I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “Wow, I’m really going to feel my abs tomorrow,” after taking a yoga class that concentrated on seated forward bends. And that’s a shame, because they can be great abdominal poses.
When I first started to take classes, I loved seated forward bends and practiced them at home whenever I had time. My hamstrings lengthened fairly rapidly, and eventually I could rest my head on my shin, or close to it, especially if I wasn’t too picky about not rounding my back. It was quiet and cozy inside my forward bends, and when I came back up I felt relaxed and clear.
Then my yoga life became more complex. I stopped doing seated forward bends except occasionally. After all, I “had” them, didn’t I? It seemed like a better use of my practice time to work on poses that were difficult for me: standing balances, headstands, big backbends and abdominal poses, especially the boat poses, both half and full.
A few weeks ago, while looking for clues to help understand the boat poses, I stumbled across what for me was an entirely new idea. In the section on abdominal poses in Yoga: A Gem for Women, Geeta Iyengar cautions that these poses are too intense to be attempted if the abdominal muscles and the muscles of the lumbar spine are weak. Instead, “the muscles should first be toned and strengthened,” by the practice she recommends:
• the standing poses,
• shoulder stand and several of its variations, and,
• the asanas in Section II, Plates 26 through 30.
I’ll confess that I don’t know Gem well enough to instantly match the poses to the plate numbers. I eagerly flipped to the photos only to find, to my surprise, five seated forward bends: Janu Sirsasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana, Maricyasana I and Paschimottanasana.
That’s when I performed my own quintessential yogic gesture – not Namaste, but “duh!” the classic hand-to-the-forehead, Homer Simpson moment, when the light bulb turns on.
Of course, what could be more obvious? It’s much easier to strengthen your abdominals in the right way, to learn their inward, broadening and lifting action, when all you’re doing is attempting to elongate your spine while seated on the floor.
Why even try to hold the weight of your legs in full boat pose if you don’t know how to work your abdominals when they aren’t holding your legs up?
Why waste your time bailing out a leaky boat when you could back up a bit and build one that’s watertight?
Since then I’ve been working with getting and maintaining the lift of my belly in seated forward bends. It works with all of the poses Geeta recommends, of course. But I find the most clarity in Janu Sirsasana, (head-to-knee pose).
If you’d like to strengthen your abdominals in Janu Sirsasana as a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge, here are some pointers:
• Let go of any idea that this is about hamstrings. Don’t even think about bringing your forehead to your shin. For the moment, think up, not forward.
• As soon as you bring your legs into place, compact your hips. Stretch the bent-leg thigh out and down. Then focus lifting your pubic bone. You’ll know that your pubic bone is perpendicular to the floor when you feel your belly easily drawing back toward your spine, lifting and spreading, without any clenching on your part.
• As you slowly turn your spine toward your straight leg – in this case the left leg – keep the lift of your pubic bone. You’re looking for a clean feeling of lift and twisting, your belly constantly moving in and up.
• Reach your right hand to your left foot. If you can’t hold your left foot without collapsing your chest, use a strap. Then try this useful bit of propping Gabriella Giubilaro taught at a workshop some years ago: take a wood brick to the outside of your left thigh, and press your left hand into the brick. Use the leverage the brick gives you to lift your ribcage up away from your pelvis. And then stay there, breathing and lifting.
Hold for two minutes, then change sides.
For tight hamstrings, have as much height under your buttocks as you need to allow your straight leg to truly straighten, and you spine to lift.
If your bent leg knee doesn’t release toward the floor, first add more height under your pelvis, and then support your knee.
Work hard enough and long enough, and you might feel your abs tomorrow. You won’t have the sensation of having done 100 crunches — instead you’ll get something you might like even better: a new firmness, lightness and lift through your belly.
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