How to Build An Ashtanga Practice

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Session 16 - The Principles of Bending and the Fundamentals of Hand Placement

There is a lot of forward folding in the Ashtanga practice. That in itself is not problematic, but the fact that we sit all day long makes it problematic.  Sitting is in essence flexion. Most of us don’t sit always with good posture, so with all the time we spend sitting, we have trained our muscles to be a mess in flexion - or forward folding.


It is important to remember that what is important in a forward fold - whether standing or seated, is that we go by not too much and not too little AND it is not about how it looks. It is about how it feels. It is an inside job.


We are human and we have egos that remember impressions of how we have seen forward folding depicted in photos and illustrations. Bendy people with their faces touching their shins is not the reality in 99% of human bodies.  The goal is not about folding completely in half, the goal is allowing your body to fold to a place where you have a workable stretch that feels good…good enough to breathe into and sustain for 5 breaths where you are not fighting to stay at that edge.


Stretching and cultivating flexibility is a journey on a path that experiences different conditions every day. There are so many factors that influence our ability to stretch and be flexible.  Past injuries, the weather conditions of now, strengthening we did recently and our anatomical truth all play into the experience of stretch on any given day. Further more we have to deal with other factors like energy, mood and thoughts that color our judgement.


Bending stretches us physically.  We can feel that and witness it easily.


It also stretches us energetically. The process of stretching reaches into muscles and helps release tension that feels like it is shrink wrapping us.


Bending stretches us emotionally and mentally when we pay attention to the desires and aversions and ignorance of the mind.  Are we attached to achieving a place in a stretch that once felt or looked good? Are we not reaching a workable edge because we have had bad stretching experiences and have told ourselves that we are not good at stretching?  Are we ignoring the principles of safe, effective stretching?


Paying attention to the principles of bending will make forward folding safer and more effective. It will also help us understand the depth of what stretching is.


The body is a length and when we fold it in half, we are folding two levers.  If both levers are lengthened, it maximizes the stretch on the outside of the levers.  If one or both levers are not lengthened, it shortens the stretch, making it less effective.


I see many bodies in yoga rounding forward in an effort to get somewhere beyond what is actually available. It also avoids the truth of where the stretch actually is.


The principles of bending are:

First you lengthen

Then you shorten the angle of the levers to the place of appropriate stretch.


As in all things, we start in the template of Tadasana.


Standing or sitting 

    • The feet are placed two fist widths apart

    • The pelvis is in neutral (sitting: slightly to the front of the sit bones)

    • We lengthen the legs (if sitting: flexing the feet - more for deeper stretch; less for something less intense). Heels, calves and thighs and sit bones rooted.

    • We gather in from all sides of the torso and lift through the sternum - feeling lengthening all the way through the top of the skull

    • Maintaining this lift that is not too much and not too little, we hinge forward at the hips to shorten the angle between the upper body and the lower body.  

      • Standing Forward Fold:  As you hinge forward past being parallel to the ground, let gravity take the weight of your upper body maintaining vertical shins.  A slight bend at the knees will help lower the lever length of the legs and make the fold into gravity less intense. Over time you may feel like lengthening the space behind the knees to increase the stretch. If this is too intense with knees bent, consider bringing in blocks under each hand to give you more support for finer adjustments to your good stretch edge.

      • Seated Forward Fold: Keep gathering in and lifting the upper body lever as you shorten the angle of chest to legs. Resist the urge to round.  Hands may be used to help sustain you at your appropriate edge, but should not be used to grasp at an edge that is out of your availability today.  Hands placed on the ground behind you help to maintain lift in the upper body as you hinge forward. Hands forward as pontoons, or holding the feet or legs can also help. Remember to keep the Tadasana of the pose and not roll to the back of your sit bones in an effort to get farther forward.

    • Breath fully in the pose.  If you manage and 80/20 ration of stretch/breath, you will be stretching safely and effectively for a sustainable journey into your best flexibility.  If you rush to the full 100% edge, you have no room for breath. Your muscles and brain will not receive enough oxygen and you will not stretch effectively and you it could lead to bad decisions about how you are practicing.

    • Release from the pose on an inhale - lengthening out.


Take your time in when stretching. Use your breath as a flashlight to see your actual conditions and proceed with compassion and ahimsa (the practice of doing no harm).  Be patient. Flexibility is a practice in compassion and patience  which requires space and time. You want your practice to be sustainable and that means facing the truth of where you are in each breath.  David Williams advises that if you practice working on your flexibility consistently and compassionately for two years, you will realize the limits of your own flexibility.  The end game is different with every single person. Our bodies are not built with the same length muscles. Our bodies have all had different experiences.  If you have had previous injuries, that factors in too. Scar tissues forms within 30 minutes of a strain or tear. Scar tissue creates a vulnerability in the tissues and makes you at risk for more injuries to that area of tissue. What you do in this moment matters to all future moments.


I say this all the time and it is so appropriate here:  Flexible does not necessarily equal Enlightened. 


Now for the hands.  There are three classic hand positions in the Seated Forward Fold.

    • Hand Position A - Index and middle fingers (aka Peace Fingers) wrapping around the big toes, bound by the thumbs

    • Hand Position B - Thumbs placed at the base of the big toe joints on the top of the foot and the four other fingers wrapped around the outer blades of the feet.  The thumbs press and the fingers pull to create equanimity in the soles of the feet - opening the channels of energy in your feet/roots.

    • Hand Position C - Hands intertwined across the soles of the feet like a big stirrup.  There should still be two fists widths between the inner arches of the feet and NO STRAIN to get there.  Option:  Pontoon hands - arms fully extended forward on the ground with palms up - to avoid grasping and pulling into a deeper positions.

    • Option for all: If Hand Position A is too ambitious, you can slide your hands down your shins to a place of not too much and not too little extension of the arms. Hands can lightly hold the leg or ankle - where ever you can reach comfortably.



So now you know the principles of bending and hand placement.  Go forth and stretch safely and wisely!