~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Falling Forward

April 2, 2010
I fall forward. My body folds into a yoga pose with an indecipherable name. I settle into the earth and leave the busy world behind. My nose nestles toward my knees and my mind sinks into the dark of night, into an unknown and mysterious land.

A feeling of calm overtakes me. I feel cool and humble, open and clear. And finally, I feel fully breathable.

When I emerge from this forward bend, I feel refreshed. I am taller and more spacious. I am balanced and unruffled. My body feels anchored in a peaceful oasis of goodness and ease. And my brain feels rinsed clean, as it would on a quiet summer afternoon with no big plan ahead. I feel faithful and well nourished.

It’s no wonder we bow forward in devotion and thanksgiving.

And it's no wonder I've recently come to love the way I feel when falling into forward bends like paschimottanasana, settling my legs deep into the ground, challenging them to be alert yet at ease. I love the way my body briefly flies up when I move into the pose, as if wondering whether to arc backward before diving forward instead. I even love that first pull of resistance that always surprises me (I could go farther than this yesterday!) and the brief flash of ambition that urges me to push hard, to go far, and to bury my nose deeper than it’s ever gone before.

And then comes the whisper that less is more, that slow is sweet, that patience is well rewarded. Then comes that gentle give that lets the clingy parts inside release so I can melt a little farther. Most of all, I love disappearing altogether in this little nest of a pose, settling into that same oasis of calm and peace that must lie at the heart of the whole wide world.

I’ve fallen into forward bends through the back door. Generally, I like mountaintops and thick coffee and electrifying sunrises full of possibility. Neither my body nor my brain stays still for long, and I thrive on challenge and effort.

It’s probably no surprise that I’m captivated by exotic and sky-shifting backbends. So entranced, in fact, that a few years ago I asked my fiercest yoga teacher if it was possible to do too many backbends.

"For you," he proclaimed, "Four days of forward bends a week!"

I’m not one to follow instructions blindly - especially ones I don’t particularly like - so I didn’t exactly dive headlong into this forward bending prescription. But after mustering up the courage to try out my teacher’s advice, I learned that it was wise and true for me.

If backbends are fireworks - big and expansive and attention grabbing - then forward bends are those clean and quiet moments when the spring rain has passed and freshness lingers on. They demand flexibility and freedom. They also require tremendous reserves of patience, perseverance and humility. They’re the antithesis of being active, bold, caffeinated and extroverted.

Forward bends are all about going back. Back inside. Back to the beginning. Back to the night, to our roots. And back to the oft-neglected lands inside that only make themselves known with calm and patient attention. There’s an easier, more soulful presence that evolves from this way of being. A quietness that comes from being arced and rolled, softened and nurtured deep within the curl of a long and lovely forward bend.

Lately I’ve found myself sprawled out on my sticky mat, pouring through yoga books like a world traveler plotting the next forward-bending expedition. Some poses call out for no apparent reason, even ones I’ve never seen before. Guided by a photo in a book, I find my way into akarna dhanurasana, which really does feel like its name: an arrow pulled back tautly in its bow and ready to be launched across the landscape.

I've also made friends with kurmasana, the turtle pose, which some texts say is sacred to a yogi for the feeling it evokes of having awakened from a deep and blissful sleep. And I’m drawn to the rather daunting pose chakorasana, just because it’s named after a mythical partridge that feeds on moonbeams. I see these amazing shapes and my body yearns to transmute itself into a spider, a cricket, a bird, a primordial creature oozing across the oceans of the world.

Some days my forward bends are as quiet as a windless pond, as still as unmoved earth. I do nothing but settle in. As I do, I grow aware of the quiet throttle of my inner motor - like the little engine that could, never stopping, never resting. But after a few minutes, my energetic gears begin to shift and settle quietly into neutral. Thankfulness descends and I idle happily for a while.

Other days my forward bends crave movement. I inhale and my belly rolls up, picking my back up with it. I exhale and my belly surges forward with a deeply satisfying pulse. This action continues, guided by my breath, until my spine becomes as fluid as the waves rolling down the beach. I bob and soar and sink and roll as my torso sails unfathomably forward. Yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli once wrote that "there is such happiness in this undulation," and I happily agree.

Here’s my recent favorite recipe for falling forward: Start out in the most supported child’s pose imaginable, with the whole torso - from hips to head - supported on a pile of blankets, arms and legs dangling toward the floor like Tarzan’s vines hanging from the trees. Rest here for several minutes, until you can tear yourself from the quiet safety of this pose. Then slide your hips off the bolster, rearrange the legs into upavista konasana and rest the upper body on the support before you. Nestle a few beanbags underneath your belly, heart and forehead, so these vital energetic centers can release completely.

Then let go. Breathe, settle, surrender into that same deep peace you feel after a week at the beach with not a care in the world. Your front body relaxes in ways that seem unfathomable when holding your head up high. And the chain of armor inside your chest - that part that lifts and hardens and strains to say, "I am here!" - begins to quietly erode.

After a moment or two, slip one blanket out from under you, slowly sliding the torso a little closer to the floor. Every few minutes repeat this, allowing your bolster to grow smaller as your body melts farther into the pose. At some point along the way, watch your breath begin to arise from a deeper and more primal place, giving way to long and gentle waves of exhalation. Stay and enjoy this quiet peace for as long as you are able.

As I’ve been falling forward, I’ve begun to see more clearly the relationship between will and surrender, between effort and release, between pose and repose, between change and acceptance. My body has found new and quieter ways of being in the world. I’ve gotten a little better at waiting, at letting go of the reins I sometimes cling to so fiercely, and letting things blossom in their own remarkable way. Lately I've been just a little more content to settle in and watch the passing show.

And as I’ve been falling forward, I’ve begun to wonder whether enlightenment may just be the simplicity that comes with letting go of melodrama. When I'm deep within a forward fold I can sometimes see the wild fantasies swirling up inside of me, grasping and groping to pull me off my mark. When I’m patient and courageous I can outwait these deluded dramas until they drop away completely and I begin to see life as it really is, here and now, fresh and unimpeded.

Breath by breath, falling forward returns me to that state of "bare attention" the Buddhists love so much - simply attending to the raw and wonderful ingredients of the moment. Often, we need less, not more.

Forward bends, I’ve learned, can be tenacious, for even when I run away they make their presence known. Some days I wake up and can't bear their quiet intensity, so I head off into an eager parade of backbends instead. There I’ll be, diving blissfully back, and from inside I’ll hear a whisper, "forward, falling forward." Suddenly I’ll remember that at the heart of the richest backbend lies the essence of a forward fold, just like the yin within the yang. And with this, my backbend takes on a more internal tone, one that keeps me grounded here on earth even as my heart soars high.

So perhaps forward bends help us remember the middle way. They help us see that life moves forward as well as back, that endless running in one direction may be the easier solution, but it’s not often the wisest or healthiest. They help us see that sitting still, quiet and undisturbed, can be as interesting and rich as facing big-bang epiphanies, and that surrender sometimes tastes even sweeter than will.

I love the idea that yoga is about equanimity, that we’re seeking not the extremes but the middle way. I love that yoga is about finding a calm and clear home inside and staying rooted there regardless of the passing outer weather. I love that yoga is about having the wisdom to see what we need and the courage to seek it.

Sometimes we need just the opposite of what we think. And sometimes the path winds deep into unexplored territories in ways we never could imagine, merely to lead us happily back home.

This article was originally published in Yoga International (August 2002)