This is the first of a series of articles looking at yoga forward bends from the perspective of an Alexander technique and yoga teacher. The Paschimottanasana is an advanced forward bending posture, and in future articles I will look at a number of easier and more accessible forward bends.
As you read through my articles on different yoga postures you will notice a common theme; that every person is different and in this sense there is no “correct” or singular way of doing each posture such that it works universally. I would suggest that the “correct” way to approach the postures is by paying attention to our own unique body and what works best for oneself.
I always ask my students to be very clear on what is their intention in doing the posture. By this I mean that they are clear on the direction and flow of energy that each particular posture opens up for them and which they need to intentionally aim for.
The intention behind the Paschimottanasana
In the Paschimottanasana the expansion is through the whole backline of the body (a network of muscles and fascia that connect from the soles of the feet to the ridge of the brow). The stretch should be continuous through this backline. It is important for those with hyperextension of the knee joints to make sure that they are not working in to thus over stretching and weakening the ligaments behind the knee in all forward bends. It is fine to bend the knees to the extent necessary to ensure that the spine can be fully extended.
The flow of the posture should follow through the legs to the forwards roll of the pelvis and a length and expansion through the back. Of particular importance is ensuring that one doesn’t accentuate a forward curve through the spine at a particular point, therein breaking the flow of the posture. In no way do we want to train the flexors to contract which cuts off the flow of energy through the front of the body. The posture when done in a way that is useful for the individual is a powerful way of accessing flow, energy and expansion through the whole spine and torso.
As in all postures, everyone has their own particular range of flexibility in forward bends.
Looking at Fig 1, what moves when we bend forwards? What you can see with the child is that the major point of flexion is from the hip joint. In the adults there is hardly any movement from the hip joint, so whatever bend they are able to get comes from bending through their spines. If they were to bend their knees they would get more hip joint movement. However most people will try to do forward bends with the legs straightened in which case the hamstring muscles are in their maximum stretch. If the person’s hamstrings are reasonably tight, as is common especially in men, this will tend to pull on and tilt the pelvis posteriorly.
Forward bends are frequently done with the intention of stretching the hamstring muscles. The hamstring group consists of three muscles, all of which insert onto the ischial tuberosities (sitting bones) and then attach onto either the tibia or fibula just below the knee joints. This means that they cross two articulations; the pelvis around the femur and the knee joint. Tightness through the hamstrings is a major reason for not being able to move very far in forward bends. However, there are some people with quite flexible hamstrings who also have difficulty going into forward bends. In these cases the problem is often with the lumbar spine, which tends towards a reverse curve (kyphosis) and can’t lengthen out and bring the pelvis with it.
In fact, the tightness through the large back muscles and the much deeper layer of muscles, and particularly the ligaments around the spine itself, affect the ability to fully move into such postures.
Fig 3 .
The person in Fig 2 has both a great amount of flexibility in both the hamstrings and throughout her spine which is fully lengthening within the forwards curve. The person in Fig 3 has good hamstring flexibility but is not as flexible through the spine, and even less in Fig 4. The problem with less spinal flexibility is that we tend to use those few vertebrae of the spine that do move forward to try to get into the position, and in the process of doing that, overstretch the muscles and ligaments in that area. Those few vertebrae of the spine do bend, but not in harmony with the rest of the spine as in Fig 2. In fact, if you find that you do your forward bends by predominately flexing one area of the spine, then that is probably the area of the spine which normally feels the tightest to you. It is the area which you habitually always bend from while sitting at the computer, bending over a stove, picking up a child or a bag of groceries, gardening, and indeed most of the activities of daily life. This is the area of the spine in which you have too much flexibility in flexion, and conversely, in which there will be very little ability for length and extension in our everyday upright posture.
The importance of ligaments
The importance of ligaments in helping us to maintain upright posture and providing stability of our joints is often overlooked. We tend to talk and think a lot about working with particular muscles or muscle groups when discussing yoga postures, but, in addition, we really need to think about the role of ligaments. When we feel ligaments (and tendons) when we over-stretch in a posture, it is quite a different sensation to that of stretching (lengthening) muscles. When stretching muscles along an opening line of expansion the feeling is pleasant. When (over) stretching ligaments and tendons (which attach the muscles to the bones) the feeling is not a pleasant one and may be subsequently felt as strain which continues when we come out of the posture.
The intervertebral discs and facet joints provide a level of mobility to the spine - a total of 24 articulations from the top of the spine to the pelvis. At the same time they are tightly bound together by a fascial network of ligaments providing stability and protecting against excess movement which may damage the discs or the facet joints. There are two ligaments which run the length of the spine; the anterior longitudinal ligament and the posterior longitudinal ligament, as well as ligaments around the facet joints. The supraspinal ligament runs from the spinous process of the 7th cervical vertebra to the sacrum. The ligamentum flavum connects adjacent vertebrae all the way from the 2nd cervical vertebra to the first section of the sacrum and between the vertebrae. All these ligaments resist movement in a range of different directions, including forward bending. In forward bends, in conjunction with other ligaments, the elastic fibres of the ligamentum flavum, which resists this movement, provide a strong returning force as well as maintaining the position of, and relationship between, the different vertebrae of the spine (Fig 5). The elasticity of the ligamentum flavum is an essential element in making it easy for us to effortlessly maintain an upright posture.
Fig 5. Medial saggital section of two lumbar vertebrae and their ligaments
The vertebrae of the spine, and indeed every joint of the body, are designed such that there is a range of movement and relationship between them which is healthy and a relationship which is unhealthy. It is well known that if the curves of the spine are habitually accentuated then pain and dysfunction is a likely consequence. The same occurs in the rarer cases of over-straightened spinal curves.
In everyday living most people do not use the spine optimally. Think of the office worker hunching over her work for most of the week. In such a situation the fibres of the ligamentum flavum and other ligaments are constantly over-stretched and gradually lose their elastic potential to return the spine to a healthy “upright” curve. Gradually, there is also a contraction of the muscles and connective tissue which flexes the torso, including the supraspinal ligament. There is not only a weakening of the supporting ligaments and muscles which assist with extension and an increase in tone in the ligaments and muscles which assist with flexion of the torso, but there is also a change in the nervous system, and gradually this stooped posture begins to feel natural and becomes the default posture. In this scenario a conscious effort needs to be made to “straighten up” but this will generally be soon followed by a return to the default posture once conscious effort/thought ceases. Thus the individual will be oscillating between “sitting up straight” and collapsing which in and of itself is tiring.
The role of habit
When such a person approaches a forward bend they will inevitably begin the forward bend from that point in their back where they habitually bend from and will indeed accentuate that existing pattern. Even if they intend not to bend from there they usually won’t be aware of doing so due to the phenomenon of “faulty sensory awareness” (i.e. an inability to sense a habitual interference with coordination). This excess bend is particularly noticeable in Figs 3 and 4.
Besides over-stretching this area of the spine we are also pulling on the rest of the spine, in a way that is likely to create strain and injury in the lower back and sacroiliac joints. If we look at Fig 4 we can see that if there is a habitual pattern of bending from this area of the spine, the ligaments in the back of the spine are being overstretched as will be the small deep postural muscles which assist with maintaining spinal extension; spinalis thoracis, transversospinalis, interspinalis and multifidis. These are the muscles which we want to be constantly (and subconsciously) working to maintain our upright posture. In addition to this, there is the over-activation of all the flexor muscles, ligaments and connective tissue. When this over-activation of the flexors is habitual and continuous, easy upright posture becomes difficult to attain.
How to work in the posture
So the question is how to work in this posture in a useful way. Firstly, we need to make sure that however far we are coming forwards we are extending a lengthening in concert with/along/through the natural curves of the spine. Only once we have that full length do we want to move further into the posture and thus curve as in Fig 2. Many individuals may never get to this point doing this posture but will still benefit enormously from the processes of lengthening their spine simply in sitting.
We want the forward bend (paschimottanasana) to work in a way that is not over-stretching already overstretched ligaments, but rather to work on lengthening and toning those ligaments. If we look at Fig 6 we can see that the yogini is sitting on a blanket to raise her pelvis. This allows her to be on her sitting bones, which gives the possibility of forward movement of the pelvis. Also, rather than curving her back over she is lengthening her spine. This can be quite hard work, especially for those with weakened back muscles and ligaments. If people are too tight in the hamstrings to be able to sit on their sitting bones, they will have to sit even higher for the posture to work for them. In any type of sitting forward bend it is essential that we begin from sitting on our sitting bones.
Fig 6 shows an alternative for those who are too tight to work this posture profitably while sitting, even if they are raised quite high on blocks or blankets as in Fig 8 (below). Although you can’t see it in this picture she has her buttocks against a wall. She is reasonably flexible and many won’t go this far forward. The arms should be taken forwards only if it is possible without creating a collapse in the spine, and it may be useful check this in a mirror. There is no problem in allowing the knees to bend in this posture (or in sitting), as it allows the back to lengthen whilst working with quite an intense stretch in the hamstrings.
In moving into this posture with a slight bend in the legs, and without straightening the legs further, you rotate the pelvis by moving the sitting bones up the wall. It can help to take hold of the sitting bones with your hands as you think of moving them.
Fig 7 shows a common mistake in this posture of over-contracting the lumbar spine to maintain the length. We certainly don’t want to round the lumbar spine in coming forwards but to lengthen through the natural curves of the spine. An even more common thing for people to do is to collapse the whole torso forwards.
Essentially we want to prioritise the lengthening of the spine over the straightening of the legs/stretching of the hamstrings in all forward bends. The legs, especially hamstrings, can be stretched in a multitude of other ways (laying down using a yoga strap) and this stretch is worth forgoing in the paschimottanasana, at least initially.
The paschimottanasana is one of the more difficult forward bends, and in its classic form is out of the range of possibility for tighter bodies. In future articles I’ll look further at a range of different forward bends, some of which everybody will be able to do.
This article provided the beginning of the chapter on Forward Bends in my book "Smart Yoga: Apply the Alexander Technique to enhance your practice, prevent injury, and increase body awareness"
CLICK HERE FOR A LIST OF MY COURSES AND WORKSHOPS IN MELBOURNE AND AROUND THE WORLD.