There was a guy who was a regular in one of my classes that was strong and impressively flexible. He would often ask me how to go deeper into poses or how to do the pose “better”. One of the most frustrating poses for him was forward fold. It is not complicated, but lots of people really struggle with it. The pose consists of hinging at the hips and folding over, with your arms and head hanging down. His problem was that he was trying so hard to fold over by using the strength of his arms & back, that he was actually holding himself up. His back couldn’t hang down and release because it was contracting with so much effort.
Forward fold is like many (if not all) poses in yoga in that the key is in finding how to let gravity do the work. When you release your upper body (soften, stop flexing, let go, exhale) into gravity in a forward fold, you can feel your spine lengthen, shoulders release, and your neck gets all stretched by your big bowling ball of a head. It feels so good. Unless of course you don’t let gravity stretch you out and insist on doing it yourself. Then it feels somewhat like all the blood is rushing to your head and your lower back is screaming, because it is.
The image the comes to my mind is of someone insisting on walking downstream in a big river. You would have to walk very deliberately and push back against the water so that your feet touch the bottom on each step. How much easier to put your feet up and float down the river, trusting that the water and the current will carry you?
Learning how to get out of your own way and release into a pose makes a huge difference in yoga. In Sanskrit it is called “ishvara pranidhana”. In English, it is “surrender to God”. I imagine that for some of you it feels complicated with the mention of God. That’s alright. Stick with idea of gravity if that works for you. Gravity is something that is definitely bigger, beyond, and outside of yourself that is at work, right now, regardless of what you call it. And gravity is a perfectly gender neutral term in English, wonderfully enough!
It can be really hard to recognize when your efforts and drive to do something are getting in your own way. As a yoga instructor, it isn’t helpful for me to say to a student who is trying to do a forward fold, or even a more complicated pose, to “stop trying so hard”. It’s not a matter of not trying, but a balance of effort and ease. You show up (with all your strength & focus) and get yourself in the position, and then you surrender into it; soften, ease up. You are not meant to do it by your strength alone. It just doesn’t work that way. Trust that gravity is holding you up and you don’t have to hold yourself up.
Lie on your back and feel the difference between when you are putting all your effort & strength into lying down as opposed to when you lie on your back and then soften and let gravity make you feel super duper heavy. Try it. You’ll like it.
And if you are open to it, listen to Dolly Parton’s song “Jesus & Gravity” sometime. I swear there’s a great yoga class in there.
Peace on your head,