Monday, June 25, 2012

Asana Research Lab: Paschimottanasana

Where "B" equals your Butt.

My 5 days with Chuck Miller (see my last post) encouraged me to step back and take a look at all the fundamental postures of the Ashtanga practice and ruthlessly assess the quality with which I'd been practicing them. One of the postures I decided I needed to reel in a bit and rebuild from the ground up was my Paschimottanasana (POSH-chee-moh-tan-AHS-anna), or seated forward bend. Often when we're striving to achieve what we think is the end posture — usually what we've seen a very advanced practitioner demonstrate in a book, video or website — we rush through or skip over the fundamentals and jump right into a simulacrum of the gross expression of the pose. 

Sketch from Jérôme Terrier's great Flickr stream of yoga drawings

In Paschimottanasana, this often translates into rounding the upper back, hunching the shoulders up by the ears and pulling ourselves forward, reaching the face desperately towards the feet. While a seated forward bend with a round spine can feel good, it's not the goal of this posture. In Paschimottanasana we're looking to stretch the hamstrings and spine, extending the crown of the head and the heels like two rays extending from the vertex of the hips, diminishing the degree of the angle as we progress further into the posture.

A few tips to follow when working mindfully on this pose:
  1. First, sit with legs extended and plant the heels into the ground.
  2. As in all seated forward bends, keep the foot active but not reaching back towards the shin as in Dandasana. From the heel, reach forward with the balls of the feet, toes spreading, almost like you were wearing invisible stilettos.
  3. Keeping the quadriceps active and knees lifted will allow the hamstrings to release.
  4. Think about lengthening the leg from the planted heels to the front of the sit bones. This requires a forward tilt of the pelvis. You might need to sit on the front of a block or folded towel at first if your hamstrings are especially tight.
  5. Focus on rolling the upper thighs inwards, spreading the sit bones and dropping the pelvic bone towards the floor, tailbone lifting.
  6. Draw the spine long up out of the rooted sit bones to the crown of the head, slightly tucking the chin and lifting the heart.
  7. Think about moving the sternum — not the head — forward out over the extended legs, keeping the chin in and neck long. 
Additionally, give the exercises in this video a try. I found them super helpful.

Most important to remember: it's not how far you go! It's about doing the work that you need to do, and being honest, uncompromising and gentle with yourself while you do it.

Additional Reading

This excerpt from Gregor Maehle's book on Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most beautiful passages I've ever read concerning the interconnectedness of our physical bodies and our emotional and etheric bodies. I highly recommend buying his book if you are interested in deepening your practice!

Psoas — The Seat of the Soul
Excerpt from Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy by Gregor Maehle 

The hip flexor muscle group includes the rectus femoris of the quadriceps, the sartorius, the tensor fascia latae, and the deeply internal psoas muscle. Continuing to contract the rectus femoris after it has tilted the hips in a forward bend causes it to bunch up in the front of the hip and prevent one from working deeper into the posture. The psoas muscle originates from the sides of the body of T12 (the lst thoracic vertebra), where it touches the diaphragm and all five lumbar vertebrae. It runs along the back of the abdominal cavity (the front of the spine) through the pelvis and inserts at a mount on the inside of the thighbone (femur), the lesser trochanter. It flexes the hip joint and laterally rotates the femur in the process.
When the thigh is fixed, as in standing and seated postures, the psoas is flexed. Ida Rolf states that a healthy psoas should elongate during flexion and fall back toward the spine. It is necessary to release and lengthen the psoas, once the hips are tilted forward, in order to deepen any forward-bending postures.
 The superficial muscles of the body relax completely after they have been worked, but the dep muscles always retain a certain tension, even at rest. This is especially true of muscles that originate on the spine, like the psoas. They are therefore prone to spasm if worked intensely. The conscious relaxing of these muscles is as important as exercising them.
The psoas is the deepest muscle in the body. Its importance is such that it has been described by some as the "seat of the soul." To see the psoas in action one has to imagine the graceful gait of African or Indian women carrying large water containers on their heads. To do this, the head has to maintain a continuous forward motion without any sudden jerks. The movement is only possible with a strong but relaxed psoas muscle. The psoas swings the pelvis forward and backward like a cradle. This swinging action initiates the movement of the legs with the rectus femoris (the large hip flexor at the front of the thigh) only coming into action well after the psoas. The swinging of the pelvis creates a wavelike motion up the spine, which keeps the spine healthy and vibrant, and the mind centered in the heart. If you have ever tried to walk with a large object balancing on your head you know how difficult this makes it to follow the tangents of the mind. Connecting with the core of the body (the psoas) shifts the attention from the mind to the heart — this is why the psoas is regarded as the seat of the soul. 
The other extreme can be observed when we watch an army march. Soldiers are required to keep the psoas hardened. Being constantly shortened, the muscle spasms and is weakened. In the military attention posture, when the chest is swelled, one naturally dips into the low back, which also weakens the psoas muscle. When marching, the pelvis is arrested and the thighs are aggressively thrust upward and forward. This movement only uses the rectus femoris. The spine is frozen, and this keeps the soldiers' attention in their minds. In this state the mind can more easily be convinced to be non-compassionate to fellow human beings, who are instead labeled as the enemy.
If we all walked with our psoas active and our spines caressed with the wavelike motion this produces, our minds would possibly arrive at a state of silence. we would then see every human being as part of the same consciousness that animates us all. One of the reasons our Western culture has conquered much of the world with its arms is that we have abandoned natural awareness and have fallen under the tyranny of the mind. Yoga calls for restoring this awareness, which draws us to naturally abide in nonviolence. Nonviolence becomes a non-imposed ethical law.
As one starts  practicing yoga it is very important to abandon the Western aggressive conquering attitude of wanting to derive an advantage out of yoga, but rather to approach the postures from a deep surrender into what is already here. All forward bends inspire this attitude. If, rather than developing yet another wish — such as to lengthen the hamstrings, which actually shorten and contract with greed — we let go into the knowledge that everything we may ask for is already here, the hamstrings will release by themselves. Ambition shortens hamstrings.



  1. Great post, Brian!

    Love the drawing with 'b' as the butt. I'm easy to amuse that way. And oh, how I agree about the psoas being key to everything.

    1. Thanks Nadine! Glad you enjoyed it...I'm going to fix myself a coffee and explore your site, looks like a lot of great content. Namaste!

  2. If you want to lose weight Paschimottanasana is best .This asana is best for arms, hands & spine.