January Pose of the Month
You’ve no doubt been practicing and learning about paścimottānāsana in every class you’ve attended this month. That’s because paścimottānāsana (pronounced pashchimottanasana), the intense stretch of the West pose, is our January pose of the month. Why would this seated forward bend be called the stretch of the west you wonder? Traditionally yoga is practiced facing the east as the sun is rising. If you are facing east, then the back of your body — the part you are stretching in this posture — is facing west!
What looks like simply sitting down and folding forward is, in fact, quite technical when practiced safely. We can use paścimottānāsana as a stretch of the hamstrings, or we can use this pose to stretch the back side of the torso. In this seated forward fold I like to align the posture as primarily a hamstring stretch, so that’s what we will discuss here.
To start, let’s first look at the posterior chain - a group of muscles (some of your largest muscles) on the back side of your body. In the seated forward fold we are either engaging or stretching along this posterior chain. Of primary importance in the forward fold are a group of muscles called the erector spinae, and of course, the hamstrings. For the hamstrings to stretch efficiently and effectively the erector spinae first have to be at their maximum stretch, or — and this is important — we have to simulate that they are at their maximum stretch.
To set this pose up as a hamstring stretch it’s important to get your pelvis into an anterior tilt - top of pelvis tilting forward. You can do this by coming to the front of your sitting bones on the edge of a blanket (I like to describe it as that feeling when you’re sliding down the stairs on your bottom - when you were a kid, of course - and you’re just about to boom down onto the next step). Next, you’ll want to activate your legs by reaching your heels forward, as if you are trying to stretch the back of your legs about a quarter of an inch longer. It’s not important that the legs be perfectly straight — it’s more important that you are extending the heels away from you and maintaining anterior tilt of the pelvis.
Once you have the lower body set you can focus on the spine. For maximum efficient hamstring stretch the erector spinae must reach their maximum stretch. For some of us this won’t be difficult to do just by folding forward, but for many of us the erector spinae won’t reach maximum stretch just by folding forward, therefore we have to simulate that they can’t stretch anymore by engaging these muscles and preventing them from stretching. You do this by extending your spine - or moving it more toward a backbend - and lifting your heart. Then, rather than the forward “fold” coming from the spine, it will come from the hips, as if you are literally hinging yourself in half (note in the photo above my spine is not rounding forward - but extending). Remember to keep your neck in line with the rest of the spine.
When using this posture to stretch the back of the torso you would let the spine round more into flexion. Note that if you have osteoporosis, osteopenia, or have been told that you have any amount of bone density loss you would want to be careful not to force your spine into flexion which can cause compression fractures in the vertebral bodies.
A regular practice including paścimottānāsana, balanced by stretching of the hip flexors, will go a long way in relieving and preventing common occurrences of low back pain. Keep practicing!