My dear friend Sudhanshu Srivastava from Kolkata has been suffering when doing forward bends. He says in Paschimottanasana (Intense stretch pose for the West side of the body as seen below) that he is not able to bend forward but only a few degrees.
This is a difficult pose for any beginner and should not be considered until two things happen: the hamstrings loosen and the abdomen softens. That takes a few years of correct practice in the Iyengar method. Otherwise there is a risk of injury, particularly tearing a hamstring muscle. This pose does not appear until the second (Intro II) syllabus which assumes the practitioner has had at least three years of practice in the asanas preceding it.
Here is a sequence of forward bends for people with tight hamstrings and a hard abdomen.
Ardha Uttanasna with wall (hips directly above ankles, wrists on same plane as hips)
Chair Adho Mukha Svanasna (note heels are pressing down)
Chair Utthita Trikonasna
Parsvottanasna Stage I with chair and back heel pressing against wall
Prasarita Padottanasna Stage I with blocks
First roll a blanket about half way of what it is in picture…
Then insert it in the crease between the abdomen and thighs in a bent knee Uttanasna. Make sure the cavity of the abdomen fills with blanket. Eventually try to straighten the leg keeping the blanket in the cavity. This will be very uncomfortable because the abdomen is tight. Do what you can.
Supta padangusthasana with belt keeping abdomen soft.
Savasana with legs on chair, knees slightly in front of hips as seen above. Note that abdomen remains soft.
This is just an example of a simple forward bending sequence and should not be considered dogma by any means. My aim here is as mentioned above, to address tight hamstrings and abdominal muscles. I put a lot of emphasis on the “softness” of the abdomen because the rock hard “six pack” abdomen makes it very difficult to do forward bends due the overuse. The rectus abdomini are just superficial muscles. The muscles I am concerned with are the much deeper and stronger are the transversus abdomini.
To lastly illustrate my point, the above picture is taken at a Kofi Busia workshop a few years ago. That is me in Paschimottanasna with a little help from Kofi. I weighed about 175 lbs (80kg) in the photo and have a roundish soft abdomen. The red haired lady in the background is obviously much lighter and has a “six pack” style abdomen. That is as far as she got in the pose.
Thank you! Us new yogis need more posts like this!
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Thank you for coming up with this brilliant post and accommodating my request of simplifying forward bends. I feel blessed to find a Guru like you, who are always ready to solve all queries of home yoga practitioner like me.I was just thinking that the day is not far away when you have to add one new category “Sudhanshu’s Question-Michael Solution” in caegory section of your blog.
Anyway, very many thanks to you for kind guidance.
Thanks for your compliment Sudhanshu. I am not a Guru, that title is reserved for Iyengar. I am just a Sadhaka. That is funny about the “question and answers for Sadhanshu category,” but you ask some good questions that many other have too. Glad you enjoyed the post.
I am so happy to see this post! This is a pose Inhave been delving into the last couple of days. I was especially interested in what you said about how late this pose is introduced in the Iyengar syllabus! I am not Iyengar trained, but of course use Iyengars methods with props etc 🙂 I hardly ever teach this pose to new students just on my knowledge & also “feeling ” that it’s not great for their lower back if hamstrings hips and generally the body is tight. I teach “around” it by lengthening and limbering up and peppering in gentle forward folds allowing progression in time. Now I have your additional insight to back it up! That info on when it is introduced was very valuable to me.
Thanks Kerry! When I first started teaching yoga years ago I would start my class in paschimottanasana because that is what my teacher at the time (who was not Iyengar) was doing. When I showed this to senior teacher Mary Obendorfer at a teacher training, she asked “why are you teaching such a difficult pose to beginners right off the top?” That moment really changed my teaching path. Glad you found this information helpful.
Reblogged this on IYENGAR YOGA BLOG.
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Dear Michael, thank you for your blog, I discovered it recently and find it very clear and interesting. I have been practicing Hatha yoga for 6 years now and few months ago discovered Iyengar Yoga. I made some good progress on my hamstrings but find still very hard to lower my torso close to my legs in paschimottanasana as well as in uttanasana. I found surprising your emphasis on a soft belly though as my abdominals are not very toned. I tend to have a deeper lumbar curve than I should and a rather protruding belly. Perhaps the result of thight psoas and quads ( I grew up skiing on my native Italian alps). So I guess my lower back muscles are rather shortened and tight and I am wondering if in my case this is the main problem in forward folds. I would be grateful if you could give me your opinion on this. If you believe it possible that tight lumbar muscles be the problem in my case which poses would you advice me to practice.? Would supta virasana help me? Many thanks
I’d have to see in person. Virasana/Supta Virasana work well to loosen quads. Don’t be so goal oriented to move your torso to your legs in paschimottanasana.