Initially, I was going to write about seated forward bend as a nice concluding stretch for the erector spinae. That post is still good, and it is still in the pipeline. As I was researching, however, it occurred to me that there was an intermediate pose — a foundation pose for beginning the forward bend — that I was overlooking. Judging in the relative dearth of resources I found, I think I’m not alone in my overlook.
Dandasana, or staff pose, is really the starting point for any number of seated poses, particularly various types of forward bends. What I sometimes underestimate is: a) how much alignment matters; b) how much muscular engagement is actually happening.
Alignment first. The big thing for me in this pose is to roll the flesh of my buttocks back and to the sides so that I’m sitting on my ischial tuberosities or sitting bones rather than sitting back toward my tailbone. Hugely important: This lets my lumbar spine and low back muscles be in a neutral alignment. Nothing is particularly stretched out or compressed, which means there is freedom for easy movement to happen in any direction. There are days when I can’t do this on the flat floor. In those situations, sitting on the front edge of a folded blanket, a rolled mat, or a block (guilty confession: at home, I sometimes use my confirmation Bible) helps.
For me, internally rotating my thighs helps “lock in” this pelvic alignment as does letting my thighs come straight forward from my hip bones, rather than sitting with my lets pressed together. (The difference may be more significant for people with wider hips, where the space between “legs together” and “hip distance” is greater.)
Which brings us to muscle engagement: When my spine is in its neutral alignment, my front abdominal muscles are lightly engaged to offer support. Translation: Sitting in staff pose counts as core work. It may be plenty difficult or refreshingly easy depending on the person and the day, but the core is still putting in effort. Pressing into the floor (or blocks) with my palms can lessen this effort somewhat. Conversely, raising my arms — to my heart center, out to the sides, or overhead — changes my center of gravity and can make the pose more difficult.
Also, legs. In this posture, my feet are flexed, engaging my calves. My thighs are drawing up into my hip sockets, engaging my quadriceps and protecting my knees. This is worth noting in dandasana as it’s key in seated forward folding, both for allowing the hamstrings to relax and for keeping the knees safe.
Ultimately, I find a lot of benefit in using dandasana as a meditative posture. When I find the right place in terms of both muscular engagement and skeletal alignment, I also find a place where there is both alertness and ease. And that is a good place to find before entering a forward bend.