Forward bends are my favorite poses for containing energy. When I sequence a practice or a class, forward bends always precede Savasana (Relaxation Pose). 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.
Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) is a basic, symmetrical 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. Bending forward, in general, helps calm your nervous system.
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.
Safe Practice in Forward Bends
Seated forward bends are often misunderstood to be “beginning” poses, likely because they don’t cause you to breathe hard and sweat. For many people, these poses are actually quite challenging to practice safely because of restrictions in the hamstrings and hips.
The main point to remember, for the health of your lumbar and sacroiliac joint, is to always move your pelvis with your lower spine. When your hamstrings are tight, it’s common for the pelvis to tilt back so that your tailbone is tucking under. Instead, sit higher on folded blankets so that your tailbone can point back as your pelvis tilts forward. Bending your knees can also help put your pelvis and spine in a healthy relationship.
Avoid practicing Paschimottanasana if you have lumbar issues such as disc problems in your low back. A better alternative for stretching the hamstrings and hips would be Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Big Toe Pose). In Supta Padangusthasana it’s much easier to keep your spine in a healthy, neutral position.
How to Practice Paschimottanasana
- 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 yoga 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 help tilt it 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 5 to 10 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 5 to 10 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.
Updated article from October 10, 2011.