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Forward bending poses are those poses in which we hinge at the hips and bring the chest toward the thighs. This movement requires a balance of strength and surrender – as the front body deeply contracts and the back body is opened and elongated.
Contracting through the front body helps to strengthen the thighs, tonify the abdominal organs, and awaken the muscles of the belly. Because of the compression and strengthening that occur in the abdominal area, forward folding postures tone the digestive system and stimulate circulation. Another result is that the back of the body is allowed to stretch and lengthen; the calves, hamstrings, buttocks, and back are all deeply stretched.
Literally and metaphorically, the back body represents that which is behind us. We all start out in the womb, resting in the fetal position with our knees drawn toward the chest. It generally takes a few months for newborn babies to develop the necessary strength just to sit upright, let alone to arch back. Such a deep and “life-long” relationship we have with this bodily position! This is one reason that the act of folding our bodies forward is associated with turning inward: a return to our roots, and coming to terms with our own personal past.
Folding in toward one’s self allows for a quiet, introspective time within one’s own thoughts and nature. Outside distractions are out of view, and our attention is drawn deeper and deeper within. Just as infancy is a time of dependence on others, forward folds elicit a certain amount of surrender and release. Associated with the “letting go” of exhaling, the back body is very responsive to letting go.
Eventually, a balanced forward fold pose has even amounts of strength/contraction and release/surrender. Initially though, our bodies may not be ready for this. At first, it may be most appropriate for you to address that element which comes less naturally for you. For most of us, that missing element is spinal strength. For this reason, it is generally advisable to work on the strengthening aspects of forward folds until your body is able to maintain that effort and also be relaxed.
There are many ways to approach these poses, each with benefits of their own. Experiment with emphasizing the contraction in the hips versus the surrender and release of the back. Then, try to bring both approaches together at once. As always, keep your breath balanced, and enjoy your forward folding adventures!
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