Yoga asanas are often categorized into ‘bends’ and ‘folds’. Backbends, sidebends, forward folds, you get the idea.
If we change the vernacular for the type of pose we are coming into can we change our experience in the pose altogether? It’s an interesting question that I’ve been playing around with in my practice and classes for a while now. I think that the way we label a pose profoundly impacts our experience in that pose.
Bending vs. Lengthening
When you hear the word ‘backbend’ what part of the body is your attention immediately drawn to? Most likely your back. And probably how much it is bending. How can I deepen my backbend? Possibly just by thinking of it as a front extension, an equally valid way of describing the pose and one I find brings our attention to a more useful area, the connection along the front body where we can tangibly feel the stretch and any breaks in the chain within the line of stretch.
Let’s try a little experiment before diving deeper. Mindfully come into cobra or upward facing dog, thinking of the word ‘backbend’ as you find the arch in your spine. (Make sure to move slowly, speed often dulls sensation!) Maintain this pose for at least 5 deep breaths, longer if you feel capable. Notice where you feel space in your body and where you feel the stretch.
**Please give the exercise above a try before reading on so your experience isn’t influenced by what’s to come. You need to actually try the exercise to gain anything from this!**
Mindfully come into cobra or upward facing dog once more. This time think of the words ‘front extension’ or ‘front stretch’ as you find length along the front of your body. Hold the pose for at least 5 deep breaths, continuing to focus on the stretch along your front body. Notice where you feel space in your body and how you are experiencing the stretch.
**If you haven’t done the exercise try it now, I’ll wait!**
Did you notice any difference in your experience in the pose? Was your focus directed into different areas based on how you labeled the posture? In my experience focusing on the area of the body that is stretching encourages us to find more length and space in the body, promoting greater stretching of the body as a whole, continuous unit. Oftentimes this encourages us to lengthen in two directions rather than leaning in only one direction.
When we hear the word backbend we often focus on the lower back, trying to create a greater arch by sticking our butt out and collapsing into the lumbar spine. To prevent this I sometimes like to visualize arching up and over a giant beach ball. We can either collapse into the ball or lengthen up and over it, lifting the front body to find as much space as possible and engaging the back body for support. Make sure to engage your lower abdominal muscles to feel the sensation of the crest of your hip moving up and back as you simultaneously lengthen your tailbone down and under, finding a more aligned pelvic tilt.
In my experience this same lift and lengthening is encouraged by thinking of extending the front of the body rather than bending backwards. When we hear ‘front stretch’ we think of pressing the pelvis forward to feel the stretch in the hip flexors, the link between the front of the legs and our torso. We press our feet actively into the ground to create lift. We maintain space in the stomach and chest all the way to the throat, creating one long line of lengthened connection from the tops of the feet to the throat, the entirety of the front body. We are stretching the fascial connection (in this case the Superficial Front Line) as a continuous unit without a break in the chain.
This same concept has helped me to find greater depth in lateral (side) bends as well. ‘Lean to the right’ makes me think about curling the right side of my body down. My focus is drawn downwards and away from the left side of my body where the magic of the stretch is occurring. ‘Stretch your entire left side’ or ‘extend your left side body’ makes me focus on keeping lift and length in the areas we are trying to create space, from the outside of the foot to the ribs to the top of the head.
Both cues draw us into the same shape but they subtly draw our attention into different areas. One cue focuses on creating space and length by focusing on the side that is stretching. The other cue focuses on shortening the space on the side that is contracting with the idea this will create the stretch and length along the opposite side that is stretching. Two sides of the same coin but some of us prefer to call out ‘Heads’ while others prefer to call out ‘Tails’ (I’m a tails never fails guy).
Paschimottonasana: The Wisdom in the Name
Let’s look at Paschimottonasana, a pose with a name that has a lot of intention tied to it. Translated from sanskrit this pose means ‘intense stretch of the west’. Paschima means west (purva means east). Yogis traditionally practiced in the morning facing the rising sun so the front of the body was referred to as the east and the back of the body was referred to as the west. Therefore Paschimottonasana is an intense stretch of the entire backside of the body.
Come into your paschimottonasana, the way that you typically do. Stay here for about a minute, breathing deeply and moving gradually deeper into the pose. Where do you feel the majority of the stretch? Is it in your hamstrings, in your upper back, lower back, or along your entire back? For many of us it will be primarily felt in the hamstrings because we are taught to keep our legs as straight as possible and our backs straight as well. If our hamstrings are short or tight they will absorb most of the stretch as we bend forward. This is one approach to coming into this seated forward fold, but there are other options that can let us bypass the hamstrings to an extent.
Remember in the post about how bending your knees unlinks the fascial grip between the calf and the hamstrings, diminishing the stretch felt in the hamstrings? Let’s try to apply this knowledge to see if we can spread the stretch in paschi to include the entirety of our back.
Place a rolled up mat or blanket under your bent knees. Fold forward with a straight spine as far as you can and then allow your spine to round. Feel the space where your spine meets the base of your skull at the AO (atlanto-occiptal) joint. With your breath pivot slightly up at this joint as you inhale and let the weight of your head round down into gravity as you exhale, allowing your chin to fall towards your chest.
The fascial connection along the back body (the Superficial Back Line) runs from the base of the foot, along the back body, and wraps around the skull to the forehead. By releasing the head and allowing the spine to round, we maximize the length of the back body, all the way up the back of the neck and back of the skull. By bending the knees we prevent the stretch from being absorbed primarily by the hamstrings.
Practicing paschi in this manner may allow you to feel more stretch along the entire backside of the body, which is the intention of the pose as the name implies. It also can help to translate the stretch into the upper back and neck where most people experience tightness and trigger points. Rather than thinking of a forward fold we can think of the pose as a stretch along the entire backside of the body, and feel it that way too!
This is not to say that you should or have to perform your seated forward fold in this way. Like anything it’s an option. You might find it works better for you. You might prefer having the quadriceps straight and actively engaged. What works best for one person’s body and personal practice isn’t necessarily best for everyone else. But I invite you to give it a try, bring your focus to creating space in the areas that are being targeted to stretch in a pose, and see if it resonates with you.
We don’t have to approach asana the same way every time. We don’t have to label a pose the same way as everyone else. We have the right to find what works best for us and apply it to our practice and our lives. What is beneficial for one individual may be potentially harmful or limiting to another and vice versa. Sometimes just by shifting how we describe something can create profound shifts in our bodies and minds. Try shifting your labeling of asana to promote bringing attention to create length and space and try allowing your labeling of everyday occurrences to be more positive. You may find yourself filling up all that space within and around you with positive vibrations.