Forward bends are postures of surrender and acceptance. They calm the nervous system, quiet the mind, and naturally turn the attention inward. In the midst of a busy life, simply to pause and pay attention to what's going on below the surface can be a revolutionary act.
One simple, seated forward bend is paschimottanasana
--literally, "Intense Stretch to the West Side of the Body." It stretches all the muscles on the back of the legs and the spine and massages the inner organs. To practice paschimottanasana, sit on the floor with your legs extended. Press your hands into the floor beside your hips to keep your spine long [Figure 1]
. If your hamstrings (the long muscles on the back of your thighs) are tight, you may find that your back rounds and your tailbone tucks under. In that case, sit on the edge of one or more folded blankets; this will elevate your hips and make it easier to keep the back in its natural alignment [Figure 2]
Inhale deeply and, as you exhale, gently fold forward from the hips and catch hold of your toes [Figure 3]
. Keep the muscles of your legs "active" by pressing out through your heels, so that the backs of your legs are in contact with the floor. Keep your spine long and relaxed. If you can't do this without rounding and straining the back, don't struggle; just loop a belt, strap, or even a folded towel around your feet and catch hold of both ends [Figure 4]
Breathe here for several deep, slow breaths. Then keep the spine long as you fold deeper, releasing your belly toward your thighs and your chest toward your knees [Figure 5]
. Go only as deep as you can go while maintaining a deep, relaxed, even breath. For a softer, more meditative version of this posture, you may want to bend your knees and rest your chest on your thighs [Figure 6]
. This variation provides less stretch, but if your muscles are tight it may make it easier for you to relax and observe your inner experience.
Once you are in the full pose, simply rest there and let your attention dive inward. Without judging or trying to change anything, notice the contents of your experience. What sensations do you feel in your body, and where? Is there tingling? burning? heat? cold? Are the sensations pleasant or unpleasant? Are there places you feel no sensation at all? Is your breath deep or shallow? rapid or slow? Do you feel the breath more in the back or front of your body?
Observe any emotions that arise. Do you feel anxious? impatient?calm? joyful? Are thoughts, judgments, or memories beginning to surface? Where do you feel them in your body? Don't label these phenomena as good or bad; don't run away from them or chase after them. Just notice them as they swim past, your mind as spacious as the sea. When you are ready to surface, slowly roll up [Figure 7]
to a seated position.