One of Viniyoga’s key differentiators is our principle of adaptation, or modifying a pose’s form to achieve its function. Because of this principle, we often do poses in a Viniyoga classes significantly differently than in other styles. This is especially apparent in forward bends. (Actually, lateral bends as well, but that’s a blog topic for another day).
In Viniyoga, we categorize postures based on their primary and secondary intentions. The primary intention is the “have to have,” if you will, or the most important effect of a posture. The secondary intentions of a pose are the “nice to haves.” Those effects that, while useful, can be sacrificed if needed to achieve the primary goal of the pose.
In forward bends, the primary intention is usually stretching the low back. Secondarily, the pose may also stretch hips, hamstrings and the upper back. If you feel a forward bend in your hamstrings or upper back but not your low back, then you are likely getting the secondary intention of the pose at the expense of the primary intention.
The photos below are of a student doing a specific forward bend, called Uttanasana. In the photo on the left, she is stretching her hamstrings, but not her low back. The photo on the right shows the same student with improved form. Note how a slight bend in her knees has changed the pose significantly.
Of course you can’t see your own form when you’re practicing, but you can still tell whether you are doing the pose “right” by how it feels. If you’re doing Uttanasana correctly, you will feel a stretch in your low back and perhaps a small stretch in the backs of your legs.
Coming out of the forward bend should feel a bit different, and this is where things get tricky. While it is vitally important to stretch the low back, you should do so while keeping the rest of the spine, particularly the inter-vertebral discs, resilient and safe. Therefore you should not keep a rounded position as you come back up to standing. Doing so puts pressure on the front of the discs, which may lead to disc wear and even disc herniation over time. Instead, contract the low back muscles and come to a neutral or even slightly arched back at the half-way point. From there, press through the feet and return to standing. Many teachers call this “lifting through a flat back.” I often describe this movement as “lifting from your collar bones.”
In the photos below, the student on the left is rounding through her back as she comes to standing. On the right, she is using correct form. Note the return of the subtle arch of her lumbar curve.
Again, you’ll know if you’re doing the movement “right” by how it feels. When you come to standing, you should feel your shoulder blades move together, your collar bones lift, and a slight curve return to your lower back.
Still not sure if you’re doing it correctly? Ask your teacher to watch you closely and give individual feedback. Sometimes a even minute change in form can have a dramatic impact.