janu sirsasana abdominals 2

Press strongly down into the brick on the outside of your straight leg to help lift your body, from your pubic bone to the top of your sternum.

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.

janu sirsasana abdominals 1

Get the lift of your pubic bone as soon as you set your legs.

• 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.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Why Yoga Builds Your Inner Strength
Success! 94 Days of Shoulder Stand, and Counting
Five Good Reasons to Let a Timer Be Your Practice Buddy


blockbaddhakonasana skeleton

Notice the thick, heavy rim at the top of the shoulder blade. It can take your weight.

Lately I’ve come to have a whole new appreciation for my shoulder blades, and in particular, for the thick part at the very top rim.
In the past, I always imagined my shoulder blades to be light and fragile, part of a gossamer shoulder girdle meant to float on top of my ribcage.

Now I feel the tops of my shoulder blades as bones with substance, strong supports for my upper back. As long as I stay connected to them, they can help me erase the effects of sitting at a desk, and of every other front-chest collapsing activity, from cooking to driving.

Even more magically, my new shoulder blade understanding has deepened my twists, enlivened my shoulder stand, and given me a new lift of my front chest in seated pranayama.

I have Mary Lou Weprin to thank for this. Mary Lou normally teaches in Berkeley, at The Yoga Room. But early in March, she travelled north to Nanaimo, B.C., for a weekend workshop.

On Friday evening, she taught a version of Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose) that involves leaning into a dense foam brick at the wall. She told us that she teaches this pose in every class, and true to her word, we worked on it every day for the three days of the workshop.

The demonstration looked disarmingly simple and relaxing. We were, after all, sitting down. But you’ll soon what makes this a worthy Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: it takes work to press the top shoulder blades into the brick and broaden them away from your spine, while simultaneously growing wider across your collar bones.

Touch your fingers to your shoulder and lift your elbow to the ceiling to make your shoulder blade move down.

Touch your fingers to your shoulder and lift your elbow to the ceiling to make your shoulder blade move down.

Try it once, and you’ll feel a new openness in your upper body. Make it a daily part of your practice, and you may be surprised by where it leads you.


Press your hands into the floor to help lift your chest.

Sit slightly away from the wall in your own version of Baddha Konasana, (bound angle pose). (Sit so that your knees are lower than your navel when your feet are pressed together. That might mean one blanket under your buttocks, or, if your hips and inner thighs are tight, a bolster propped up on two layers of chip foams.)

Place a dense foam brick at the wall, and lean back, so the top edges of your shoulder blades come to rest on the brick.

Make sure that your shoulder blades are moving away from your ears. One way to do this is to set your shoulders as you would in Savasana: bring one hand at a time to its own shoulder, with your elbow no wider than your shoulder. Then reach your elbow up to the ceiling. You should feel your shoulder blade move down and come into a cleaner contact with the brick. If you have trouble feeling the work when you try this pose, your shoulder blades are probably rounded forward, away from the brick.

Once your shoulder blades are set, lean back into the brick. It helps to press your hands into the floor to start, both to lift your side ribcage and to press back into the brick.

Broaden the tops of your shoulder blades out to the tips of your shoulders.
Then take your awareness to your front body and broaden your collarbones out to the tips of your shoulders. You should feel your front chest lifting. Check that your top buttock rolls to your mid buttock, so your lower back stays long.


Let your chin move to your chest to release any tension in your neck.

You may notice that your neck feels some strain in this pose, especially after a few moments of serious effort. Try dropping your chin toward your chest. You might be surprised how close you come to the chin lock (Jalandhara Bandha) you need for seated pranayama.

You can work your legs in the pose – your inner thighs stretch toward your inner knees and your outer knees pull back toward your outer hips – but don’t lose the focus on your broadening, lifting chest.

Stay in the pose until you have a firm imprint of the brick in your upper back.
Five minutes would be a good goal. Then use your hands to bring your knees back together, and come out of the pose.

You can take this imprint with you into many other poses. All you have to do is inhabit the tops of your shoulder blades, and suddenly, as though you had a new invisible friend, there’s extra freedom in your twists, and more sensitivity and broadness in your shoulder stand – in fact in all poses in which the shoulders connect with the floor.

So lean into your shoulder blades. They can take it.

To my Nanaimo friends who were at Mary Lou’s workshop: I’d love to know what part of the work you’ve found most useful. Please comment.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:
Crank Your Thighs in Bound Angle Pose to Protect Your Knees
Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: Stretch Your Shoulders With an Imaginary Sticky Mat
10 Yoga Poses for Shoulders, and Three Tips to Make Them Even More Powerful


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