When you hear mention of a “peak pose,” what comes to mind? I’m guessing that for most yoga practitioners, peak poses are usually the fancy Instagram-worthy poses. Poses like Eka Pada Rajakopotasana (Full Pigeon Pose), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) and Titibasana (Firefly Pose) are likely candidates. But Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)? I’m not a follower of Instagram, but I’m going to guess that it doesn’t make the top 40. Anybody can sit on the floor with their legs stretched out in front of them, right?
That’s true, but sitting on the floor with your legs stretched out and with your spine in its neutral curves is quite another story. For most yoga practitioners, the lumbar ends up in a reverse (convex) curve (flexion) when the legs are stretched out straight, even before you start bending forward.
Seated forward bends are often considered to be easy because they are not sweat-inducing poses and they don’t look complicated. But for most practitioners, practicing seated forward bends with healthy spinal alignment is quite challenging. Paschimottanasana may look simple, but it’s actually a difficult pose for many, if not most, people who practice yoga.
In order to bend forward with healthy spinal alignment, the pelvis and spine have to be in agreement as to where they are headed. This means that the sacrum should be angling forward at about a 30-degree angle before you even begin to bend forward. Then the pelvic rim should lead the forward bend with the spine following the movement of the pelvis.
What you don’t want to do is bend from the waist. If you begin in Dandasana with your pelvis tilting back, there is no way that your pelvis will tilt forward as you begin to bend forward and you will bend from the waist. You can test this by sitting in Dandasana and palpating your lumbar spine. If you feel the knobby spinous process poking out in your back, that means that your spine is flexed instead of extended. If this is the case, you should elevate your pelvis onto more blankets.
So in order to practice Paschimottanasana with healthy spinal alignment, you have to be able to start in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your spine in its natural curves. The muscles that most likely restrict your ability to do this are the hamstrings and glutes. So prep poses for Seated Forward Bend should include poses that warm and stretch those muscles. Fortunately, seated forward bends usually are practiced toward the end of a sequence, just before Savasana (Relaxation Pose). So you’ll have plenty of time to warm and stretch your hamstrings and glutes.
For most people—even for some very flexible practitioners—yoga props are essential. Yoga blankets and a yoga strap are the most helpful tools. Sitting on one or more folded yoga blankets helps promote a healthy pelvic tilt. A strap can help you connect your hands to your feet and maintain spinal integrity.
Knees Straight or Bent?
The classic version of Paschimottanasana always shows the knees straight. But for many people, bending the knees might be a better option. If you feel the stretch mostly in the backs of your knees when you practice Paschimottanasana, you are stretching ligaments and tendons. This is not a good idea, as ligaments and tendons do not have the “memory” that muscles do. Once they’re overstretched, they won’t return to their natural length. This can destabilize the knee joints over time.
Also, if your pelvis will not tilt forward no matter how many blankets you sit on, bend your knees. You can either fold your forearms under your thighs or place a rolled-up blanket or pranayama bolster under your knees. This is way healthier than keeping the knees straight and compromising the spine.
Preparing for Paschimottanasana
- Tadasana (Mountain Pose): It’s important to understand how pelvic tilt determines whether or not your spinal curves are in alignment. You can practice this in Tadasana. Contrary to popular belief, a neutral position in the pelvis does not include tucking the tailbone. Follow the instructions in this post to determine what is neutral for your body.
- Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend Pose): Prasarita Padottanasana stretches the hamstrings and warms up the quadriceps. It also provides a great way to practice pelvic tilt in a forward bend. Place blocks under your hands so that you have more freedom to explore pelvic tilt.
- Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose): Warrior II warms up the leg muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes.
- Trikonasana (Triangle Pose): Like the previous two poses, Trikonasana warms the leg muscles, but it also hones in more specifically on stretching the hamstrings, which are among the key muscle groups that need to lengthen for Paschimottanasana.
- Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose): Reclining Big-Toe Pose is one of the safest ways to stretch the hamstrings. The floor gives instant feedback as to your spinal integrity. Be sure to use a yoga strap, even if you are quite flexible, so that you can focus on maintaining your lumbar curve. You should be able to place your hand underneath your lumbar spine while you’re stretching your hamstrings in this pose.
- Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose): Janu Sirsasana is a one-legged version of Paschimottanasana. You can practice proper pelvic tilt in this pose. Make sure to prop your pelvis up onto at least one folded blanket. Then loop a strap around the foot of your extended leg. With both hands on the strap, pull on the strap to draw your foot toward you and lengthen the spine upward.
- Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend Pose): Finally! As in Janu Sirsasana, practice with the hips on a blanket and use a yoga strap to support healthy spinal alignment. If you can bend forward by leading with your pelvis, go ahead and bend forward. If your pelvis is tilting back and you bend forward from the waist, continue to practice instead by holding your strap and lengthening the spine upward. Refer to the photo in the Janu Sirsasana post to see how to use the blankets and yoga strap to support your practice.