I am always amazed when I visit India and see people who can work for hours while effortlessly squatting on the ground. Many of us who were raised sitting on chairs rather than on the floor have lost the ability to squat with ease along with the benefits that squatting can have on our posture: stretching the back, elasticizing the knees and ankles, and regulating the digestive system.
In this squatting forward bend, your back is released from head to tail as the ankles, knees, hips, and entire spine are flexed. The back is long, rounded, and soft and the arms encircle the body.
When talking about the art of yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar often refers to the rhythm of the asana, the succession of actions that lead to an uninterrupted flow of awareness throughout your entire system.
When the actions of each part of your body are coordinated so that none are acting alone and no individual area is overpowering, you can experience this inner rhythm and a sense of wholeness in the pose, as if all parts of yourself are expressing themselves evenly.
Those of you who feel that you don’t get far with forward bending because of tight hamstrings can experience the rhythm of forward bends in this compact pose. The spine reaches forward while the heels root the hips backward. In the process, the whole spine lengthens as, on the one end of the pose the sacrum moves down toward the floor, and on the other end the head and neck are lengthened away from the lower spine, also going down toward the floor.
In addition to strengthening and stretching the feet and ankles and increasing mobility in your hips, you will feel a vertical extension and horizontal broadening of the muscles in your back. Malasana provides a deep, satisfying stretch for the ankles, hips, and low back. It can also help strengthen the abdomen. The deep knee flexion can be problematic for anyone with knee injuries or recent surgery. (Remember: there’s no good knee pain.)
How to Modify Malasana
The pressure of the heels on the floor plays a vital role as a counterpoint to the head, keeping you grounded as you extend. If you are tight in your hips, groins, calves and Achilles tendons, your heels may not reach the floor, so the first two variations of the pose will help you to loosen those regions and enable the heels to press downward. If you cannot reach your heels to the floor in the final variation, place a rolled blanket or mat under your heels.
If your knee aches in the pose, you can decrease the flexion of the knees by placing a blanket behind them in between the calves and thighs. The thicker the blanket, the more space you will make in the backs of your knees. Use it behind both knees, even if you only feel pressure on one side.
Three Variations on Malasana
How to Practice Variation 1—Holding On
In this variation, you are going to hold onto something firm to help stabilize yourself while you learn the action of the feet and ankles and lengthen the spine. This will help you to stretch your calves and ankles so that you can reach your heels to the floor.
The object you hold onto should be fixed and secure. A doorknob is a good height if the door is stable. Or you can open the door and hold the two doorknobs on either side of the door. You can also hold onto wall ropes; a countertop; a sturdy, heavy table; a bed frame; or a banister—something high enough so that your arms are reaching upward while squatting.
- Stand with your feet touching each other, catch ahold of your fixed object and step back a couple of feet.
- Exhale and bend your knees and squat so that your knees are in front of your ankles and your heels are under your buttocks. If you are sitting on top of your heels, step your feet a little further back away from the wall or table. Your buttocks should descend but they shouldn’t be resting on your heels.
- If your heels are lifted up in the air, walk your feet a little closer toward the wall or table, until you can just barely reach your heels to the floor.
- Keep your feet together, press the inner edges (big toe side) of your heels to the floor, and extend your calf muscles down toward your heels.
- Lengthen your toes forward on the floor and pull your heels back as if the bottom of your foot were becoming longer on the floor.
- Pull on the table, inhale and lift the sides of your ribcage and waist up. As your torso rises, move your hips and buttocks down.
- To come out of the pose, inhale and pull on the table to straighten your legs and stand up.
How to Practice Variation 2—Against a Wall
Now you are going to do the pose with your buttocks supported to keep your hips and heels grounded while reaching the spine forward.
- Stand with your sacrum against a wall and your feet approximately six inches away from the wall.
- Bend your knees and slide your buttocks down the wall until you are squatting. If your heels don’t reach the floor, step your feet a little further away from the wall.
- If you find that your buttocks are sinking down to the floor, step back a little closer to the wall. As in the previous variation of the pose, your heels should just barely touch the floor.
- Keeping your feet together, spread your knees apart, press your heels down and stretch them back toward the wall. The bottom of your sacrum should remain on the wall as you extend your arms, side ribs, and waist away from the wall in between your legs.
- Reach from the bottom of your waist to your hands, and extend your arms and chest parallel to the floor. The more you reach forward with your torso, the more you have to ground your heels back and down. Keep your inner heels down so that the weight doesn’t fall onto the outside edge of your foot. Look down at the floor.
- The knees need to separate, but don’t spread your legs so wide that they lose contact with the torso. Move your inner thighs back and down toward the hip sockets while you bring your outer thighs forward and up toward your knees.
- Lift the front of your shins while you lengthen the back of your calves down. Find the rhythm in balancing the forward stretch of the torso and rooting of the thighs into the hip sockets as you ground your heels.
- Similarly, balance the work of the inner and outer thighs, fronts, and backs of the lower legs. You will find that you are playing on the edge of sitting and extending.
- To come out of the pose, take your hands to the wall, keep your head down as you lift your hips up toward the ceiling, and straighten your legs into Standing Forward Bend Pose (Uttanasana). Remain in Uttanasana for a few moments to extend the knees.
How to Practice the Final Pose
If your heels don’t reach the floor in this variation, place a rolled blanket under your heels so that they have something to press into.
- Start in Standing Forward Bend Pose Malasana with your hands on the floor in front of you and bend your knees into a squat.
- Keep your feet together, heels down, and spread the knees apart, reaching forward in between your legs with the arms and chest parallel to the floor.
- Push your inner heels down, and lengthen the sides of your waist away from your hips and extend your chest forward.
- Move your inner thigh muscles back from your knees toward the pelvis. The very top inner root of the thigh at the groin should relax to give you the freedom to pull your torso away from your legs. As your hips and inner thighs move back, they should feel like a counterbalance to your torso.
- Exhale and bend your elbows with your arms still in between your legs, and place your palms on the floor. Don’t let the sides of your waist shrink or retract as you turn your arms back to reach your hands around the outside edges of your ankles and catch hold of your feet. In this position, your shoulders are underneath your knees and your arms are said to resemble a garland hanging around the neck.
- Pull on your heels and exhale to take your head toward the floor.
- Here you can see whether or not the weight on one foot is tilting to its outer edge, or if the feet are coming apart from each other. Press both inner heels down evenly and extend your toes forward.
- In the process of pulling the tops of your thighs and hips back, you may feel your buttocks lift slightly. Take your inner thighs back and buttocks down as you bring your head closer to the floor.
- Even though you are drawn into a compact ball in this pose, the waist and ribs should continue to lengthen forward as if getting pulled out of your hips.
- Take a few smooth breaths to work on the rhythmic balance of rooting and extending, spreading, and lengthening. Soften your throat and allow the entire back of your body from the tailbone to the head to release into this full forward bend.
- To come out, let go of your ankles, place your hands on the floor in front of your feet, inhale and straighten your legs, coming into Uttanasana. Extend the backs of your legs as you release your head and neck down.
Lift the heels from the floor.
Press the heels into a rolled blanket if they don’t reach the floor.
While sitting cross-legged, do your knees hurt? Have you ever struggled to touch your toes while your knees are straight? If these hold true for you, it means that you have poor hip mobility. Although these seem like small and insignificant problems, if you notice, they do come in the way of your day-to-day activities in different ways.
Basic movements like bending, lifting, turning and lunging become far easier when your hip joints are fit and flexible. This is why some of the most popular yoga asanas pay close attention to the pelvic region. They help you stretch, strengthen and stabilize your hips so that surrounding areas such as the glutes, hamstrings, lower back and abs, too, reap the benefits. Exercising the hip joints brings about a holistic improvement in your health. It enhances your performance, posture and physique significantly.