Yoga can be tough. When we practice we are often working on, or near, our limits of strength, stamina or flexibility. Improvements can be hard to come by, and if we don’t keep practicing they are quickly lost.
I think for most people this is never truer than when we’re working on flexibility. Developing flexibility can hurt. The stretch reflex is difficult to overcome and is an ever-present reminder of our current limits, physical and mental. Forward bends, when we stretch the back and particularly the hamstrings, really expose us to painful reminders of what is possible and what isn’t (for now).
This is difficult to deal with when we’re new to yoga. If we did have any preconceptions about yoga before we stepped onto a mat – it’s just some breathing and touching your toes – they are quickly dismissed the first time we really follow the instructions for a pose like Uttanasana. And they stay dismissed for every second we hold the pose, which is often quite a few more seconds than is comfortable.
The key to developing your yoga is persistence. This applies to practicing during a lesson and over a longer period of time. Some muscle groups may need a minimum of three months of stretching to see improvement (Walker, The Anatomy of Stretching, 2011). If you attend 1 class a week then I think 3 months is a good length of time to wait to see improvements. You may notice an improvement in some areas sooner than that of course.
When we’re practicing in class it’s important to persist as well. We’ve all been in the position of looking around and seeing people ‘better’ than us, by which I simply mean more flexible. Don’t focus on that. Instead, focus on following the instructions so that you do the pose with good form and do it to the best of your ability. Keep doing that throughout the class and your yoga will improve. It’s not unusual to get to the end of the class and feel like we’ve become more flexible. It’s persistence which has delivered those gains.
Reading this it’s probably no surprise that the focus in class this week was forward bends.
I decided we’d focus on standing forward bends rather than seated, so that means starting with Tadasana. Good form in forward bends is to keep the chest open and the spine extended.
It can look impressive if you can get your head to your knees in a pose like Janu Sirsasana, but what you’re really aiming for is getting your chin onto your shin – like in the image here.
We started exploring this action in Tadasana, first with hands on hips, taking the elbows backwards and then trying to bring the elbows and shoulder blades together. This helps to bring extension into the thoracic spine. You can explore this further by taking the hands up the back into reverse namaskar. It’s really useful to do this if you’re working towards Parsvottanasana, which we were.
With this in mind we went into Adho Mukha Svanasana. It’s an obvious preparation pose for Parsvottanasana and gives us a chance to introduce some stretch into the hamstrings and explore the action of taking the chest back towards the thighs. To keep the focus on developing the flexibility of the hamstrings we did Uttansasana. An intense pose in itself which can be intensified by clasping the hands together behind your back and then taking the arms over your head. This has the added benefit of stretching the shoulder muscles.
For a bit of relief, and to underline the importance of this chest opening action of the thoracic spine, we practiced Trikonasana. Then had some proper rest in Sukhasana which also gave us the chance to stretch the shoulders again, and then Balasana to practice moving the inhalation to the back of the body, which allows the stomach to relax and means we can go deeper into the forward bend.
Parsvottanasana, with your hands on the floor, either side of the front foot, can feel like a mix of Uttanasana and Adho Mukha Svanasana. The hamstrings of the front leg get an intense stretch as in Uttanasana. But the hips should remain aligned with the front of your mat, and be pushing up towards the ceiling with the heel of the back foot helping to anchor the pose, just like downward dog. It’s good to do Parsvottanasana this way first before attempting the full pose with hands in reverse namaskar. There’s nowhere to hide in this pose!