So ... how do you feel about forward bends in your yoga practice?
If you're like a lot of people I teach, you might emit the very slightest (or even hugest!) inward groan when instructed to come into a forward bend ... and there may be something other than tight hamstring muscles preventing you from going deeper.
We actually spend a large portion of our time in forward-bending type movements, such as reaching down to pick something up, or sitting in a chair or a car, with our knees bent and our backs rounded. However these scenarios usually scream "bad posture", particuarly if we have sedentary lifestyles. So although forward bends are ingrained and instinctive, we often don't use them, or perform them in our yoga practice, to best effect.
When it comes to working into forward bends on the mat, there's often quite strong resistance in play. Setting aside any potential physical limitations, perhaps this is because, along with hip opening poses (many of which are forward bends), they can stir up unexpressed negative emotions, which lodge themselves into our bodies (both the physical and the subtle body) around the area of the second chakra, Svadhistana. This is the energy centre at the lower pelvic level, which energetically is about relationships, emotions, creativity and sexuallity. If this centre is blocked, these areas of life may not be functioning optimally.
The vast majority of us carry an emotional load; multiple life experiences that have accumulated over time, which may have affected us negatively and which we can tend to bury or repress. Which have been plugging up our system, causing us to become stuck, stagnant, and also less able to forward fold comfortably. Forward bends can reveal the hidden legacy of your past, which is the modality related to this group of poses. We can experience strong emotions such as fear, anger and sadness when we practice poses like Paschimottanasana (pictured), Gomukhasana (cows face pose) and Janu Sirsasana (head beyond the knee pose). Energetically, it's a bit like eating Mississippi Mud Pie - you may as well rub it on your hips, honey, 'cos that's where its going!
To counter this negative lodged energy, we can aim in our forward folding practice to allow what arises to "just be". To sit with it, with the discomfort, without judging it. Facing it, whatever "it" is; examining it and maybe feeling through the emotional pain (but not forcing the physical pose, of course) so that we can eventually heal the wound and let it go. As with all of our yoga, this is a practice - meaning we need to work on it progressively.
Forward bending has many physical, as well as energetic benefits. It massages and tones the internal organs and glands in the abdomen. It can improve digestion, and help with menstrual cramps and regulation of hormones. It stretches and frees up the muscles in the back of the body, preparing us to open to the future, the realm of the back bends!
So, a reluctance to come into forward bends might be suggesting a reluctance to let go of the past. By persevering in our forward bends, gently coaxing ourselves with patience and kindness, over time we can develop the capacity to endure, and release emotional baggage which is holding us back.
A common mistake that practitioners of yoga make in forward bending poses is trying to curl the spine, rather than extending the head and the heart forwards. To support yang style forward bending poses we need to be active in the pose: feet and legs engaged, spine tall, core support switched on, moving forward with the heart centre, drawing the shoulders down the spine. For yin practices, we can release into the shape of the pose once we've used props to support us appropriately, and practice patience and surrender, in both our hamstrings and our hearts.
I'm not suggesting that we should forget our past; we are after all the sum of every step we've taken up to this point, and of every experience we've lived up to this present moment. We can, however, learn from the negative, whilst striving to not let it control us: bringing more space into our lives to let our joy and creativity flourish. We will feel lighter, brighter and more balanced if we acknowledge the lessons life brings, and then learn to let go of any painful Samskaras, or habitual, ingrained habits which no longer serve us.