothered by tightness in the back of my body.