The Ups and Downs of Forward Bends
By Guru Prem Singh Khalsa
The yogic journey begins with bowing, not only physically, but with devotion and humility. Forward bending is essentially the most basic of movements. It is the first movement to which we attach an exhalation. Forward bends or “bows” require learning the skill of rooting into a position in order to create a controlled release as we bend forward. In learning how to bend forward correctly, we are setting the foundation for building many other postures, like wide leg stretches, single leg stretches, and standing forward bends. The fundamentals listed below are applied, whether sitting or standing, moving fast or slow, with our feet together or apart.
Forward Bends require that we learn, and learn how to apply, three basic principles that govern all postures.
The First Principle: Always Use the Fewest Moving Parts
We do this by creating two simple unobstructed energy flows from the navel point: The Root Line and the Heart Line.
The first energy flow we create is the Root Line, which is both a muscular connection and a flow of energy, from the navel point to whatever part of us is touching the floor. This consolidates that half of the body into one firm but active unit that can act as our base. Our base both connects us to the ground and gives us the support we need for leverage. Creating a root line uses the navel to engage the muscles of the pelvic floor (Mulbandh or root lock), which allows us to control the position of the sacrum to consolidate its relationship to the rest of the spine. This positioning is important to protect the lower back from compression and injury.
The second energy flow we create is the Heart Line. This is to keep the flow of energy between the navel point and the heart, and between the heart and the head, unobstructed and open. We do this by creating an active cooperation between the contraction of the muscles of the pelvic floor (through Mulbandh) and the positive positioning of the rib cage, mid-back, neck, and head (Jalandhar bandh or neck lock). When the Mulbandh stretches the lower and sacral spine in one direction, the Jalandhar bandh stretches the thoracic (ribcage area) spine and cervical spine in the opposite direction. This consolidates the upper half of the body into another firm but active unit. And both units are connected at the navel point.
The Second Principle: Move from the Major Joints First
Forward bends take place at the hip, the ball and socket joint where the heads of the femurs (long bones of the thighs) attach to the pelvis. When the top and bottom units of the body are consolidated, then the hip joint can act between them like the hinge on a door. This allows us to use leverage to take maximum advantage of the force of gravity. Once we have consolidated the two halves of our body and centered our bend at the hip joint, we can let our top half release forward. In order to control this forward release, we have to use the navel to press our legs into the floor so that our base provides a counterbalance to our forward movement. Confidence in our ability to provide this counterbalance allows us to ride gravity downward as far as our flexibility will allow. In rising back up from a forward bend, we once again use the navel to press our legs into the floor, which creates leverage so that our upper body rises in reaction to the downward press of the legs.
The Third Principle: Move with the Breath
Coordinating the breath with a forward bend makes good sense: it is simply the need to empty out the balloons of the lungs and reduce the girth of the chest in order to fold forward with ease. That the inhalation, the filling up of those two air balloons within the chest, can help you to “float” back up, is also an easy concept to accept. As our proficiency develops, we will become more and more aware of how the breath interacts with the outer movement, but that awareness can most easily begin in forward bends.
The Forward Bend
Begin by sitting on the floor with your spine straight. Extend your legs straight out in front, a few inches apart. (If you cannot straighten your spine, put a yoga pillow or rolled up mat under your buttocks so that your hips are higher than your knees.)
Before you reach forward and grab your big toes, apply the Mulbandh, contracting the Navel Point (located an inch and a half below the navel) and engaging the muscles of the pelvic floor (by contracting the muscles of the rectum, sex organs, and lower abdomen). Flex the feet by pulling the toes back towards your body, and contract the quadriceps (the muscles on the front of the upper thighs). This activates the muscles on the front of the legs, which allows the hamstrings to stretch in a supported way.
Straighten the spine (opening the heart center) as you bend forward and grab your toes. If you cannot keep your spine straight and reach your toes at the same time, you will need to add length to your arms by placing a yoga strap around your feet (any kind of belt or strap will do) and holding onto the strap. Then use your arms to pull your chest forward towards your toes, maintaining the Mulbandh and keeping the quadriceps contracted.
Lengthen your chest towards your toes and drop your belly to your thighs. Relax, and let the force of gravity gracefully pull you downward. Keep your spine straight and bend only at the hip joints. Keeping your legs straight, use your arms to lightly pull against your feet as if you were trying to pull your legs towards your hips. Hold the alignment of your spine without being concerned with how far down you can bend.
To come up out of a sitting forward bend, inhale and press your legs into the floor to leverage the rising of the upper torso. As the inhalation expands the chest, you will feel as if you are floating up.
In order to gain and maintain flexibility it is important to “strengthen what you stretch.” When you press the legs into the floor to raise the upper torso, it contracts and strengthens the hamstrings, the same muscles you have just stretched.
When we have dynamic forward bends, we need to engage a light Jalandhar bandh, the neck lock, to keep the head from leading the movement. If you lead from your head you will collapse your chest and strain your back. As you “inhale up,” lift and open the chest and press the legs firmly into the floor from “sit bones” to heels. As you “exhale down,” release forward while continuing to draw the legs into the hips.
To have fun and safely practice forward bends or any yoga posture, you must enjoy the process. Keep the end result in mind, but be unattached to it. Attachment creates tension which will not allow you to release or surrender into the process. Enjoy the journey, because there are always rewards along the way if you are in the moment to receive them.
Yogi Bhajan gave Guru Prem Singh Khalsa the title of “Posture Master,” and asked him to map out the correct and conscious practice of Kundalini Yoga. Guru Prem is an ex-gymnast has been practicing Therapeutic Massage and Yoga Therapy for 26 years. He is the author of Divine Alignment and The Heart Rules.
Reprinted from Aquarian Times, January 2006
 The muscles of the rectum, sex organs, lower abdomen, and navel point
 Stretch the back of the neck gently straight by pulling the chin straight back and lifting the chest.