Seated Forward Fold — Paschimottanasana (PAH-shee-moh-tun-AHS-uh-nuh) — is a calming yoga pose that helps to relieve stress. This pose is often practiced later in a sequence, when the body is warm. It also helps to prepare the practitioner for even deeper poses, such as One Leg Behind Head Pose (Eka Pada Sirsasana) and Sleeping Yogi Pose (Yoganidrasana).
Though commonly referred to as “Seated Forward Fold” or “Seated Forward Bend,” its Sanskrit name translates to “Intense West Stretch.” This comes from four Sanskrit words:
- “Paschima” — meaning “west”
- “Ut” — meaning “intense”
- “Tan” — meaning “to stretch”
- “Asana” — meaning “pose”
It is believed that ancient yogis would practice facing the sunrise and Paschimottanasana would deeply stretch the entire back, or “west,” side of their bodies as they folded forward toward the sun. The pose can indeed feel “intense,” but it's important to remember never to force it or push too hard. The more you can learn to relax in this pose, the deeper your stretch will be.
Benefits of Paschimottanasana
The real goal of yoga is to know the true nature of the self.
Paschimottanasana stretches the spine, shoulders, pelvis, and hamstrings. It also stimulates and balances the liver, kidneys, adrenal glands, ovaries, and uterus. And while traditional yoga texts say Paschimottanasana can cure disease, modern-day yoga teachers agree to its many other benefits, which include:
- Relief from stress
- Improved digestion and appetite
- Relief from menstrual pain and symptoms of menopause
- A calmer mind
- Reduced anxiety and fatigue
- Improved sleep and relief from insomnia
This pose is also believed to be therapeutic for high blood pressure, infertility, and sinusitis. It is reputed to be beneficial for overcoming obesity, as well.
It takes patience and a dedicated practice to perform Paschimottanasana at its fullest expression. It can take years, or even decades, to reach the deepest variation of the pose, making it very easy to injure yourself if you push your body to attain the full pose too soon. If you don't have the flexibility to do the pose in correct alignment, be sure to practice with a strap or with a bolster under your knees until you can fold without over-rounding your spine.
Also avoid practicing this pose if you are currently suffering from asthma or diarrhea. Students with back injuries should only practice this pose with the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable teacher. Always work within your own range of limits and abilities. If you have any medical concerns, talk with your doctor before practicing yoga.
- Sit on the edge of a firm blanket with your legs extended in front of you in Staff Pose (Dandasana). Reach actively through your heels. Beginners should bend their knees throughout the pose, eventually straightening the legs as flexibility increases.
- Inhale as you reach your arms out to the side, and then up overhead, lengthening your spine.
- Exhaling, bend forward from the hip joints. Do not bend at the waist. Lengthen the front of your torso. Imagine your torso coming to rest on your thighs, instead of tipping your nose toward your knees.
- Hold onto your shins, ankles, or feet — wherever your flexibility permits. You can also wrap a yoga strap or towel around the soles of your feet, holding it firmly with both hands.
- Keep the front of your torso long; do not round your back. Let your belly touch your legs first, and then your chest. Your head and nose should touch your legs last.
- With each inhalation, lengthen the front torso. With each exhalation, fold a bit deeper.
- Hold for up to one minute. To release the pose, draw your tailbone towards the floor as you inhale and lift your torso.
Modifications & Variations
Paschimottanasana is a calming and deeply rejuvenating stretch when practiced correctly. However, that might sound unattainable if your hamstrings or spine are tight! With patience and practice, though, your hamstrings and spine will loosen and lengthen. Remember to take it slowly and never push yourself in the pose. Try these changes to find a variation of the pose that works for you:
- If your hamstrings or low back are tight, bend your knees. If you're very stiff, you can place a bolster or rolled-up blanket under your knees. Most beginners should hold a strap around their feet, as well.
- If you are extremely stiff and can't even begin the pose, try lying on your back in Legs Up the Wall (Viparita Karani). This will begin to open the hip joint and hamstrings in a passive way, rather than pushing too hard, which can over-strain the muscles and lead to even greater inflexibility.
- If it's easy to clasp your hands around the soles of your feet, you can deepen the pose by placing a block at the soles of the feet and holding that, instead.
- Some yoga styles will have you clasp your big toes with your first two fingers, while others allow for variations on the clasp. There is no right or wrong style, but if you're in a class, follow the direction your teacher gives — he or she is instructing you that way for a reason!
It's important to make sure the front of your torso stays long in Paschimottanasana. Simply dropping your head down and rounding your spine can injure your back and over-stress your hamstrings. Doing so can also lead to habits of misalignment that will wear you out over time. Keep the following information in mind when practicing this pose:
- Emphasize lengthening the front of your torso, instead of just trying to touch your nose to your knees. Make sure you are folding at the hips, not at the waist. Bend your knees or use a strap. Then, work on keeping your torso long as you straighten your legs and reach through your heels.
- Aim to bring your belly to your thighs, rather than your head to your knees.
- Never force yourself into a forward bend. Only come as far forward as you can, while keeping your spine long. It might not be as far as you're used to, but remember: It's more important to keep spinal integrity than to touch your nose to your knees!
Fold & Go Within
Though Paschimottanasana can feel “intense,” it can be easy to push your body too much, seeking more intense sensations as signs of progress. Be careful not to misinterpret painful, sharp, or piercing sensations as positive signs! Back off if you are injuring yourself.
The more you relax in the pose, the more naturally your body will open up. Forcing forward folds will actually cause your muscles to shorten and resist even more. Breathe deeply and evenly. Settle into the moment. Turn your thoughts inward and allow resistance to gently fade away.