How to Make Your Forward Bends Comfortable and Soothing

Paschimottanasana Pose or Seated Forward Bend Pose with a bolster under the knees for extra support

I have always known that yoga’s seated forward bends are considered quieting poses, but it wasn’t until I interviewed Shari Ser about baroreceptors several years ago that I discovered that forward bends are quieting for the same reason that inverted poses are calming: pressure on the baroreceptors causes your body to lower your blood pressure and reduce your stress hormones. No wonder three minutes in a forward bend seems to turn off the noise in my head and put me in a relaxed, almost dreamy state.

But Shari’s observations about forward bends made me curious because you’re not exactly upside down in a forward bend and I had previously learned that it was gravity that was putting pressure on your baroreceptors. (I’m like that about yoga, I always want to know why!) So I asked my colleague, Baxter Bell if he knew why forward bends had the same effect as inversions. Here’s what he said:

“Regarding the beneficial effect of seated forward folds on lowering blood pressure, I would hypothesize that the fold brings enough pressure onto the abdominal area to place pressure on the main blood vessel in the belly, the abdominal aorta. If this caused a temporary narrowing in the vessel, this could create a back pressure up to the baroreceptors in the neck and aortic arch. This would have the same effect as inversions.”

But What if You Don’t Like Seated Forward Bends?

By now you may be reading this and thinking, “That’s fine for you to say, but I hate forward bends. Just the thought of doing them makes me feel cranky, not relaxed.” Yes, I realize that I’m one of the lucky few who is flexible enough to be comfortable in forward bends. And I do know that a large number of people, especially those with tight hamstrings, are, shall we say, quite the opposite of comfortable in forward bends. For those people, discomfort in the pose negates the soothing effects because being physically uncomfortable tends to irritate the nervous system.

But does that mean you have to miss out entirely on the blissful feeling I’ve just described? Definitely not! Because in today’s post I’m going to present two different ways to prop your forward bends to remove the yuck and bring on the bliss. Try them both and see which one works best for you. For people with back problems, the second technique might be better because in that one you keep your spine long, rather than rounded.

Seated Forward Bends for Everyone

How to Practice:

Bolster under Straight Leg or Legs

With this technique, you place a round bolster or a very thick blanket roll under the knee of your straight leg or both legs if you are doing Seated Forward Bend Pose (Paschimottanasana) as shown in the photo below. With the bolster supporting you this way, your knee or knees will be bent and supported. This can be very helpful for people, like Baxter, who is shown here, who have very tight hamstrings.

Paschimottanasana Pose or Seated Forward Bend Pose with a bolster under the knees for extra support

Baxter is someone who normally doesn’t enjoy forward bends, but just look how comfy he looks in these photographs!

  1. Bend from your hips to come into the forward bend and then slowly round your back into a gentle curve.
  2. To experience the soothing effects of the pose, stay in the pose at least three minutes. I’ve found it takes that long for the pose to work its magic.
  3. When you are ready to come out of the pose, come out very slowly, rolling up to an upright position.

Paschimottanasana with a bolster and the student going deeper into the pose

Resting Your Arms and Head on a High Support

In the second version of a supported forward bend, you use a bench or chair on which to rest your arms and head and you use a folded blanket under your pelvis. Position the chair over your straight leg (or legs), far enough away so you can keep your spine long and straight when you come into the forward bend. If the bench or chair isn’t high enough for you to easily reach, add folded blankets or towels to increase the height.

Here are three different seated forward bends practiced using this technique. Experiment to see which is the most comfortable for you, because it varies depending on your body type (the flexibility of your hips vs. the backs of your legs).

Seated Wide Angle Forward Bend or Upavista Konasana restorative version with a chairPaschimottanasana with the support of a chairSeated Forward Bend Cross Legged or Sukasana version with the support of a chair.

  1. To come into the pose, bend from your hip joints, keeping your spine straight and long (in this version you do not round your back).
  2. Place your folded arms on the chair or bench, and rest your head on your hands. If possible, catch your forehead skin on your hands and tug it gently down toward your eyebrows.
  3. To experience the soothing effects of this pose, stay in the pose for at least three minutes. When you are ready to come out of the pose, come out very slowly, using your hands to press yourself into an upright position.

In the past, I often taught the chair version of seated forward bends,  and I was always so pleased to see almost everyone in the class come out of the pose with a calm, relaxed expression on their faces. I’d love to hear how it feels to you!

For cautions for these forward bends (and forward bends in general), see Which Forward Bends Are Safe?

 

Beth Gibbs, C-IAYT, yoga therapist, YogaUOnline contributor, the Chakras series, writer

This article is published with permission from YogaForTimesofChange.com

Nina Zolotow, RYT 500, the author of the forthcoming book “Yoga for Times of Change” and the Editor-in-Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, is both a yoga writer and a yoga teacher. She trained to be a yoga teacher at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, California, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She also studied extensively with Rodney Yee and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety). She teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional well-being, stress management, better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. 

Nina is the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body (with its companion 50 Card Practice Deck) and Moving Toward Balance.  She is also the author of numerous articles on yoga and alternative medicine.

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