Forward bending is the most ingrained of all movements. We will always bend forward to pick something up, even if we could bend backwards, and we sit on chairs at work, at home, at the movies and elsewhere. We rarely think much about bending forward in everyday life, but when we practice forward bends in our asana practice, we become acutely aware of tightness in our hamstrings or hips, sensitivity in our lower backs or fear, anger or sadness that arise seemingly out of the blue. Many students find these asanas the most challenging, and many avoid them in order to minimize physical or emotional discomfort that may arise from stretching the back of the body.
Forward bends take us into our past, giving us opportunities to resolve deep psychological issues which over time have become lodged in the joints, muscles, organs and other tissues of our bodies. Forward bends activate the second chakra – swadhishthana chakra – located at the level of the sacrum, pelvis, hips and groin. Swadhishthana chakra corresponds to our creativity and sexuality and to our relationships with our children and to our romantic, sexual, creative and business partners. When we practice forward bends, we are often confronted with past karmas relating to these people and issues in our lives. These karmas result in physical and emotional restrictions and fears that can hold us back from fully expressing our creativity and sexuality. By noting the sensations and emotions that arise during forward bending without judging, denying or running away from them, we purify the second chakra, resolving relationships and setting ourselves free from the bonds of those karmas.
Forward bends also yield many physical benefits. They tone the abdominal glands and organs; they improve digestion; and they can relieve menstrual cramps. These asanas also tone and strengthen the hip flexors and the muscles on the entire front of the body, while increasing the freedom of the muscles on the back of the body, including the hamstrings. Many people find it more difficult to bend forward and be still for a few minutes than to do many sun salutations. This can be because of physical limitations, but it can also be because the forward bending position is a humble position, a position of surrender and letting go. A consistent forward bend practice can help develop humility, patience, endurance and focus.
The seat in forward bends may vary from only the feet, as in uttanasana, to the backs of the legs and hips, as in paschimottanasana. One important aspect of proper alignment in all forward-bending asanas is that the feet, legs and chest are not passive. The feet are alert and supportive, whether the ankles and toes are flexed or pointed. In many forward bends, the quadriceps are contracted, while the backs of the legs are lengthening. The chest should not be sunken or closed in, and the shoulder blades should be moving down the back. The movement into the asana usually originates from the heart center with a preparatory inhalation. Generally forward bending is deepened on the exhale and re-aligned or re-energized on the inhale.
If while in a forward bend, you can cultivate a mind free of negative thoughts and a heart filled with blessings and forgiveness toward others, you can begin to let go of anger, blame and resentment. Through practice, you will come to realize that the way others treat you is coming from the way you have treated others in the past. Forward bending offers a chance to reflect on and heal the past, leaving you free to move forward effortlessly into the future.