Upward Plank Pose
What compass directions would you assign to the back and front of your body? My front (my belly!) has been going south for the last few years, but that's not what I mean. In Sanskrit, paschima means both "back" and "west," while purva means both "front" and "east." So according to the yogis, your back body is the west, your front body the east. This terminology gives us the names of two common, related poses: Paschimottanasana (Intense Stretch of the West Pose or, more commonly, Seated Forward Bend), which stretches your back body, and Purvottanasana (Intense Stretch of the East, or Upward Plank Pose), a slight backbend and front-body stretch that provides a nice counterpose to its western opposite.
Purvottanasana stretches you all the way from your ankles through the thighs, groins, and belly, up to the shoulders and throat. It also strengthens your wrists and the muscles on the backs of the upper arms (triceps) and firms the buttocks—which, if you believe popular media claims, is a primary benefit of yoga. It will also help improve your sense of balance and calm. And it's a great counterpose to Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). If you have serious wrist, shoulder, or neck problems, practice this pose only under the guidance of an experienced teacher. You'll need a chair, a block, and a wall to practice.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Rotate your thighs inward, big toes in, heels out, and press your palms to the floor slightly behind your buttocks with your fingers pointing forward toward your torso. If your shoulders protest, you can turn your fingers out to the sides.
Bend your elbows and sink or hollow your front torso, spreading your scapulas as far away from your spine as possible. Rotate your upper arms inward and widen your elbows, letting the heads of your upper arm bones (humeri) jut forward. Enjoy the stretch between the scapulas for a minute or so. Straighten your elbows and lift your chest. Often, students simply squeeze their scapulas together and shove their lower front ribs forward, which hardens the front torso, restricting the free flow of breath, and compresses the low back. Instead, keep your scapulas wide and front torso soft.
Press the bases of your index fingers into the floor and hug your triceps against your humeri. As your elbows straighten out and your chest lifts, maintain the inward rotation of your upper arms, which will help the scapulas stay broad. Release your head back slightly, but don't fully extend the neck. Trace the stretch along your front torso from your pubis to your sternum (breastbone).
Imagine directing your inhalations into the space behind your sternum ("imagine" because there's no lung there, just your heart), increasing the lift of your chest. With each exhalation, reaffirm the opposing movements of the inner hands (down against the floor) and scapulas (up against your back). Hold for a minute or two. Repeat two or three times, until you feel confident you'll be able to recreate the inward rotation of the thighs and arms and the actions of the hands and scapulas while maintaining the soft front torso when called on to do so in the more challenging circumstances of the full pose.
Next, sit on the front edge of a chair with your knees bent, heels directly below your knees. Wrap your hands around the back edge of the seat (for this first part of the exercise your upper arms will naturally rotate outward), thumbs pointing out. Inhale and slowly lift your buttocks away from the seat until your thighs, torso, and head form one long diagonal line, with your arms more or less perpendicular to the chair seat. Rotate your thighs slightly inward, and push (but don't physically move) your knees away from your torso. The thigh rotation will tend to make your tailbone sag toward the floor, collapsing your belly, so firm your tailbone against your back pelvis and lengthen it. Hold this position for a minute, then sit back on the chair. On an inhalation, release the back edge of the seat and return to sitting upright. Take a few breaths.
If you like, repeat this exercise with your fingers turned forward, palms on the seat, and your upper arms rotated inward. Hold for one minute, release on an exhalation, and rest.
If you want to take this exercise to its limit, lift your buttocks again and extend your legs. Do your right leg first. Inhale and press out through your heel to straighten your knee, but suspend your foot a few inches off the floor. Then rotate your thigh inward, point your toes, and bring your sole to the floor. Just as the bases of your index fingers press the seat, so the base of your big toe presses on the floor. Repeat with the left leg. Once again, hold for a minute and release on an exhalation.
If you want to continue, brace the chair against the wall and lay your block on the seat (if you're using a wood block, cover the seat with a sticky mat to keep the block from sliding). Set the block on either its lowest or middle height near the front edge of the seat.
Sit on the floor right in front of the chair, knees bent, feet on the floor, heels 12 to 15 inches away from your buttocks, and lean back against the front edge of the seat. Press your hands on the floor with your fingers turned either forward, to the sides, or back—you choose—just in front of the feet of the chair legs. Inhale and do what you did for the first part of the first exercise: Lift your thighs and torso parallel to the floor (heels below the knees), and release your head back onto the block to take any pressure off your neck. If the block is too high or too low, come down and readjust. If you are having trouble opening your chest, it may help to reinforce the firmness of your palms against the floor, your scapulas against your back, and your triceps against the humeri. Then again, it may not.
Don't get discouraged. Just practice this exercise every other day or so for the next few weeks, and you'll be surprised how quickly things improve. If you can't boost your chest, though, trying to extend your legs will probably make matters worse, so I don't recommend it. But if your chest is reasonably lifted, then it's acceptable to extend your legs. Having trouble getting the balls of your feet, especially the bases of your big toes, on the floor? Position a rolled-up sticky mat on the floor where the balls of your feet will be when your legs are extended and press against that. Whatever happens, hold the pose for 30 seconds to a minute, then release to the floor on an exhalation. Smile.
When you're ready, try the full pose, remembering the actions you learned in the preparatory poses. Come back to Dandasana with palms pressing into the floor slightly behind your pelvis and fingers pointing forward. If this strains your wrists or shoulders, point your fingers out to the sides or even straight back. Eventually you'll press your palms to the floor. On an inhalation, firm and lift your buttocks and roll over your heels to touch your soles down. If this is difficult for you, start in Dandasana, then bend your knees and set your feet on the floor, heels about 18 inches away from your buttocks. Inhale and lift into a reverse table: shins and arms perpendicular to the floor, thighs and torso parallel. Firm your tailbone against the back of your pelvis, then straighten one leg at a time and press your soles down. Roll your upper thighs inward, and press the mounds of the big toes firmly against the floor. It's probably best to hold your head in a neutral position at first, or to use a chair to support your head in the pose. Stay for 30 seconds or to your capacity, then lower your buttocks to the floor on an exhalation.
Purvottanasana is an excellent pose that prepares you for various backbends. If you end your practice with it, be sure to release your back with a few twists and an easy forward bend. Remember, the east side is "draped" over the west in Purvottanasana: Your buttocks, scapulas, and triceps support the structure and keep it from collapsing in a heap. As always, watch your breath. If it stays relatively soft, you know you're on the right track.
Contributing editor Richard Rosen lives and teaches yoga in Northern California.