student enjoys benefits of Seated Forward Bend Pose (Paschimottanasana) variation

Yoga Pose Primer: Seated Forward Bend Pose (Paschimottanasana)

Marla Apt
Updated: 
September 13, 2020

Paschimottanasana means the intense stretch of the west or backside of the body. It is an iconic forward bend that is intense and humbling in its simplicity.  Although this is a pose that students who are relatively new to yoga learn, it can take many years of practice to master.

When I first began yoga, I took a class in which the teacher asked us to perform Paschimottanasana. When I pulled my head down to touch my legs, my teacher told me that I had reached the goal of the pose. Even in my sophomoric state as a yoga student, I knew that there had to be more to it. I was reminded of this early class when I had the opportunity to study with the late Geeta Iyengar (B.K.S. Iyengar’s daughter). She held us in Paschimottanasana for several minutes while giving intricate instructions that brought a whole new quality of extension, freedom, and depth to the pose. Whether or not you can bring your torso and head in contact with your legs, you can experience inner space and deeper insight through the practice of this pose.

How to Balance Effort in Seated Forward Bend Pose

In Paschimottanasana, you are folded upon yourself into a naturally introverted state. The work in this inward pose requires patience and discipline. In yoga philosophy, the path consists of what B.K.S. Iyengar refers to as the two wings of yoga, abhyasa (practice), and vairagya (detachment). Abhyasa requires will, informed effort, and knowledge. Vairagya involves reflection, stillness, and surrender.  The two wings must work in concert with each other.
 
You can experience these two aspects of yoga in the practice of Paschimottanasana. Although in the final classic version of this pose the entire front of your torso and head rests on your legs, due to stiffness you may have to surrender your concepts of achieving the outward shape of the asana in order to enter into the inner depth of the experience of this forward bend. Vairagya is a kind of detachment from the final result of your actions. When you are engaged in abhyasa, vairagya will keep your efforts in check.
 
While the disciplined effort of abhyasa is used to break through your stiffness in this pose, a surrender of tension is also required. The goal is not to bend forward from the spine but to extend forward so that the front and back of your torso lengthen evenly. The folding should occur at the hips, not the spine or waist. You will feel the stretch in the back or west side of the body but the front of the body needs to make space to elongate the spine. If you tighten your abdomen and chest and try to push your head downward, you will feel like a pill bug coiled in a tight ball, rather than the freedom of intimate contact with yourself. You must find a balance between effort and surrender. Being either too forceful or too passive can cause you to strain your back or injure your hamstrings.

Benefits and Contraindications 

When done well, forward bends can help regulate the digestive system, calm your mind and nerves, relieve headaches and menstrual cramps, and increase agility in your hips, legs, and lower back. Even if your head doesn’t reach your legs, you can reap the benefits of Paschimottanasana. Your head should rest on your shins only when your abdomen and ribs are also resting on the legs. You don’t want your head to hang below the level of your chest. 

If in the final variation of the pose (photo-third variation) you cannot extend that far forward, you can place folded blankets, a block, or bolster on your legs to support your forehead. If you are very far away from reaching your legs, you can use a chair to support your head.

Contraindications for practicing Seated Forward Bend Pose include sciatica; sacroiliac joint dysfunction; back problems, especially disc problems; and the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

How to Practice Seated Forward Bend Pose

1st Variation:

Yoga student in Seated Forward Bend Pose (Sanskrit name: Paschimottanasana) with a strap and blanket as she bends forward

In this variation, you are practicing the concave back version; this is the first phase of Paschimottanasana and most forward bends. The belt and blankets provide support to give maximum height to the spine and allow for freedom in your hamstrings.

  1. Sit in Staff Pose (Dandasana) on two folded blankets, with your legs straight and your spine lifting straight up, perpendicular to the floor, hands pressing down beside your hips. 

  2. If you find that you cannot sit upright in this position (your sacrum or lower back are rounding or you cannot straighten your legs) use more blankets underneath your seat. This is the foundation for Paschimottanasana, and therefore, it is necessary that you be able to sit erect before proceeding. 

  3. Press your thighs into the floor and lift the sides of your torso up. Move your back ribs and spine forward to the front body.

  4. Place a belt around your feet and hold the sides of the belt with each hand. 

  5. Start with your torso in an upright position. Press your legs firmly down into the floor and on an inhalation, lift the entire front of your torso from the bottom of your pelvis to your throat. 

  6. Pull on the belt as if drawing your arms back into your shoulder sockets and lift your chest up as if you were trying to take your ribs above the level of your arms. Then walk your hands down the belt closer to your feet maintaining the lift of your front body.

  7. Keep your legs firm; don’t let your knees or feet turn out or become loose. Press the entire inner edge of each leg into the floor and extend the back of your heels away from your pelvis.  As your calves reach forward in the direction of your heels, your hamstrings should reach back toward your buttocks. 

  8. As if you are trying to push your blankets back with your buttocks, take your buttock bones back and spread them apart from each other. Lift your lower spine upward from the base. Match the lift of your back body with the length in your front by lifting the lower abdomen.

  9. Keep your hands separate so that you can broaden your chest. You are using your arms to help engage the backside of your body, where you may especially feel the effort in your middle back.

  10. If you find this variation very challenging, continue practicing this version before proceeding. This will help stretch tight hamstrings muscles and safely train your lower back to extend forward. If you suffer from lower back problems or are very stiff, stick with this variation.

 
2nd Variation:

Yoga student in Seated Forward Bend Pose (Sanskrit name: Paschimottanasana) variation with a blanket under hips leaning forward

Now that you have brought your torso closer to your legs while creating length in the front of your body, you can try to extend further forward. In this variation, you will use a block to help extend the sides of your torso more and to practice the actions of the upper body, neck, and shoulders. Since the block is slightly wider than your feet, it helps you to widen across your chest and shoulders. If you cannot reach the block, hold the sides of your heels instead or continue to use the belt. (the photo above does not include the block mentioned but the student holds the sides of her feet instead)

  1. Place a block on its side behind your feet. Extend your arms straight up toward the ceiling to lift the sides of your ribcage and waist up. 

  2. On an exhalation reach forward and clasp the sides of the middle of the block or hold your outer heels if you can’t reach the block. 

  3. Work your arms and back as you did in the first variation to make your back concave. 

  4. Flatten your thighs into the floor and move the buttocks back as you inhale and lengthen the abdomen upward toward your chest. 

  5. Broaden the top chest region so that the shoulders and collarbones don’t tighten around the neck and throat.

  6. On an exhalation, begin to bend your elbows to the sides and lengthen your torso toward your feet. In this variation, you are not trying to take your head down to your legs, but it should feel as though you are aiming to reach the navel and sternum forward to the toes. 

  7. Push your inner heels into the block as you widen your elbows to the sides, keeping the top chest broad. Spread your shoulders away from each other so that your upper back feels wide as well. 

  8. Pull the sides of your waist forward toward your side ribs, your side ribs towards your armpits, and your armpits (not your shoulders) toward your elbows. 

  9. You should maintain an element of working your back ribs toward your front ribs as in the concave back variation, so your back doesn’t form a hump shape, and to maintain the length of your frontal torso. If you find that your abdomen is tightening, lift up slightly, extend your legs and lift your ribs away from your abdomen so as to stretch the abdomen forward.

 
3rd Variation:

Yoga student practicing the full expression of Seated Forward Bend Pose (Paschimottanasana) with head to knees

If you were able to keep your torso long while going forward, you can now attempt the next version of the pose, which involves going down while extending forward. If you need support under your buttocks in order to sit upright in Dandasana, keep something underneath you in this version.

  1. As in the previous version, lift your arms skyward to open your front body.  

  2. Exhale, extend forward and clasp your heels with your hands. Lift your chest and begin by making your back concave again.  

  3. Pull the outer edges of your feet toward your pelvis as you push forward through your inner heels. Broaden the soles of your feet.

  4. On the next exhalation, bend your elbows to the sides and begin pulling your torso forward. 

  5. Turn the tops of your thighs inward and press them strongly down so that you feel your hamstrings lengthen and widen on the floor. Spread your buttocks apart as you contract your outer thighs and hips closer to each other. 

  6. From the top of your buttocks extend your entire lower back toward your head. It should feel like your hamstrings are going back while your spine is going forward.

  7. Cut your back ribs downward, away from the ceiling, to bring your front ribs closer to your thighs. 

  8. If you feel as if your bottom ribs are stuck to your abdomen, you are folding from your waist rather than your hips. You can lift upward slightly to free your lower abdomen, spread your diaphragm, and extend forward toward your chest. 

  9. Spread your upper arms and shoulders as you move your upper back down toward your legs to open your chest. 

  10. As in the concave back variation, spread your collarbones to the sides.  Don’t squeeze your shoulders together but move them to the sides and toward your pelvis, away from your head. 

  11. As you take your head down, keep the sides of your neck long. Don’t drop your elbows but keep them level with your shoulders.  If your head doesn’t reach your legs, or if you find that your throat is constricted, your chest is closing, or your head is much lower than your chest, place something—a folded blanket, a bolster or a block—on top of your shins to support your head. The back of your neck should be parallel to the floor, not diagonally slanting downward.

  12. Although you’re working your arms and legs to draw yourself forward and downward, your shoulders, neck, abdomen, and lower back should not feel tight.

You will find that you cannot do all of these actions at once. This pose teaches patience and how to work intelligently with the breath. On the inhalation, you can focus on lengthening the front of your torso and the work of your legs, and on the exhalation, you can focus on extending further forward. On the exhalation and at the end of the exhalation you also experience a few moments of release of tension to go deeper into the pose without aggression. This release is an important component of forward extensions in order to create inner space and freedom.

Benefits:

Anxiety     

Stretches hamstrings and back  

Menstrual cramps

Headache

Contraindications:

Sciatica Pain

Depression

Pregnancy

Paschimottanasana Dos and Don'ts

Pachimottanasana, seated forward bend, Variations for Paschimottanasana, yoga practice tips, dos and don'ts for this pose

 

Bobbie Ellis, YogaUOnline teacher, Somatics and Yoga, Online YogaU courses

More insightful yoga practice tips and inspiration from Marla Apt: Refine Your Salabhasana-Building Stamina and Vigor in Locust Pose

 

Reprinted with permission from Marla Apt and yoganga.com

Originally published in Yoga Journal

Marla Apt, Iyengar Teacher, Workshop Leader, Yoga and Research, Yoga Pose PrimerBased in Los Angeles, Marla is a Senior level Certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. Her 25 years of experience have made her a prominent instructor both throughout the United States and abroad, where she leads workshops, intensives, retreats, and teacher training programs.

Since visiting India for the first time to conduct research for a degree in Buddhist Philosophy, Marla has returned annually to pursue an education in yoga under the direction of B.K.S. Iyengar and his children, Geeta and Prashant.

In a piece by Yoga Journal Magazine, Marla was highlighted as one of twenty-one young yoga teachers helping to “shape the future of yoga.” She has assisted with medical research studies at UCLA regarding yoga as a treatment for depression, anxiety, and IBS. In addition, Marla has created the first yoga therapy content to be incorporated into the curriculum of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.