Standing Forward Bend: padangusthasana and pada hastasana
In the Ashtanga vinyasa practice that I do, we begin practice with sun salutations and then follow that with a series of fundamental standing asanas. This article is about the first two standing forward bends. I’ve already deconstructed the sun salutations for you, so now let’s explore some fundamental asanas in this next posture series. While I’ve said these poses are part of the Ashtanga vinyasa practice, they are also considered foundational postures in most modern styles of yoga.
So what makes them fundamental or foundational? In the next series of posts, we’ll take a look at the intention of each of these fundamental poses: standing forward bend, triangle, revolved triangle, side angle, revolved side angle, wide-legged forward bend, and a side stretching pose (parsvottanasana). What is it for? What is it doing? What patterns is it developing? What postures will build on it or are related to it? What aspects of this posture do we often struggle with? Why? What are the stages of the posture as I see it? How does it evolve over time? What is the value of the posture? How is it related to physiology in the body? We’ll start this series with standing forward bend. I’ll cover two variations: padangusthasana and pada hastasana.
What is our intention with forward bending in general? When we fold forward, we are flexing at the hip joints and through the spine. This has the effect of lengthening the back of the body and shortening tissues on the front of the body. I’ve discussed this in detail in my book, Functional Anatomy of Yoga.
In padangusthasana and pada hastasana our feet are hip distance apart and we are either holding the toes or we have our hands under our feet.
In these most basic forward bends, we’re just beginning to develop the pattern of length along the back of the body. I often refer to a full forward bend as coming from approximately ⅔ hip flexion and ⅓ spinal flexion. Once we reach the end of flexion in the hip joints, the spine continues the flexion to bring our torso toward our legs.
What other patterns are we beginning to establish here? We’re beginning, in these postures, to develop a feeling of the play between engaging and relaxing. In order to fold forward, our hamstrings will contract eccentrically to lower us toward the ground. Once we’re in the forward bend, we can use different techniques to work with the intention of relaxing the hamstrings so that we can lengthen them. We can even play with leaning forward into our toes just a bit to change the pressure we put into the hamstrings.
How we work with our upper body is also important. There are at least two important patterns that I work with in the upper body. The first one is the lengthening of the spine. We can also choose to use these two postures to begin training our serratus awareness. We can use the resistance of holding our toes in padangusthasana, or placing the hands under our feet in padahastasana, to engage our serratus and latissimus and direct the shoulder blades into protraction. In simple terms, make the elbows point behind you while protracting the shoulder blades.
I often refer to postures as having an opposition in their quality. Sometimes I even refer to them as having a quality of mula and uddiyana, not the literal bandhas, but the quality itself.
The play between these two aspects informs both our feelings of length and strength in postures. The relationship between our hands and feet connecting together creates a groundedness (mula quality). The result of that relationship and tension can create a length in the spine as well as the back of the body (uddiyana quality).
These two basic standing forward bends start to work with our internal cues for balance. In these two postures, we’re exploring the feeling of finding our way in space. You might find initially that these postures challenge your proprioception when you fold forward without using your hands on the floor to keep your balance.
In this aspect of proprioception of balance, the primary way in which we will adapt these postures is to move our pelvis relative to where our foundation is. In other words, beginners who are feeling more cautious in their balance will often have their pelvis slightly behind an imaginary line running up from the feet taking the pelvis behind the heels. If you’re more daring and really “going for it” you might have your pelvis as far forward as your toes.
There is another factor here, which is simply, the tension in the hamstrings. If you have really tight hamstrings, it probably hurts too much to have your pelvis more toward the toes. This is another reason why beginners send the pelvis behind the heels.
Understanding the physiology of postures is a little tricky. Why? Well, there isn’t as much research on the physiological impacts of specific asanas. It’s possible that there are really specific physiological benefits to specific asanas, but at the moment, we are mostly talking about the general.
For forward bends like this, we can categorize them as restorative in part. Of course, they are about the hamstrings lengthening functionally, but they are also restorative in the sense that the head goes below the heart. At least half of our body is upside down and therefore changes the effort required to generate blood flow, at least to half the body.
In addition, if you consider where these two postures live, in the ashtanga sequence at least, you have just finished ramping up the cardiovascular system by completing five surya namaskara A and five surya namaskara B. Broadly, that would be more associated with the sympathetic nervous system. Now, you’ve flipped it upside down and gone restorative which is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system.
Of course, there are what I refer to as the old and traditional stories about what postures like this do.
“These two asanas play an important role in beginning this process of purification. They reduce the accumulation of fat around the waist and abdomen. They work on all the internal organs of the abdomen (Udara) preventing and curing stomach ailments, relieving constipation (Malabaddata) a major factor in the build up of toxins in the body, which can trigger the beginning of disease. They eliminate flatulence and cleanse the rectum and anus. The liver and spleen are toned, the urethra is also cleaned. Piles (Bagandara) are both prevented and alleviated.” – Pattabhi Jois in Lino Miele’s Astanga Yoga book.
Whether or not these claims are true remains an open question. I am personally not clear as to what this is based on. Is it extensive personal experience? Because some technical words and medical conditions are named, it does make it seem that there was some research done at some point, but as far as I know, there is none that comes from the scientific/medical community. It’s possible that we will end up proving these true with time. Let’s see.
Technique and Restrictions
What might get in the way of our fully doing a standing forward bend? You might be thinking of the hamstrings. Certainly, tight hamstrings can impede ease in our standing forward bend. Really though, tension anywhere along the back line of the body can affect forward bending. If you’re finding standing forward bend to be a challenging posture, you could be bumping up against tension in the hamstrings, the calf muscles, the gluteals, and/or the erector spinae muscles. You might even notice tension in the bottoms of the feet and achilles tendons as well as the back of the head and neck!
So, what to do? How might you start with these most basic standing forward bending variations and work to evolve your forward bend?
Of course, putting pressure in the hamstrings in standing forward bends is the main focus. I dare say, it can sometimes become an obsession. This may even be part of the reason that we see so many people searching for sit bone pain on this site. As important as it is to create length in the hamstrings, how we create that length is equally important. How we moderate the pressure in our hamstrings becomes an important part of this. Should we bend our knees? Keep them straight? What’s the difference?
Generally, I suggest that students work in a way that keeps the pressure throughout the entire hamstrings, rather than having the pressure directed more into one of the attachments, or ends, of the hamstrings. To work with that idea, bend the knees (if you need to) as you go into the forward bend and then work with the intention of straightening the legs once you get there.
In padangusthasana, you’ll take hold of the big toes with two fingers and a thumb once you are in the pose. In the second variation, padahastasana, reach the hands under the feet with the palm of the hand up. This second variation is a little more challenging, as more length is required in the hamstrings to be able to fit the hands underneath the feet.
Once you have either of these two positions, don’t initiate all of the work from the arms. Rather, use the arms to enhance the length in the spine. What I often encourage students to do first is to soften their abdomen. Yes, you read that correctly, relax the abdomen. Why? By relaxing the abdomen (which can be more difficult the tighter your hamstrings are) you will be forced to use deeper muscles. Which muscles? Well, the psoas comes to mind as the strongest of all of the hip flexors. Many students are so well trained to use their abdominal muscles that the body almost defaults to this muscle.
When the abdomen contracts, it’s going to try and flex the spine. Of course, some flexion is okay, but if we’re also trying to lengthen the spine, the tension in the abdominal muscles will actually work against this since it’s trying to bring the ribs toward the pubic bone. With the abdomen more relaxed and the psoas engaged, the hip flexion becomes the primary action happening.
What if you can’t reach the floor? You have options for modifications. If you’re really far away, try placing some blocks in front of you and, in a sense, bring the floor up to you. If you’re a bit closer, but need to bend the knees to get there, then let the knees be bent, but use about 25% of your strength to have the intention of straightening them. This will work toward gradually lengthening the hamstrings over time.
Once you’re in your standing forward bend, notice where your weight is. Are you keeping your weight back in the heels, and in a sense, avoiding putting some pressure into the hamstrings? Play with shifting some more of your weight forward. How does that change what you feel in your hamstrings?
One final nuance, relax your head and neck. So many students unconsciously seem to try and use their head to make their standing forward bend deeper. Of course this is happening unconsciously. Tightening the front of the neck to bring the head closer to the legs/knees makes us feel as if we are deeper than we really are at our hip joints.