Surrender and Pause

Forward bends are a great way to calm the mind, cool the body, and release stress, says Heidi Ruokoniemi.

I practised ashtanga for the first time in 2004 in Finland. At the time, I was also practising dance and aerobics but I always felt there was something missing in those practices. They lacked a spiritual aspect that calmed and centred me. I used to suffer from anxiety and went to my first asana class as a remedy for that. As my practise deepened, I started following the teachings of Paramguru Sharath Jois, and travelled to India in 2009 to study ashtanga at his Mysore shala.

The way yoga is taught and studied in India is very different from the West. I felt more connected to the ancient parampara when I practised in India. It’s not a mystical, intangible feeling. It’a very real feeling and its benefits manifest in tangible terms. In India, I got to experience the practice at its source. As my ashtanga practice deepened, I felt more equipped to deal with anxiety and the self-knowledge that I found gave me the awareness to deal with and find solutions to any emotional problems with clarity and acceptance.

The seated forward bends in the ashtanga primary series are an effective way to practise surrender and acceptance. I see a lot of students struggle and try to force these asanas, but the more you struggle, the harder it gets. My advice would be to ease into the postures and breathe. The forward bends bring emotional stability and calmness to the mind and teach you how to surrender without losing yourself. When you surrender to the ashtanga practice, you should do it with the intent of introspection, and forward extensions are ideal for this experience.

I have deconstructed five seated forward extensions that appear in the ashtanga primary series: ardha baddha padma paścimattānāsana, tiryangmukha ekapāda paścimattānāsana, jānuśīrshāsana A, jānuśīrshāsana B and jānuśīrshāsana C. Before you practise these asanas, make sure you have done a few surya namaskars and standing poses to warm your body and steady your breath.

Forward Bends for a Calm Mind

Ardha Baddha Padma Paścimattānāsana

Sit in Dandasana.

Bending your right knee, lift your right leg and place your right foot on your left thigh with your heel tucked into your navel. Inhale, rotate your right shoulder and catch the big toe of your right foot. Your left hand will catch the side of your left foot.

Inhale and as you exhale, move the spine forward, bringing your chest to your left thigh and moving into a forward bend. Stay in the asana for five breaths. Inhale, lift your head only, and exhale completely. Repeat the pose on the other side with your left leg in half lotus and your right leg extended.

Tiryangmukha ekapāda paścimattānāsana

Sit in Dandasana.

Fold your right leg at the knee and rotate it inward so the top of the foot presses down on the mat and the heel faces up. The foot should be placed beside your right hip. Keep both knees as close as you can. Inhale, grip your left wrist with your right palm and place the interlock around the left foot.

As you exhale, move the spine forward, bringing your chest to your left thigh and your torso into a forward bend. Stay in the asana for five breaths. Inhale, lift your head only, and exhale completely. Repeat the pose on the other side with your left leg folded and your right leg extended.

Jānuśīrshāsana A

Sit in Dandasana.

Fold your right leg at the knee and without opening or extending your right knee, bend your right leg to the side and place your right foot as close to the pubic bone as possible. Inhale, grip your left wrist with your right palm and place the interlock around your left foot.

As you exhale, move the spine forward, bringing your chest to your left thigh and your torso into a forward bend. Stay in the asana for five breaths. Inhale, lift your head only, and exhale completely. Repeat the pose on the other side with your left leg folded and your right leg extended.

Jānuśīrshāsana B

Sit in Dandasana.

Fold your right leg at the knee and without opening or extending your right knee, bend your right leg to the side and place your right foot as close to the pubic bone as possible just like Jānuśīrshāsana A, but bring the knee slightly forward for the B variation (at an 85 degree angle). Now, elevate your hips and sit on top of your right heel. Your heel should be placed under the anus. Inhale, grip your left wrist with your right palm and place the interlock around your left foot.

As you exhale, move the spine forward, bringing your chest to your left thigh and your torso into a forward bend. Stay in the asana for five breaths. Inhale, lift your head only, and exhale completely. Repeat the pose on the other side by sitting on your left foot and keeping your right leg extended.

Jānuśīrshāsana C

Sit in Dandasana.

Fold your right leg at the knee and without opening or extending your right knee, bend your right leg to the side and place your right foot as close to the pubic bone as possible just like Jānuśīrshāsana A. From there, lift the right foot and press your toes (and the upper foot) down on the mat with your heel tucked into your lower abdomen. Keep both sitting bones grounded on the mat. Inhale, grip your left wrist with your right palm and place the interlock around your left foot.

As you exhale, move the spine forward, bringing your chest to your left thigh and your torso into a forward bend. Stay for five breaths. Inhale lift the head and exhale completely. If you can’t go all the way down, don’t push yourself. Stay till where you are comfortable and breathe.

When you practise these poses, there is a set of vinyasas that needs to be followed so while you can use the above instructions to improve your forward bends, please practise the ashtanga method under the guidance of an authorised teacher as it is important to know the correct vinyasa that comes between the poses.

Heidi Ruokoniemi is a Mysore-based Level 2 Authorised Ashtanga Teacher. Find her teaching schedules here.

February 18, 2020
Photos Simon Meier

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