Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) is just what its English translation implies—a wide-stance forward bend. In Sanskrit, prasarita padottanasana literally means "spread-out-feet intense stretch." There are two versions in Iyengar Yoga and four in the Ashtanga system, but here we'll focus on Prasarita Padottanasana I, hereafter referred to as Prasarita.
Not surprisingly for a forward bend, Prasarita stretche s the backs of the legs and, because of its wide stance, the inner groins. Because the head is brought lower than the heart, the pose can serve as a substitute for Sirsasana (Headstand) for those with neck issues. Many benefits of inversions—especially bathing the poor old tired brain with freshly oxygenated blood to perk it up—accrue to Prasarita without any weight-bearing stress on the neck. In general, Prasarita is a good warm-up for other wide-stance standing poses such as the Virabhadrasana (Warrior) poses and Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose).
Take a Stance
Begin by finding the most appropriate stance (the distance between the feet) for you, which will depend on the length of your legs; shorter people won't have as wide a stance as taller folks will have. To determine your proper stance, start in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your arms stretched out straight to the side, parallel to the floor. Step your feet apart until each is approximately below the same-side wrist. If you can't easily touch the floor in a standing forward bend with straight knees, use a couple of yoga blocks to support your hands. Never force yourself into a forward bend; rounding your torso forward from your belly to get your hands on the floor is counterproductive and potentially injurious. (Don't be stubborn—use blocks.)
Prasarita provides an opportunity for you to become aware of your feet, especially the arches. Stand with your feet parallel to each other and align the tips of your big toes. Lift all of your toes off the floor and see how that enlivens and lifts your inner arches. Feel too how your outer heels press more firmly into the floor. These actions are important, so spend some time integrating them into your awareness. As you soften your toes back onto the floor, imagine that you are lifting your inner ankles strongly up toward your inner groins to sustain the action of the inner arches.
Rest your hands on your hips, inhale, and lean your upper torso back. Lift your chest a bit more and, on the next exhalation, tip your torso forward from your hips, maintaining as much length in your front torso as you can. Touch your fingertips lightly on the floor (or on blocks) directly below your shoulders, arms straight and perpendicular to the ground.
Now prepare to open the inner groins and teach the legs how to work in the full pose. With your fingertips still lightly resting on the floor or blocks, imagine that you are lifting your inner left ankle to "charge" the arch, and press your outer left heel firmly to the floor. Without losing that lift and that contact, slowly bend your right knee and shift your torso to the right. As you do this, your left leg will move closer to the floor, but energetically it should move to the left, away from the bending right leg. Has the weight on your left foot shifted toward and partially collapsed your inner arch? If so, unbend your right knee slightly, press your outer left heel down, then bend your right knee again. Inhale, slowly straighten your right knee, and bring your pelvis back to center between your feet. Take a few breaths and repeat on the left.
Go back and forth a few times more, lingering on each side to slowly stretch your inner groins and thighs. Alternatively, you can slowly but more steadily seesaw right and left, smoothly swinging your pelvis like a pendulum and making sure that before you bend your knee, you plant the opposite heel. When you have stretched enough, straighten both knees and return to center with your fingertips resting on the floor (or on the blocks). Bring your torso upright on an inhalation, take a rest, then bend forward again—or, if you feel ready to move directly into the full pose, keep on reading.
Press your fingertips into the floor, straighten your arms, lift your chest up and forward, and gaze at the wall in front of you. Push both legs away from each other and widen the inner groins, then arch your back. If you're stiff, you may have to bend your knees slightly to create the arch. If you're flexible, don't overarch your lower back. Imagine that the top of your sternum is moving away from the floor and forward, out across the room to the opposite wall. Press your palms flat against the floor and imagine pushing it back toward your legs. This is stage 1.
Next, slowly walk your hands back between your feet, lining up your fingertips with the tips of your toes. Your elbows should still be relatively straight, your sternum still lifting up and forward. This is stage 2. Continue pushing your hands down and back.
For stage 3, exhale, bend your elbows, and release your long front torso from your hips into a deep forward bend. Keep your bent arms fairly parallel to each other and don't let your elbows splay out to the sides. At this point, you might be able to rest the crown of your head on the floor. If not, let your head hang or put something under it (such as a block or a folded blanket) as a support. Have you forgotten your outer heels? Bend your knees slightly, reaffirm your outer heels, and again straighten your knees. Stay there for a minute or two, then lift and lengthen your front torso slightly, bring your hands to your hips, and lift your torso up on an inhalation. Step or hop your feet together.
Prasarita has several arm and hand variations. Instead of pressing your hands on the floor, you can reach out and hook your ankles, with your thumbs on the inner ankles and your fingers wrapped around the outer ankles. Pull in and up on them, as though you're trying to slide your feet together, and simultaneously imagine you are lifting yourself off the floor. Use the resistance of your legs to help yourself lift your chest, and then arch your back as you did previously. Then bend your elbows sharply out to the sides and gently pull your torso into the forward bend (see figure on left). Stay in that position for 30 seconds to a minute. With your hands on your hips, come up on an inhalation.
Another arm variation starts in wide-stance Tadasana. Clasp your hands behind your back and stretch your arms down toward the floor. Continue to stretch them, inhale and lift your chest, then exhale and tip your torso forward toward the floor (see figure on left). Now shrug your shoulders slightly, lift your hands a few inches away from your pelvis and, holding them in place, draw your shoulders away from your ears by reaching back through your arms. Proceed in this fashion: Shrug your shoulders, lift your hands a few inches higher, hold them in place, then draw your shoulders down, away from your ears. Eventually your shoulders will ask you to stop. This exercise is easier if your palms are open and loosely clasped, and more challenging if you press them together. Hold that pose for 30 seconds, then lower your arms and unclasp your hands. Cross your arms in front of you for a break. Finally, reverse your fingers and repeat.
Prasarita can quickly get your blood pumping and your legs working. For deeper benefits spend several minutes in it, maybe with your head lightly resting on the floor or a block as you breathe deeply. Remember to pay attention to your inner arches and outer heels to energetically charge this great pose and intensify its effects. As you advance in doing Prasarita and find your head easily reaching the floor, you may want to experiment with lifting your legs into Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand). But even if you never invert from Prasarita, you can use the pose to turn your perspective upside down and to give your legs a really good stretch.
Contributing editor Richard Rosen lives and teaches yoga in Northern California.