Don't you want to slap the person who calls it that? Easy Pose, my eye. There you are, wearing your knees like earrings in your best approximation of sitting cross-legged, when your yoga instructor tells you then, THEN, to fold forward into Adho Mukha Sukhasana.
At that point, you lose your happy face. Your body responds as if it ... Well, it doesn't respond actually. No matter how hard you strain and push to move your torso forward, it just ain't happening. Your body, you realise with dismay, is made of concrete.
This is a good news/bad news scenario.
Good news: for once your hamstrings and the Government are not to blame.
Bad news: your external hip rotators are.
So if you're able to do a fairly passable Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana) or even ~ go you! ~ a Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana), it comes as a shock when attempting Adho Mukha Sukhasana to find that you're not as foldy-forwardy as you thought you were.
ANATOMY FOR DUMMIES
First up, anatomy and physiology for dummies. This is the best kind because it's helpful rather than over-informative. You don't need to take notes but pretend to look interested as you gaze out of the window. You might be able to dredge it up come the pub quiz.
Hamstrings and their role in forward folds
Your hamstrings (a bunch of three muscles) originate from your sit bones (ischial tuberosities ~ you don't need to know that but bonus points are available if you can work it into a dinner party conversation), cross the knee joint at the back and insert on the tibia or fibula, The hamstrings have three important jobs:
1. To flex the knee
2. To extend the hip
3. To stop you draping yourself elegantly over your legs in Paschimottanasana.
With regard to 3. ~ because, be honest, that's the only one you care about ~ bend the knees and, hey presto, you can fold forward. That's because you've prevented the hamstrings from pulling back on the pelvis as the spine is trying to move forward. Think of your hamstrings like a prostrate toddler clinging on to your leg as you try to walk around the supermarket while people judge your parenting skills..
Depending on how tight your hamstrings are, you'll bend your knees to a greater or lesser extent.. Remember, always sacrifice straight legs for the glory of a straight, comfortable spine. Don't stress ~ hamstrings need time to throw care to the wind, not force. Ten years from now. you'll be Paschimottanasana-ing like a boss.
Uh-oh. Now we come to the however bit ...
— the hamstrings have an alibi when you place your legs in Sukhasana and try to fold forward. They take some well earnt R & R. Don't begrudge them this, don't be that person. Hamstrings are the over-achievers in the muscle world, taking on the the work of other, lazier muscles, even when it's not strictly their job to do so. Looking at you, glutes.
So while your hamstrings are enjoying a piña colada and a bowl of nuts, your external hip rotators have to step up.
External hip rotators
Okay, there are six of these little suckers and I haven't the slightest intention of naming and shaming them all here. I don't want to see you visibly age.
Bottom line? These deep muscles are as tough as old boots. If they're tight ~ and for most of us they are ~ they'll be glued to the sacrum and pelvis like gaffer tape; you won't be moving anywhere. They've got enough to do coping with the external rotation of your crossed legs and then you expect them to stretch as you fold forward? And I suppose you want the moon on a stick too.
Think of Adho Mukha Sukhasana as an opportunity to woo your hips and in turn your lower back. They're a cheap date ~ no need for flowers or fancy chocolates but they do expect to be given your full attention and time. Go slow, there's no rush. Let them set the pace, not you all anxious to get your head to the floor. This isn't about you so park your ego at the door, lover.
HOW TO DO ADHO MUKHA SUKHASANA
1. Warm up. You're in wooing mode, remember? So splash out on Cat/Cow to limber up the spine, spoil them with Reclined Pigeon Pose and show that you care with a LIzard or two and a visit to the Cobbler's. (Click on an image to scroll through in horrifying close-up.)
2. Drop into Extended Child's Pose taking the knees wide and releasing deeply into the lower back. Feel weight dropping through your forehead into your mat. Blocks are a nice touch to lift the armpits and keep the shoulders open, but they're not essential. Breathe deeply for a minute or so.
3. Props. In this instance, a folded blanket and blocks (or suitably thick books — think Booker Prize winners) are a pleasing stand-in for music and candlelight and will be gratefully received by your reluctant body.
Blanket — fold it to a firm thickness so that when you sit on it your knees are lower than your hips. This will help you come forward by placing your pelvis in a slight forward tilt. If your knees are too high, it's a fair bet that you'll slump in your lower back preventing a comfortable lengthening through the spine and opening across the chest.
4. Sit in Easy Pose. This is as good time as any to tell you that it's not "easy" as in "so simple anyone can do it". It's "easy" as in comfortable, happy. Hey, don't shoot me.
a). A common mistake when sitting cross-legged is to draw the feet too close to the groins. Your hips, knees and ankles don't want that sort of pressure. We just need the feet under the knees, the shins crossing at the midpoint in line with your centre. When you look down between your legs you should be able to see a spacious triangle of your mat.
b) Good. Now, bring the weight evenly across your sit bones so that you're neither tipping back on them or tipping forward. The lower curve of the spine is comfortable and there is no tension in your upper back or shoulders. Use that blanket!
5. Inhale and reach your hands overhead, lengthening through the spine but still keeping space around the neck by drawing the tops of your arms into the sockets.
6. Exhale and, with a gentle lift in your belly lean forward from your hips bringing your hands to the floor. You might be able to walk your hands forward, beginning to lower the chest to your mat, but most likely you'll find that you've only moved a little shy off upright. This is cause for celebration, because it shows that you haven't rushed to next base. Your chances of going all the way are improving all the time, you dog.
Wherever you happen to be in pose, sit quietly, breathe, soften and surrender. Check that the weight is still even through the sit bones and that your knees feel comfortable. If the knees begin to squeak, back off.
Your spine will curve the lower you get ~ that's cool. However, it's important that you start with the spine extending and avoid lowering the head until your neck tells you that the time is right. As with all poses, there is NO force. Allow your breath to teach you.
Be patient. These things take time and consistent effort. When you find yourself nearing the mat, try placing your hands on blocks, or resting your hairline on stacked the fists.
Once you've mastered it, you'll find Adho Mukha Sukhasana a wonderful way of calming the mind and fatigue. It lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, slows the breath and soothes emotions. It's a step along the way to Pratyahara ~ withdrawal of the senses, the Fifth Limb of yoga. On a physical level, it's a great stretch for the shoulders, back muscles, spine, hips, knees and ankles.
Avoid this pose if you have knee/ankles issues or degenerative spine conditions/disc problems, are pregnant, or are experiencing an upset tummy (with either end repercussions).