When people who haven’t done yoga before consider doing it, they often say – “but there’s no way I can touch my toes!”
Somehow, the ability (or lack thereof) to touch one’s toes has become a stand-in for everything that is wrong in the world – especially when that world is our own body.
So I’m calling bullsh*t.
Yep, that’s right.
You know what’s important about touching your toes? Absolutely nothing. Yes, stretching your hamstrings can feel really good, but you may not have to touch your toes to do that. Also, you can still be a real pain-in-the-butt and touch your toes. You can still be filled with self-doubt and touch your toes. You can still be rude to your neighbor and touch your toes. Touching your toes, in and of itself, will not make you a better, wiser, kinder person.
So why bother?
The Journey Within
Energetically, forward bends are quieting poses. Because you are folded in on yourself, your attention – both internal and external – is intended to be on you.
Sure, you can peek your head around and see what your fellow yogis are up to in class. But straining your neck isn’t cool. And neither is missing a chance to connect more with yourself. Goodness knows we have plenty of opportunities to feel less than in this world. So take your Standing Forward Bend as an opportunity to learn more about where your body is in this particular moment – regardless of where your hands are in relationship to your toes.
Want to check your gauge? Let’s set it up.
Coming into the Pose
If you have a couple yoga blocks handy, go ahead and grab them. If not, see if you can find two things of about the same size to place under your hands that are about a foot tall. Nice equivalents include books, a couple cans or very still identical cats.
- If you’re standing on a yoga mat, place your blocks (or their proxy) on either side of the top (short) side of your mat, starting them on their highest height. Then stand yourself a few inches behind that.
- Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart. Press your feet down firmly, have a very gentle bend in your knees and extend your spine through the crown of your head. There’s a reason this pose is sometimes called Standing Mountain: you want to bring those qualities into your pose.
- From here, inhale and reach your arms overhead, palms facing each other.
- Exhale and bend your knees significantly, folding forward. Bring your hands to the blocks underneath them.
- Allow your head to release here as your legs work toward straight (emphasis on toward – there’s no million dollar check waiting for you at the end of this, so feel free to go at your own pace).
- The beauty of working with the blocks is that you can really work with the alignment of your legs and spine first. If you have a good amount of slack in your elbows, you can experiment with taking the block down a notch – first to the medium and then potentially to the low or even to the ground. Keep using that check-in of the elbows to determine if/when it’s appropriate to experiment with a different block setting. Compromising your alignment to get your hands to the floor makes the pose a bit of an oxymoron, and that’s no way to make your pose feel.
- Hold here for 3-5 breaths. When you’re ready to come up, plant your feet down even more firmly and slowly come up to standing on an inhale, reaching your arms up overhead again as you do. Exhale and lower your arms down by your sides.
The practice of mindfulness is the process of developing awareness. There are few poses more conducive to this than forward bends. The physical posture already facilitates introspection, especially when it is well-aligned so that you are able to breathe freely and allow the body to relax and release, so there’s no reason not to take advantage of it.
The next time you come into this pose, Uttanasana, see if you can feel your breath as it enters your nose. You may feel it on the tip of your nose, on your upper lip or, hey, you might struggle to notice it at all. The same is true on your exhale.
The beauty of mindfulness is that you’re reaping the benefits of the practice just by noticing – so not feeling it is as good as feeling because you’re still cultivating your awareness. Play with this practice while in this pose as well as others and see what comes up. As you continue to practice mindfulness in your yoga practice, you may begin noticing it showing up in your off-the-mat life, which is where things really get interesting – noticing your own feelings, needs and desires.
In other words, the whole enchilada.
First published in Wild Sister magazine, Issue 12 — reprinted with permission