Fall is the beginning of the yin cycle, a time when the sun’s yang energy begins to wane as its angle shifts and the days shorten. Yin is quiet, rooted earth to yang’s bright, expansive heaven. In autumn, we harvest hearty root vegetables and colorful hard squash for winter storage. We naturally move inward in autumn. Ancient practitioners of Chinese medicine advised people to “retire early at night and rise with the crowing of the rooster” at this time of year to facilitate the integration and storage of summer’s yang energy into our bodies.
In autumn, my Yoga practice naturally turns more yin. As daylight wanes and the air becomes chilly, I feel compelled to practice poses that help me contain the energy I collected and generated during the yang seasons of spring and summer. I love to process and store the excess of my summer garden so that I can enjoy it during the winter as well. Likewise, I choose poses in autumn that encourage my body to store the brightness of my summer practice—lots of expanded standing poses and backbends—a vitality I can draw upon as the days darken and cool.
Forward bends are my favorite poses for containing energy. When I sequence a practice or a class, forward bends always precede the final relaxation. The reason is this: Folding your body inward naturally integrates and stores the energy you’ve generated in the preceding poses—as long as you approach them with a yin (passive) rather than yang (aggressive) intention.
This month’s pose is Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). On the most superficial level, Paschimottanasana stretches the muscles of the back body at the lower spine, pelvis and legs. In addition it stretches muscles in the upper back and those around the kidneys and adrenal glands, making it potentially therapeutic for people suffering from adrenal exhaustion—perhaps from a summer filled with continuous activity. While Paschimottanasana is relatively simple and straightforward, for most of us—myself included—it is not an easy pose. Because it requires patience, it also teaches patience. Because it is challenging, it teaches humility. When we can truly surrender into our present manifestation of this pose, regardless of whether our head is anywhere near our knee, we discover deep inner focus and peace.
Begin by sitting on a mat or blanket with your legs stretched out in front of you. Have an extra firm blanket or two handy. You may also find a strap useful. Now feel your lower spine with your fingers. Is your lower spine bowing outward so that you can feel the knobby spinous processes? If so, fold one of your extra blankets and place it under your pelvis to tilt your spine forward. Check your spine again, and add another blanket if necessary.
Now bend both knees, draw them up and fold your forearms under them. On an exhalation, slide your feet forward and bend your torso forward from the pelvis so that your pelvis and back move together. With your knees still bent, rest your torso on your legs. Don’t worry about how much your knees are bent. Take a few deep breaths in this position, expanding your whole back body with your inhalations. As you exhale, let go of resistance in the shoulders, neck and head. It is important to remember that surrendering into a pose means that you relax into the pose you are currently in, whether or not that surrender brings your head closer to your knees.
Feel free to stay in this position, with your knees bent and your forearms folded under them, for five to ten breaths. If you like, you may slide your forearms out from under your knees and stretch your legs out straight. Reach out and hold your feet or use a strap to connect your hands to them. Maintain slow, deep, continuous breathing.
There’s nothing miraculous that happens when your head touches your knee. Inner peace happens in the here and now, not somewhere off in the future when your pose is supposedly “better.” Straining to force your head to your knee only creates struggle, and dissipates the very energy you are hoping to integrate and store by practicing this forward bend.
After five to ten breaths, on an inhalation draw the pelvis and torso back to vertical. Be present with whatever sensations are arising. What do you feel? What happened in the forward bend? How did it change you? Let Paschimottanasana integrate within you before moving to your next pose.
As a challenging asana for most, Paschimottanasana makes us aware not only of the limitations of the body, but of the ebb and flow of thought as we encounter our resistance and attachments to achievement. But it is in this encounter with the truth of our relationship to challenging situations that we realize the deepest benefit of Yoga practice—the choice to relate to challenges with aversion and struggle, or to open to challenge with a sense of ease and curiosity. When we struggle against present reality, we deplete our energies; when we open to present reality, we develop patience, resilience and inner strength.