In our modern world we are well trained to operate in two modes: breathlessly supercharged and flat-out exhausted. Most of us are experts at speeding through life at a caffeinated clip, our days stuffed to the brim with nonstop activity. When this ambitious pace overwhelms us, we fall headlong to the opposite extreme. We drop into dull and depleted couch-potato mode, our inner batteries drained.
However, our yoga practice teaches us that there is indeed another way in which to live: a state of balance in which we feel simultaneously energized and relaxed, happily occupying the middle ground between overcharged and empty. The ancient yogis called this balanced energy sattva, and they believed it to be the key to both achieving radiant health and finding spiritual illumination.
In a sattvic state, we feel alert yet at ease, luminous yet serene, uplifted yet grounded. This balanced well-being is contrasted in yoga philosophy with the fiery, overcharged energy of rajas and the dull, depleted energy of tamas, which together with sattva make up the three qualities of all things in nature.
Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) offers an excellent opportunity to explore the harmonious and clear-headed quality of sattva. In this pose we feel the earthiness of the lower body while the mind grows spacious and tranquil. While your legs are challenged to be strong, steady, and well rooted, the heart and head are soothed, calmed, and rinsed clean. It's therefore no surprise that this asana is often used as a balm for frayed or anxious nerves.
First off, let us explore Prasarita Padottanasana's base. Stand with feet parallel, wide enough apart so when you stretch the arms out to the sides at shoulder height, your ankles will be beneath your wrists.
Root your feet into the earth as if to create deep footprints in the floor, and let this grounding action rebound upward through your inner body to help to straighten your legs as well as brighten your spine. Gently hug the leg muscles toward the bones so that your lower body feels firm plus energized.
Now readjust your legs until the footprints of the pose seem to be even and balanced. Are you collapsing into your inner arches? If so, send a surge of energy from your hips along the outside seams of the legs toward the floor, down your outer feet and buoying up your inner arches. Are your footprints deeper at the toes than the heels? Draw your thighs back in line with the ankles so that the deepest part of the footprint falls where the front heels meet the earth. At the same time, keep the back body easy and neutral, and keep the tailbone releasing comfortably toward the floor.
Place your hands onto your hips, and maintaining the alignment you have just established, invite all your inner bits and pieces to drift down like rain into your strong and steady legs. Then reach actively through your legs and press your feet firmly toward the earth. Out of gravity, levity is born: Notice whether this downward release of energy invites a sense of length and lightness to rebound upward through your spine.
Before folding forward, let's explore one of my favorite gestures for the upper body, a movement my friend Marcia calls "hallelujah-asana." Imagining that your deepest wish has just been granted, sweep your arms upward toward the heavens in elated thanksgiving and delight. Your arms will be wider apart than shoulder-distance in a gentle "V" shape, with the elbows slightly bent and the palms facing each other.
If you've truly got the hallelujah feeling, then your heart and eyes will spontaneously reach skyward along with your arms, and your entire torso will feel full and delighted. Notice how when in this position your chest feels expansive, your heart uplifted, and your front spine long.
Maintain this feeling while bringing your arms back down to rest comfortably on your hips. Pause for a moment and let the memory of this gesture settle into your bones. You'll want to keep this same length and expansiveness even when you fold forward.
When you are ready to move on, recommit your legs to strength and rootedness. Inhale as you stretch your chest up toward the ceiling and then exhale as you fold forward from the hips, letting your heart float happily forward. Take care to fold at the hips and not the waist, forming a deep and even crease at the very tops of the thighs.
Your recollection of the hallelujah asana might be helpful at this time: Look for a long and unwrinkled feeling in the front body even as you melt forward at the hips.
If you can comfortably reach your hands down to the floor while still keeping your front spine long and supple, place both hands onto the ground directly beneath your shoulders, with fingers facing forward. If the ground is too far away, place two blocks or a chair on the floor in front of you and rest your hands there. Root down through your hands and enjoy the subtle lift that this offers your heart. Breathe comfortably as well as quietly. Keep the back of your neck long. Your eyes, chest, and belly should all be looking in the same direction.
Searching for Sattva
In forward bends such as Prasarita Padottanasana, it's likely that your ego will be eager to reach for the floor even if you're forced to sacrifice ease, alignment, and integrity in the process. But remember, we're searching for the balanced state of sattva, and it is highly unlikely you're going to find it if you pull a hamstring or strain your spine. So temper your enthusiasm with your wisdom, pausing when you know your body has reached its comfortable limit.
Once your hands are supported on the floor, blocks, or a chair, return your attention to your legs. Draw your inner thighs back so your hips are in the same plane as your heels, imagine spreading your sitting bones apart, and let the base of the pelvis bloom evenly into the space behind you. At the same time, let the crown of your head be drawn forward until your spine feels long and bright, as in the hallelujah-asana. Trace an inner energetic line from the top of your head to your tailbone and invite the spine to float upon it.
Deepen your footprints into the earth, gently pressing into the ground and then letting that vitality rebound up through your strong and steady legs, so that your pelvis feels light and buoyant. Now do the same with your arms. Root your hands into the earth and invite the energy of that action to rebound through you, and bring a sense of spaciousness and ease to your upper body. Linger here for a bit to let the benefits of the pose seep deeply into your core. Keep reaching actively through the legs while letting all effort drain from your brain. Ask yourself where you still feel tough or knotted, then make any subtle adjustments or "micromovements" that you need in your legs or shoulders to dissolve these knots and deepen your sense of release and extension in the pose.
Breathe comfortably and let your gaze be soft and tender. Notice how the belly moves to the tune of the breath and how the inhalations and exhalations send little ripples through your spine. Invite the toughness within you to melt away and a cool breeze to waft through you. This is the place of magic where the effort of the pose falls away and quiet attentiveness is left in its place.
When you've marinated long enough in Prasarita Padottanasana, reverse your movements so as to come out of the pose. Place your hands on your hips and then root strongly through your feet, as your tail swoops toward the ground and your heart lifts to bring you to standing on an exhalation. Extend your arms overhead for one last hallelujah, then release your arms and step your feet back toward each other into Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
Stand quietly for just a few breaths in order for you to absorb the afterimage of Prasarita Padottanasana. Do you now feel taller than a few moments ago? Do your legs feel more stable and rooted? Does your upper body feel more buoyant and clear-headed?
Enjoy this delightful state of balance that allows you to stand with your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds—steady, luminous, happy, and free.
Claudia Cummins lives, writes, and teaches yoga in Mansfield, Ohio. A selection of her yoga essays can be found at www.claudiacummins.com.