Pashchimottanasana – The West Stretch or Seated Forward Bend
Paschimottanasana stretches the length of the spine, and allows the life-force to flow to every part of the body.
परसार्य पादौ भुवि दण्ड–रूपौ दोर्भ्यां पदाग्र–दवितयं गॄहीत्वा |
जानूपरिन्यस्त–ललाट–देशो वसेदिदं पश्छिमतानमाहुः || ३० ||
prasārya pādau bhuvi daṇḍa-rūpau
dorbhyāṃ padāghra-dvitayaṃ ghṝhītvā |
vasedidaṃ paśchimatānamāhuḥ || 28 ||
Having stretched the feet on the ground, like a stick, and having grasped the toes of both the feet with both the hands, when one sits with his forehead resting on the thighs, it is called Paśchima Tâna.
इति पश्छिमतानमासनाग्र्यं पवनं पश्छिम–वाहिनं करोति |
उदयं जठरानलस्य कुर्याद उदरे कार्श्यमरोगतां छ पुंसाम || 29 ||
pavanaṃ paśchima-vāhinaṃ karoti |
udayaṃ jaṭharānalasya kuryād
udare kārśyamaroghatāṃ cha puṃsām || 29 ||
This most excellent of all asanas, Pashchimottanasana, makes the breath flow through the Sushumna, rouses the gastric fire, makes the loins lean, and removes all diseases.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter 1, verse 29
Pashchimottanasana (Sanskrit: पश्चिमोत्तानासन; IAST: paścimottānāsana), Seated Forward Bend, or Intense Dorsal Stretch, is a yoga posture.
pashchimottana = intense stretch of the west (pashima = west, uttana = intense stretch)
Together with Padmasana (lotus), Siddhasana (half-lotus) and Vajrasana (lightning-bolt pose), this pose is an accomplished pose according to the Shiva Samhita. It was advocated by 11th century yogi Gorakshanath.
The name comes from the Sanskrit word paschima (पश्चिम, paścima) meaning “west” and uttana (उत्तान, uttāna) meaning “intense stretch” or “straight – asana (आसन) meaning “posture”.
- Paschima (पश्चिम, Paścima) = Back, West, Back of Body
- ud (उद्, ud) =Prefix for Verbs or Nouns which indicates superiority in Location, Rank, Power, Intensity.
- Tana (तान, Tāna) = stretched
- Uttana (उत्तान, Uttāna) = intense stretch, straight, straightened
- Asana (आसन, āsana) = Posture, seat
Pashchimottanasana (पश्चिमोत्तानासन, Paścimottānāsana) = Intense-Stretch-of-back-of-body
Classification and Level: Basic seated forward bend
Concentration: On the back and the Manipura Chakra
Step by Step:
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. You may support your buttocks on a folded blanket. Press actively through your heels. Rock slightly onto your left buttock, and pull your right sitting bone away from the heel with your right hand. Repeat on the other side. Turn the top thighs in slightly and press them down into the floor. Press through your palms or finger tips on the floor beside your hips and lift the top of the sternum toward the ceiling as the top thighs descend.
- Draw the inner groins deep into the pelvis. Inhale, and keeping the front torso long, lean forward from the hip joints, not the waist. Keep the back and neck straight. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. If possible hold the big toes or take the sides of the feet with your hands, thumbs on the soles, elbows fully extended. Be sure your elbows are straight, not bent.
- When you are ready to go further, don’t forcefully pull yourself into the forward bend, even if your hands are on the feet. Always lengthen the front torso into the pose, keeping your head raised. If you are holding the feet, bend the elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor. The lower belly should touch the thighs first, and then the upper belly, the ribs, and the head last.
- With each inhalation, lift and lengthen the front torso just slightly; with each exhalation release a little more fully into the forward bend. In this way the torso oscillates and lengthens almost imperceptibly with the breath. Eventually you may be able to stretch the arms out beyond the feet on the floor.
- Stay in the pose anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes initially. To come up, first lift the torso away from the thighs and straighten the elbows again if they are bent. Then inhale and lift the torso up by pulling the tailbone down and into the pelvis.
Anatomy of the Pose
Focus on extending the spine towards head with each inhalation, and try to bend down with each exhalation.
Joint Actions: Spinal flexion (moving towards extension); sacrum nutation; hip flexion, adduction, internal rotation; knee extension; ankle slight dorsiflexion; scapula abduction, upward rotation; glenohumoral joint flexion, slight external rotation, adduction; elbow extension; forearm slight pronation.
Gravity acts to pull the torso towards the top of the thighs.
Spine: Extensors can act to deepen action in the hip joints.
Legs : Vastii and articularis genus to extend knees.
Spine: Spinal extensors (if releasing into pose), latissimus dorsi.
Legs : Hamstrings, gluteus maximus, piriformis, obturator internus and gemelli, gluteus medius and minimus, gastrocnemius and soleus; popliteus works at length (eccentrically) to prevent hyperextension of the knees.
Arms : Rhomboids, lower trapezius, latissimus dorsi.
Breathing can be very helpful while moving into this pose. Emphasizing the action of the exhalation deepens the flexion at the pelvis, whereas emphasizing the action of the inhalation assists in extending the upper spine. This will only occur if the exhalation is initiated with the lower abdominal muscles and the inhalation is directed towards the rib cage.
- Calms the brain and helps relieve stress and mild depression
- Stretches the spine, shoulders, hamstrings
- Stimulates the liver, kidneys, ovaries, and uterus
- Improves digestion
- Helps relieve the symptoms of menopause and menstrual discomfort
- Soothes headache and anxiety and reduces fatigue
- Therapeutic for high blood pressure, infertility, insomnia, and sinusitis
- Traditional texts say that Paschimottanasana increases appetite, reduces obesity, and cures diseases.
- Stimulates the Manipura Chakra and life energy.
- Increases blood supply in the back.
- Stretches the muscles of the back and along the back of the legs.
- Activates kidney and pancreas function and aids in achieving a slim figure.
Contradictions and Cautions
Those having the following problems should observe caution:
- Back injury: Only perform this pose under the supervision of an experienced teacher.
Never force yourself into a forward bend, especially when sitting on the floor. Coming forward, as soon as you feel the space between your pubis and navel shortening, stop, lift up slightly, and lengthen again. Often, because of tightness in the backs of the legs, a beginner’s forward bend doesn’t go very far forward and might look more like sitting up straight.
Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana (urdhva = upward; mukha = face)
Lie on your back, exhale, and bend your knees into your torso. Then inhale and extend the heels toward the ceiling. Slowly, on an exhalation, swing your feet toward the floor above your head. You may or may not be able to reach all the way to the floor. Try not to let the back of the pelvis lift very far from the floor—this is an upside-down version of Paschimottanasana, not Salamba Sarvangasana or Halasana.
Most students may sit up on a folded blanket in this pose. Extremely stiff students can place a rolled up blanket under their knees.
A partner can help you release your lower back in this pose. There are various ways partners can help each other:
- Have your partner stand behind you facing your back. Perform the pose – then have your partner press his/her hands against your lower back and pelvis. The hands should be turned so the fingers point towards your tailbone. Remember though that the pressure isn’t to push you deeper into the forward bend; rather, gentle pressure (parallel to the line of the back) encourages the back spine and tailbone to lengthen away from the torso. Extend the front torso against this downward action.
- Have your partner sit behind you, tailbone to tailbone, back to back. As you deepen your pose, your partner may extend arms up, staying in close contact all the time and release his/ her weight on to your back slowly, almost lying down on your back as you complete the pose. You can do the same for your partner later on.
- Another way to get help from a partner is sitting in front of each other, feet apposed, holding hands while getting into the pose and keep holding hands while gravity acts to deepen the pose. You can walk your hands up your partner’s arms to get deeper, while directing your weight down towards thighs.
- Janu Sirasana
- Ardha Matsyendrasana
Tips for Your Practice
Improvement with this pose is a lengthy process! The changes may take years, and you may encounter many roadblocks where your resistance temporarily slows you down.
Focus your mind on relaxing into the pose instead of pushing into it with force and meeting resistance. Relax and let gravity act. Where and how you use your weight depends on how deep your existing forward bend already is. If you are only a few inches from your legs, let the weight of your chest take you down towards thighs. If you can’t get so close to your legs, hold your feet or big toes and gently ease into more depth.
Here again, the mind can intrude, resisting the surrender that is required to fully benefit from this manoeuvre. Explore the mental patterns you’re bringing to the asana—an urge to push or a tendency to give up and space out—and redirect your attention to the sensations of letting go. As you deepen your pose by doing less, you will recognize how emotions stored in the body can tighten the muscles and hold you back. Surrender mentally and you will just ease into greater depth.
Here is another technique to help free your spine. Cup the back of your head in your hands. Drop your elbows toward the floor and let your upper back spread. Then keep your shoulder blades wide as you inhale and raise your elbows, stretching them away from your sides. Press the back of your head into your hands as you open your chest and lengthen your torso forward. Expand this motion for several breaths and then release your elbows, chest, and head down again. You may find your forward bend to be both deeper and more extended.
As you progressively surrender, stop resisting mentally and start easing into the pose, your pose grows quieter, supported by your legs, stay in touch with the form of the pose by sending delicate physical reminders to yourself whenever you feel the discomfort of misalignment disturbing your inner focus. Keep your heels, legs, thighs and tailbone in contact with the earth and active and your hip joints flexed. Continue to deepen the sensation that your torso is at rest on your legs, allowing your belly to stay on your thighs, feeling it as liquid and cool. Let distractions diminish and blur into the background and immerse yourself completely into the inner terrain of the pose.
Sustaining this inner focus is always a challenge. At some point, it becomes meditation. You will become aware of the struggle as you oscillate between effort and surrender, distraction and attention. Slowly, the influence of your mind becomes more and more obvious. You may be surprised by your resistance to prolonging the pose, particularly if you are quite flexible but not accustomed to holding the pose for long. At this point, whatever your tendencies, the mental challenges you encounter are the most likely threats to deepening your practice. A host of emotions will play upon your mind, and you thought this was a mere hamstring stretch! As you deepen your pose, you’ll encounter struggles that create agitation and sabotage a balanced, sattvic experience. You are determined to stay, no matter what, even though your whole being is begging for relief!
Shift your focus to the inner rhythm of your breath. It will be your guide. You can benefit from each insight that accompanies the process. With time and practice, Paschimottanasana will become a prolonged, body-oriented meditation.
Paschimottanasana forces you to deal with your resistance, attachments and habits. It teaches you what to hold on to and strengthen and what to leave. Introspection tells you that the mind does constantly influence your yoga. You learn that asana is a way to develop the psychological hardiness that comes from meditation and enlightenment.