Forward folds are one of those poses that you either love or hate. Those that love them tend to be flexible and those that cringe at the thought of them, usually have tight hamstrings and hips. No matter which camp you’re in, forward folds are something we should all have in our practice (whether standing or seated). Which folds you do and how you modify them are not only dependent upon your flexibility but any issues you may have with your spine (particularly the lumbar spine). The options truly are endless here but let’s focus on Paschimottanasana or seated forward fold. This is one the most intense and challenging poses as it asks your body to fold in half! But it’s a powerful healing pose so let’s first take a look at the juicy benefits, then we’ll break the alignment down, and lastly, we’ll take a look at things not to do in seated forward fold.

The healing benefits of Paschimottanasana

  • Calms the brain and helps relieve stress
  • Decreases or relieves mild depression
  • Lengthens the spine, shoulders, hamstrings
  • Stimulates the liver, kidneys, ovaries, and uterus
  • Improves digestion
  • Soothes headache and anxiety and reduces fatigue

And these are just a few! I notice the benefits of this pose almost immediately. This pose has so much going on targeting several areas of the body (shoulders, back, legs) and in doing so, soothes or calms the CNS (central nervous system). So, we’re getting the physical stress release as well as the physiological. I really could go into much more depth about the benefits of this pose but I think you get the idea of how much it does for the body and the mind. Now let’s break down the proper alignment.  The idea here is not to ‘get the pose perfect’. Not at all! The intention behind proper alignment is to avoid injury and create a vessel that is set up in such a way with ease and sweetness, that the Prana flows through easily energizing and healing your body temple as you hold space in the asana.

Alignment Do’s for Paschimottanasana

I will start by saying, it should take you several breaths to come to your full expression of this pose. You should never force your way into it (or any pose for that matter!). Inhale, lengthen in your spine and as you exhale begin to fold forward from the hips keeping that length in your spine.

  • From a seated position, extend your legs out in front of you.
  • Sitting tall on your sit bones, flex your feet heels pressing into the earth
  • Belly is gently drawing in toward your spine and legs are active
  • INHALE: lengthen in the spine, crown of your head reaches toward the sky
  • EXHALE: begin to fold forward from your hips (not the waist) keeping length in your spine. Repeat this inhale/exhale lengthening/folding until you’ve reached your sweet spot. You want to keep your spine long not allowing it to round. So if you have tight hamstrings, this may mean you look more like you’re in Dandasana (Staff Pose) than Paschimottanasana and that’s ok! Never sacrifice integrity of the body for the goal of a pose.  Be patient and you’ll get there.  That’s why yoga is called a practice.
  • Allow your palms to rest on your shins, ankles, feet (this is determined by the ability to keep your spine long as you hold this pose-finding your limit and then backing off about 10-20% and this is where you hold).
  • If flexibility allows you to completely fold forward, maintaining integrity of the spine, your forehead rests on your legs. Otherwise, your gaze is forward and down at the earth (or maybe your feet) finding and maintaining the natural curve of the cervical spine.
  • Be sure to engage Mula Bandha-this helps to protect the lumbar and sacral spine, especially as you fold forward
  • Hold this pose for 5-7 breathes or 1-3 minutes

There are several modifications for this pose so choose one that feels best in your body. You can keep your knees bent eventually moving toward straight knees or you can use a strap. You can also try sitting on a blanket to take some of the intensity out of the pose. Try them and see what feels good to you! Remember, we want our spine to receive this pose and stay long so modify in whatever way allows you to maintain that integrity. There is no “right” or “wrong”.

Let’s take a peek at a couple things not do in a forward fold.

We need to protect the lumbar and cervical spine so these are pretty important to know.

DON’T flex the neck or curl your chin into your chest-puts too much pressure on the cervical spine.

DON’T force yourself forward trying to get as far as you can, allowing your spine to round-this puts way too much pressure on the lumber and sacral spine and can actually be injurious.

DON’T force your knees straight-if your hamstrings are tight, allow them to bend until you’re able to straighten them over time.

There are many subtle details in this pose but these are a few of the core foundational concepts to keep in mind. Remember, we never force our way into any pose.  Simply allow your breath to guide you into a pose. Finding the space where you can hold the pose with steadiness and a smile on your face and then just breathe.

How do you feel about Paschimottanasana? Love it? Hate it? What are one of your most challenging poses? Share with us here!

Feature Image via Bad Yogi community member Janet Vella!

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