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Paschimottanasana: Storing Your Vital Energy

paschimottanasana Paschimottanasana - Seated Forward Bend

Fall is the beginning of the yin cycle, a time when the sun’s yang energy begins to wane as its angle shifts and the days shorten. Yin is quiet, rooted earth to yang’s bright, expansive heaven. In autumn, we harvest hearty root vegetables and colorful hard squash for winter storage. We naturally move inward in autumn. Ancient practitioners of Chinese medicine advised people to “retire early at night and rise with the crowing of the rooster” at this time of year to facilitate the integration and storage of summer’s yang energy into our bodies.

In autumn, my Yoga practice naturally turns more yin. As daylight wanes and the air becomes chilly, I feel compelled to practice poses that help me contain the energy I collected and generated during the yang seasons of spring and summer. I love to process and store the excess of my summer garden so that I can enjoy it during the winter as well. Likewise, I choose poses in autumn that encourage my body to store the brightness of my summer practice—lots of expanded standing poses and backbends—a vitality I can draw upon as the days darken and cool.

Forward bends are my favorite poses for containing energy. When I sequence a practice or a class, forward bends always precede the final relaxation. The reason is this: Folding your body inward naturally integrates and stores the energy you’ve generated in the preceding poses—as long as you approach them with a yin (passive) rather than yang (aggressive) intention.

This month’s pose is Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). On the most superficial level, Paschimottanasana stretches the muscles of the back body at the lower spine, pelvis and legs. In addition it stretches muscles in the upper back and those around the kidneys and adrenal glands, making it potentially therapeutic for people suffering from adrenal exhaustion—perhaps from a summer filled with continuous activity. While Paschimottanasana is relatively simple and straightforward, for most of us—myself included—it is not an easy pose. Because it requires patience, it also teaches patience. Because it is challenging, it teaches humility. When we can truly surrender into our present manifestation of this pose, regardless of whether our head is anywhere near our knee, we discover deep inner focus and peace.

Begin by sitting on a mat or blanket with your legs stretched out in front of you. Have an extra firm blanket or two handy. You may also find a strap useful. Now feel your lower spine with your fingers. Is your lower spine bowing outward so that you can feel the knobby spinous processes? If so, fold one of your extra blankets and place it under your pelvis to tilt your spine forward. Check your spine again, and add another blanket if necessary.

Now bend both knees, draw them up and fold your forearms under them. On an exhalation, slide your feet forward and bend your torso forward from the pelvis so that your pelvis and back move together. With your knees still bent, rest your torso on your legs. Don’t worry about how much your knees are bent. Take a few deep breaths in this position, expanding your whole back body with your inhalations. As you exhale, let go of resistance in the shoulders, neck and head. It is important to remember that surrendering into a pose means that you relax into the pose you are currently in, whether or not that surrender brings your head closer to your knees.

Feel free to stay in this position, with your knees bent and your forearms folded under them, for five to ten breaths. If you like, you may slide your forearms out from under your knees and stretch your legs out straight. Reach out and hold your feet or use a strap to connect your hands to them. Maintain slow, deep, continuous breathing.

There’s nothing miraculous that happens when your head touches your knee. Inner peace happens in the here and now, not somewhere off in the future when your pose is supposedly “better.” Straining to force your head to your knee only creates struggle, and dissipates the very energy you are hoping to integrate and store by practicing this forward bend.

After five to ten breaths, on an inhalation draw the pelvis and torso back to vertical. Be present with whatever sensations are arising. What do you feel? What happened in the forward bend? How did it change you? Let Paschimottanasana integrate within you before moving to your next pose.

As a challenging asana for most, Paschimottanasana makes us aware not only of the limitations of the body, but of the ebb and flow of thought as we encounter our resistance and attachments to achievement. But it is in this encounter with the truth of our relationship to challenging situations that we realize the deepest benefit of Yoga practice—the choice to relate to challenges with aversion and struggle, or to open to challenge with a sense of ease and curiosity. When we struggle against present reality, we deplete our energies; when we open to present reality, we develop patience, resilience and inner strength.

About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

2 thoughts on “Paschimottanasana: Storing Your Vital Energy”

  • Heather Booth

    Hello My name is Heather,

    I work in Community Mental Health in Greenfield,Mass as a Family support Worker. I am trying to get the staff to use yoga with their families but they are afraid to use it.

    I am also a movement therapist and I know what it is like to use movement as a tool with kids.

    • Charlotte Bell

      I wonder if it would be helpful for you to call what you do something besides yoga — maybe movement therapy. Truth be told, most of the poses that we are familiar with in yoga classes today are not millennia-old traditional yoga poses. They come from Western gymnastics and were introduced to yoga when Britain colonized India. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika contains only a few, mostly seated, poses to help prepare the body for meditation. So it would be truthful to teach poses linked with breath therapeutically without having to scare people with the word "yoga."

      Of course, I don't find the word, or the entire philosophical system, the least bit scary. The yoga sutras were intentionally written to be neutral and most of them explain concepts we are all familiar with that can greatly help us in our daily lives. They were not intended to be aligned with any particular spiritual system. But most people who fear yoga don't know that. Perhaps you could clarify this for them.

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