When I first started my yoga practice Warrior 2 felt great, Extended Side Angle was even better and the first moment of balance in Half Moon pose was truly awesome. So basically, I really enjoyed the first two thirds of any yoga class I went to. What I absolutely did not enjoy was Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) and Janu Sirsasana (head to knee forward bend).
As soon as we came to these seated poses, my whole body seemed to shout "no! absolutely not!". My hamstrings stayed stubbornly tight (despite my best exhaling efforts), my upper back burned while I stretched arms and head forward attempting to close the space between hands and feet, and my pelvis would absolutely not tilt forward no matter how many times the teacher urged it to do so. When I looked around the room I was amazed to see that some people actually looked quite comfortable - like they may even be enjoying this insane posture! Clearly my body was not built like theirs...
But years later, I'm one of those people happily stretching into Paschimottanasana - enjoying all the benefits it has to offer. So how has my forward bend gone from torture to pleasure? I chalk it up to patiently practicing good alignment.
In those early days of yoga my forward bend probably looked something like this:
My pelvis may as well be cast in concrete - it's not tilting anywhere! My upper back is deeply rounded (exacerbated by long hours working at a computer at my day job), and my head is reaching, reaching, reaching!!! for my knees! This is a yogi grasping for something that does not yet exist - flexibility! But that's ok. Our yoga teaches us to let go of expectations, to stop grasping and to let go of attachment to the end result.
Somewhere along the way I had teachers who showed me the path to comfort in Paschimottanasana. Their instructions would have sounded something like this:
1. Find the sitting bones first by reaching back and gently pulling each one away from the heel, removing any flesh from underneath them and rooting the bones down into the earth. If this in itself is challenging put the edge of a blanket or block underneath your seat to help initiate the anterior pelvic tilt.
2. Activate the legs. Draw the toes toward the shins and find your "yoga feet" (press out through the balls of the feet, finding a midway point between flexing and pointing the toes). Keep energy in the legs throughout the practice.
3. Lengthen the spine with the breath. As you inhale feel yourself grow out of the hips while the crown of the head reaches towards the sky.
4. With the exhale actively tilt the pelvis forward and keep the back long and straight as your chest stretches towards your toes, keeping the shoulders back and the heart open.
5. Place the hands on the floor beside the legs, on the shins, or on the feet if they reach (you can also use a strap around the feet). Wherever the hands are placed, soften the skin on the arms and resist the urge to reach and pull.
6. Continue to breathe. Lengthen the back on the inhale and stretch, with the chest open, toward the toes on the exhale. Even if there is no physical movement while you breathe, have the intention of movement and focus on keeping this physical alignment. If you stay committed to the proper alignment, over time your body will open up in the right places and you'll find yourself moving deeper and deeper (with more and more comfort!) into Paschimottanasana.
Whereas much of my discomfort in this asana stemmed from tight hamstrings and limited mobility in my pelvis, Bobby experienced discomfort in this posture because of chronic rounding in her mid and upper back during her early yoga practice. Here are her "before" and "after" photos.
As you can see, in the full expression of the pose the back does round a little. But this reflects the natural curve of the spine rather than an unnatural and accentuated bend in the waist caused by daily habits of forward bending (sitting at a desk, working on a computer, driving a car, etc.).
So the next time you arrive at the seated portion of a class and begin to make your way into the often-challenging seated forward bends, remember that these are difficult for everyone at first! If you bring awareness to proper alignment and let go of the notion that your head must touch your legs or your hands must touch your toes, you'll soon find your body responding positively. The hamstrings will loosen, the pelvis will more easily tilt and the back will actually feel stronger and longer. Before you know it, you'll be enjoying the calming effects of Paschimottanasana - even if your hands never reach your toes!