Written by Kara Goodsell
Translated as “intense stretch of the ‘west side’ of the body” Paschimottanasana is a basic seated forward bend, which stretches the length of the spine, and allows the life-force to flow to every part of the body.
In Vedic symbology the back of the body is considered the ‘west’, because of the traditional practice of facing the rising sun in the east when performing the morning worship of Surya Namaskar or Salute to the Sun.
The western bearing is in the direction of the setting sun and as such represents a time of turning inward as the active desires of the day dissipate into the turn of night.
The back line of the body is a continuous network of muscles and fascia (or connective tissue) that extends from the soles of the feet to the ridge of the brow and as the top half of the body folds over the bottom half, the asana creates a horseshoe of energy, which challenges the patience and the ego.
By gently surrendering to the action of the deep forward bend, we can find the humility integral to our practice.
Paschim = west
Pascha = behind, after, later
Ut = intense
Tan = stretch
Asana = comfortable seat
Contraindications & Cautions
- Back injury: approach the deep forward fold with caution. Sit up high on a folded blanket and keep the torso relatively upright and/or practice this pose with bent knees.
- Disc injury: avoid the pose.
- Tight hamstrings: Sit on a folded blanket and use a strap around the feet.
- Pregnancy: feet hip width, or wider, apart. Use a strap around the feet.
- Tones the kidneys and soothes the adrenal glands;
- Stimulates the ovaries, uterus and entire reproductive system;
- Rejuvenates the spine and massages the heart;
- Activates the liver and improves the digestive system;
- A cooling position which calms the active front brain and soothes the meditative back brain.
Observations and Advice:
It is important to move into forward bends with the lower back area (lumbar spine) concave, the sternum uplifted and the spine extended in length.
If there is a lot of tightness in the hamstrings and hip flexors, forward movement will be restricted, causing the abdominal muscles to contract to pull the body forward and the forward bend action to originate from the waist, rather than the hip area.
In this case, placing a folded blanket under the sitting bones will elevate the seat, and assist in tilting the pelvis forward onto the saddle of the sitting bones (anterior tilt) and help bring the lumbar spine into the correct plane which in turn encourages the lower back to concave naturally and without tension, and for gravity to draw the upper body forward more effectively. It’s important that the sitting bones are placed just before the edge of the blanket fold, not in the centre of the blanket.
The obstacles that tight hamstrings bring to the pose may also be lessened by bending the knees, which while still lengthening the hamstrings, will do so in a less stressful way.
1. Start in Dandasana: Have the hands beside the hips with palms on the floor and the weight of the body tipped onto the front edge or saddle of the sitting bones. With the legs extended out together, anchor down through the sit bones and balance on the centre of each heel. Extend away through the heels.
2. Inhale and lengthen the spine, lifting the heart toward the crown of the head, and drawing the sternum up and away from the pubic bone to create the maximum length in the front torso. Draw the shoulders down and away from the ears
3. On the exhalation fold forward, hinging from the hips and stretching the arms forward. If the hands reach comfortably, take hold of the outside edges of the feet or hold the soles of the feet with the interlocked fingers of both hands. Press the backs of the thighs and buttocks down onto the floor.
Note: if the hands do not comfortably reach the feet, the use of a strap is recommended. When hinging forward, bend the knees and take the strap around the balls of the feet.
4. With each inhalation, feel the spine gently lift and lengthen, keeping the front chest open and the lower spine concave.
5. With each exhalation allow the body to release forward, either deepening into or maintaining the posture. While the chest is not in contact with the thighs, keep the vertebrae of the neck in line with the rest of the vertebral column. As the forehead comes into contact with the shins, allow the lower back to round gently. Breathe evenly.
6. To release: Inhale and raise the head and torso, drawing the lower back in to a concave position. Release the hands, and raise the torso back to Dandasana.
Alignment & Anatomical Focus:
Actions of the torso, hips and pelvis:
The foundation of the pose is Dandasana. Sitting on a folded blanket (which is suggested, even if you are flexible!) take the flesh of the sitting bones back and out to the sides. Tilt the pelvis forward and press the front edge of the sitting bones and back of the thighs into the floor, as if someone had wedged their feet under your buttocks and you were resisting them. Rest on both buttocks equally.
With the palms pressed into the floor beside the hips, lift the spine and lengthen the front of the body, stretching forward from the base of the spine and maintaining symmetry in the pose by establishing that both sides of the chest are evenly stretched.
Exhale and begin to take the torso forward, creating a sensation as if the front lower ribs are flying out over the thighs so that the floating ribs move toward the knees and reaching with the chest toward the feet. This movement comes from the pelvic abdomen and base of the spine.
Keep the diaphragm soft and continue to lengthen the torso from the outer hips up through the armpits, keeping the front chest forward and open.
Draw the pubic bone back between the thighs and down toward the floor and stretch forward from the seat of the buttocks.
Actions of the legs and feet:
With the legs extended : Lift the kneecaps and the muscles of the quadriceps and lengthen the back of the legs to extend the heels away from the body and elongate the Achilles area. Balance on the centre of each heel and lengthen out through the inner and outer feet evenly. Draw the toes back, spreading the toes, and press through the balls of the feet (this is a dorsi flexion action).
Roll the upper thigh inwards, as if taking the seam of your yoga tights in and down toward the back of the body. Broaden the backs of the legs and focus on keeping the thighs flat on the floor.
Remember, if the hamstrings are tight to modify the pose by bending the knees slightly to facilitate the bend forward without rounding the back.
Actions of the hands & arms
The action of the hands and arms depends on the level of flexibility:
If using a belt, keep a slight bend in the elbows to avoid hyper extension and keep the elbows in toward the sides of the body.
Those with more flexibility would take hold of the sides of the feet with th thumbs pressing underneath the big toe (in a direction away from the body) and the fingers drawing the outside edges of the feet back towards the body.
Intermediate and advanced practitioners, could take hold the soles of the feet with the interlocked fingers of both hands, palms facing away from the body OR hold the right wrist with the left hand.
Draw the shoulder blades into the back and away from the ears and stretch the arms from the shoulder blades. Widen and lift the elbows.
Push the hands and feet against each other.
If the chest is not close to the thighs, allow the back of the neck to lengthen, the chin to soften toward the chest (in a jalandhara bandha action), keeping the vertebrae of the neck in line with the rest of the vertebral column.
If the head touches the legs, allow the forehead to rest on the shins (or a block, blanket or bolster for support) and consciously descend the mind into the pose, bringing lightness and calm to the brain.
Keep the muscles of the neck passive and draw up through the skin of the back-body, toward the head.
Allow the breath to guide and deepen the pose: the action of the inhalation assists in lengthening the spine and the exhalation deepens the flexion (or bend) at the pelvis.
Surrender into the pose, letting go over and over. Relax inside and release, allowing the muscles to soften and lengthen, to become less hard due to tension and fear. Let go again and again. Play with your edge.
1. Yoga The Path to Holisitic Health by B.K.S Iyenger, Published by Dorling Kindersley 2001.
2.Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff, Published by Human Kinetics 2007