* Warning: Naughty language ahead.
As a yoga teacher, I love watching people squirm during held forward folds.
This might be slightly dark and twisted, but I can’t ask my therapist if it is—I stopped seeing her during quarantine.
What I’ve noticed, during the yoga classes I lead, is if the sequence suddenly halts in a forward fold, like Pachimottasana for example, students tend to pull themselves into the deepest position their physical bodies can go—like I might be handing out trophies—then, they start throwing glares my way if held there for longer than four breaths.
Students will hold their breath, shift position, come out of the pose entirely, check their watch, or get a drink of water—anything, but sit there and breathe or, heavens-to-Betsy, soften into a shape less forceful.
Okay, okay, most the time, students tend to abort the pose altogether because they think they have to hold an extremely deep, forceful variation. What they don’t understand is the space just before “too much” is the best place to settle. But hey, I love to look cool too, so who am I to judge?
From my experience, forward folds feel nice for all of 10 seconds, and then the inner screaming within my head begins—frantically yelling, “Get out of this! You’re going to tear your hamstring, die surely. Wait, psycho, just relax, this is crazy stuff you’re releasing. Okay, soften a bit. Has it been five minutes yet?!”
Bernie Clark, a world-renowned yin yoga teacher, has taught that emotions are stored within the body. Emotions get stored when we don’t process them, or bear them witness.
You know when you’re angry but don’t want to show it? Or you bite your tongue trying not to laugh? Or grief threatens to bury your heart, so you numb it instead. Well, these vibrations go somewhere—they don’t just disappear.
The ancient practice of Chinese medicine promotes that stimulating the energy along our meridian lines releases the suppressed emotions stored within our subtle bodies. Alright, let’s speak human: if you stretch the areas of your body along your inner thigh, outer abdomen, side body, and inner shins, you’ll release suppressed anger. What you feel when it releases though is anger. And you glare at the teacher because you think this bitch is making you feel this way. She’s not—it’s within.
The Benefits of Forward Folds:
Apana Vayu is stimulated.
Apana Vayu is a downward and outward flow of energy; situated bellow the belly button and lower pelvic floor. Apana governs and nourishes organs of digestion and reproduction within the body. This vayu regulates elimination physically, mentally and emotionally. Apana governs elimination of waste and regulates menstration. Apana directly relates to our ability to “let go.” When Apana is lacking, prana within the body can become toxic—we can feel unstable, unforgiving, unable to let go of toxic thoughts, emotions or feelings.
Holding our forward folds can help induce a sense of safety, grounding, and ability to let things go.
Langhana energy is increased.
Lengthening our exhales has a langhana affect (reducing, or slowing down). Deeper exhales activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Forward folds cultivate a natural ability to deepen our exhales, reduce our heart rate, soothe the mind, and induce a calming affect on the body.
Excessive Vata and Pitta energy is decreased.
When Vata is out of balance one can feel anxious, flighty, constipated, worried, and restless. When Pitta is out of balance one might feel quick to anger, heated, on edge, unsettled digestion, and fiery. Holding our forward folds helps to increase our Kapha energy (grounding, nourishing, cool, and calm) and bring us back into balance.
We shift our focus inward.
Forward folds may be the most difficult place to relax, because this is where most of us feel tight and want to “get to the final variation” of the pose, instead of honoring where we are. In this space we notice physical sensations, but also emotions brimming the surface of our minds. Our thoughts come to the forefront. We are suddenly witness to everything happening within—physically, mentally, and emotionally. How scary!
They stretch the largest piece of fascia within the body.
Fascia in a nutshell is a webbing of connective tissue that connects our ligaments, holds our muscles in place, and intertwines our tendons. We get knots, store emotions, and need to stretch these parts of our body just as much as our muscle. The largest piece of fascia we have wraps from the bottom of our feet, up our back, and around to the center of our forehead. A yin-style seated forward fold is best for opening up these piece of fascia—it also can alter our flexibility in moments.
The main point is not to stretch our hamstrings (but it is a juicy bonus!).
They stabilize and calm the mind.
I’m serious. Do it right now. Stand up, soften your knees, hinge forward from your hip bones and fold toward the floor. Now stay. Inhale, fill up your belly. Exhale, contract the lower abdomen toward your back. Inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of eight. Resolve to remain still here. Don’t worry about how far you fold forward.
Wait a few minutes.
Then, release it.
How do you feel?
If our minds have unhealthy thought patterns, if we aren’t aware of our of mind’s habits, or if our mind is unstable, as we take in more Prana through our practices, we risk destabilizing ourselves further.
We risk accentuating the parts of ourselves that haven’t been healed, the bad habits, as well as the good.
Swami Rama once said, “a mind that is not tranquil is unfit for any path.”
Holding our forward folds (standing or seated) will illuminate our minds, heighten our self-knowledge, cultivate steadiness in our character, and allow us to sit more stable and at ease with ourselves.
Modern-day Westerners are so distracted—always running away from themselves with movies, smartphones, plans, or jobs. They move so much that the average yoga class mimics this type of lifestyle: fast moving, rockin’ playlists, and lightening speed vinyasas—keeping us forever distracted and distant from who we really are.
It keeps us distracted from the pain that needs healing and from dealing with ourselves.
The reason we hate forward folds is because all of a sudden, we can’t run from ourselves anymore.
All that shit we pretend we don’t feel, or think, or hold—all of a sudden we are present, and we are facing it.
Sometimes we don’t like what we see.
But that’s okay.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with an innate dislike of myself. I’m not a good person, I don’t always say the right things. I let people down. I’m not that funny. I said the wrong thing. I’m not lovable. No one wants to be friends with me. I’m a fool to think I’ll amount to anything—I’m all too familiar with thoughts like this.
The thing is, I’ve noticed the more I lean in and settle into myself and who I am—she isn’t all that bad. She is actually quite forgivable. She is actually quite lovable.
So, if anything, forward folds can teach us is to lean in. The things happening inside you are not totally unbearable to witness.
You’re pretty fucking cool.
Tune inward—that part of you that has been witnessing your life unfold behind your eyes is a beautiful essence to connect with.