Yes, yoga strengthens our muscles, energizes our spirits, and calms our minds. One of its greatest gifts, however, is more profound: Yoga teaches us to see the truth of life more clearly. When we practice with intention and intelligence, we begin attending to details in our bodies and lives that we previously had overlooked or even misunderstood.
Why care about seeing clearly? As my wise mother likes to say, "When we are aware, we have a choice." When we see clearly what is going on within and around us, we are better equipped to make smart decisions and respond appropriately to the needs of the moment. Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein puts it this way: "When we see clearly, we behave impeccably, out of love, on behalf of all creatures."
Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose) is a complex and challenging posture that offers an exceptional opportunity to practice the fine art of seeing clearly. Equal parts balancing posture and forward bend, this pose requires tremendous concentration and clarity of mind. It challenges us to recognize which areas of our bodies are holding steady and which are moving into action. In the process, it strengthens and stretches the legs, hips, and torso while offering the mind a chance to grow cool and steady.
Master the Fold
To prepare, let's explore a variation of Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) that incorporates some of the basics of Parsvottanasana. Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) facing a wall, far enough away to accommodate the length of your arms and torso. Position your pelvis so your hip points are level and equidistant from the wall. Keep your feet together as you lift your arms overhead and fold forward from your hip joints, forming a deep crease at the tops of your thighs.
Press your hands into the wall at hip height, positioning them so that you form a long, straight line from your wrists all the way to your tailbone. (Your torso will form a 90-degree angle to your legs.) Allow your pelvis to maintain its symmetry while it tilts forward, with its left and right sides still the same distance from the wall. Breathe comfortably and invite your shoulders and hamstrings to settle into this delightfully refreshing stretch. After a few moments, reverse your movements and return to Tadasana.
Bring the Legs Into Position
Now let's explore the same forward folding action at the wall, only this time with the legs in the scissored stance of Parsvottanasana. This small change in leg position changes the pose considerably, since the upper body is asked to remain symmetrical while the legs are required to move in a very different fashion. Believe me, seeing clearly which parts of the body are moving and which are still is not as simple as it sounds!
Stand facing the wall with your right foot three to six inches away from the baseboard, toes facing forward. Step the left leg three to four feet behind, coming into a stance that feels stable while still offering a good stretch for the legs and hips. Turn the left toes out just a bit. Stand firmly and with confidence, straightening your legs and gently hugging your leg muscles into your bones.
Once you've found a steady stance, place your hands on your hips and ask yourself whether or not your pelvis is squared to the wall in front of you. I'm willing to wager that your left hip is farther away from the wall than your right, with your belly drifting around toward the left. To correct this, rise up onto the toes of your back leg and draw your right hip toward the wall until the two sides of your pelvis face evenly forward. Maintain this evenness as you slowly lower your left heel back down to the ground.
When you are confident that your hips are level and balanced, extend your arms overhead and tilt forward from your pelvis until your hands rest on the wall above your head. Keep your spine spacious and expansive, forming a long line from the base of your spine all the way up through your hands. Deepen the crease at the top of your hips and continue lengthening enthusiastically through your pubic bone, navel, rib cage, and heart to the crown of your head. Invite your front body to feel expansive and buoyant.
Ask yourself: In the process of dipping forward, have you let your hips spin off-kilter toward the back leg, causing your spine to kink and your belly to laze around toward the right? If so, even out your pelvis by drawing your front left thigh firmly away from the wall while pressing your outer right hip forward.
When you have mastered this action, the two sides of your body from your hands to your tailbone will be balanced and even, and your navel will face directly forward. This means that a marble placed on the back of your head would roll straight down your spine to your tailbone, falling directly to the ground behind you instead of veering off course to the left or right.
Breathe deeply for several moments, enjoying the opportunity to stretch your legs and lengthen your spine. When you are ready to come out of the pose, step your back foot toward the wall, release your arms to your sides, and stand in Tadasana. Repeat this entire exploration on the second side, with your left leg forward and your right leg back.
Move to the Center of the Room
This modified Parsvottanasana done with a wall for support may be enough of a challenge for now. There is a lot to consider in this posture, and if you want to be precise about which parts of your body are moving and how, it is wise to proceed methodically and at a leisurely pace. Commit yourself to a slow and steady path that will allow you to see clearly every step of the way.
If you were able to maintain your composure while practicing Parsvottanasana at the wall, you can explore a more challenging version of this pose using blocks to support your hands. Stand in the center of the room with your legs together, toes facing forward. Step your left leg three to four feet behind and turn your left toes slightly out.
Position two blocks at their tallest height by each side of your front foot. Stand tall and steadily with both legs straight, making deep footprints in the earth and letting that grounding action rebound upward through your core. Lengthen your spine wholeheartedly toward the sky.
Before you begin to fold forward, place your hands on your hips and balance your pelvis just as you did while practicing Parsvottanasana at the wall. Point the hip bones directly forward so the pelvis does not slip around to the left. Inhale as you joyfully extend your heart upward, and let an exhalation carry you into a swanlike forward bend initiated from the base of your pelvis. Be clear about your actions: Your legs stay straight and stable, your pelvis rotates over the thighbones, and your spine stays long, even, and steady.
Pause here and reach your hands toward the blocks. If this forces your shoulders to slouch or your spine to round, then back off by keeping your hands on your hips. As your body grows more limber, you will be able to crease more fully at the hip joints and settle more completely into the pose.
If you are able to reach the blocks without rounding your spine, press your hands firmly atop each block, with your fingers facing forward. Let this rooting action straighten your arms and buoy your heart. Reach back through your tailbone, pressing more enthusiastically through your right side than your left to keep your hips balanced. Invite your front spine to elongate gracefully from the pelvis toward the space beyond the crown of your head.
Find Balanced Alignment
Here's a good test of whether or not you're seeing clearly in this pose: If you've stayed long and anchored in the legs as well as even and balanced in the hips, then both sides of your back will be long and even when you settle into Parsvottanasana. A friend should be able to place a glass of champagne anywhere on your back body without fear of it spilling.
Once you've established this balanced alignment, breathe steadily and be firm in the core of your body. Imagine that your spine is floating on the surface of the sea, buoyant, bubbly, and light. Invite your brain to grow cool and spacious, and settle in for a few long and satisfying breaths.
As you linger in the deep forward fold of Parsvottanasana, challenge yourself to attend fully to the sensations of the moment and to be honest about what is and isn't happening in your body, mind, and breath. Enjoy the opportunity to soak up every bit of clarity, steadiness, and ease.
After several breaths, place your hands on your hips and let an inhalation bring you back to standing. Step your legs together into Tadasana and notice how Parsvottanasana has transformed you. Which leg feels longer? Which hip feels fuller? Which side of your spine feels more expansive? Has your breath changed as a result of this exploration? When you are ready, repeat Parsvottanasana on the second side, with your left leg forward and your right leg back.
As you gain confidence and clarity in this posture, you may want to explore an even more challenging expression of it, with your hands behind you, each grasping the opposite elbow, and your heart dipping more deeply toward your shin. This is a complicated and demanding action, but with patience and practice, you will find yourself moving deeply into this graceful pose—strengthening your sturdy legs, extending your buoyant spine, and cultivating a steady sense of balance, stamina, and clarity that originates from deep within.