SmartMat Pose of the Week – Paschimottanasana
Paschimottanasana is more commonly known as Seated Forward Bend. Translated directly from Sanskrit, it means “Intense Stretch to the West.” Seems like a bizarre name for a forward fold, but a lot of pose names in Yoga were chosen for a symbolic purpose, often relating to larger phenomenons in nature.
In this case, the sun rises in the east but sets in the west. A setting sun is symbolic of the day’s end; the busyness of our day finally quieting down, and our energy starting to turn inward. With this larger context, the purpose of Paschimottanasana becomes more clear.
This is a pose, energetically speaking, that is all about turning inward, quieting the mind, and connecting to the larger rhythms present in our life. No matter who we are, nobody escapes the cycles of day and night, and the natural fluctuations in our own energy levels that come with them. Practicing this posture regularly can help an individual synch up better with the natural rhythms of the day so we can experience transitions in our own energy levels with more ease and grace.
This sounds nice to me, but practically speaking, it can be a bit challenging to turn inward when your hamstrings are so tight you can barely even bend forward to touch your toes. Is there a way around the body’s limitations so one can still experience the calm and peace of this posture even without the uber-flexibility it seems to require?
Yes. No matter how deep you can fold forward, certain guidelines can help you focus inward so your alignment is ideal for YOU both physically and energetically:
As Usual, It’s All About That Base.
In this case, the base of the pose is one’s sitbones, legs, and even heel bones. Rooting into the bones firmly with each exhalation establishes your connection to the earth energy in this posture, and it also gives you something to push away from in order to lengthen the spine. Many practitioners gloss over this important step of rooting down and simply try to reach as far forward as they can go without a firm foundation to launch out from. In this case, you may start to see your legs buckle from the mat like this:
If one practices consistently like this, it could lead to an unhealthy pulling on the low back, maybe even leading to a strained muscle or torn ligament. Not fun.
How to Avoid Injury and Welcome in the Calm
Instead of rushing for the finish line and trying to grasp your toes without any regard for what your legs are doing, I suggest first rooting very firmly into the base of your posture with an exhalation. To accomplish this, it might help to manually pull the rear flesh back with your hands and directly connect the sitbones to the mat first. Once the sitbones are deeply rooted, the rest of your legs will have a better chance at grounding firmly too.
You’ll know you accomplish this once your SmartMat shows you that equal weight is distributed among both sitbones and down the full length of the legs, all the way to the heels. It will look something like this:
It’s important to note a few things. There will often still be a little pocket of air under your knees (unless you have a pronounced hyperextension in your knees). This is ok. Energetically speaking, it’s best not to lock the joint so the energy can flow more freely up the legs.
Second, notice how much straighter my spine became in the second picture. Once I rooted properly into my legs, I couldn’t go forward as far. BUT, my stretch became a lot stronger in my legs! Seems ironic, but by really anchoring my posture, I created a more integrated tension in the muscles instead of just falling into my habit of flexibility without proper grounding.
Now, not only is my back protected, but since the stretch became a lot more intense once the legs were grounded, I started to spontaneously breath deeper; close my eyes; and consciously tried to relax. Paradoxically, hitting just that right amount of tension in my legs allowed me to initiate a natural desire to go inward and soothe. Who would have thought that grounding tight hamstrings would be the gateway to inner calm? But that’s what Yoga is after all, the joining together of seemingly opposite forces to find the universal whole within.
Welcome to the West!