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Pyramid Pose | Intense Side Stretch Pose: The Complete Guide

Work consciously to ground through your hands and feet in Parsvottanasana to encourage balance and body awareness—and help inspire confidence.


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Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose or Intense Side Stretch) is both a forward stretch and a balancing act. It provides an opportunity to practice stability and forward motion simultaneously. The muscles along the back of both legs are stretched as you hinge forward. Your feet are positioned along a narrow line, which challenges your balance. For a firmer foundation, place your hands on the floor or on blocks on each side of your front foot—this allows you to focus on stretching your hips and legs.

To get a deep shoulder stretch in Pyramid, extend and connect your arms behind your back—either by clasping your elbows with your opposite hand, folding your hands together in a reverse Anjali mudra, or reaching back with straight arms and interlacing your fingers near your sacrum (when you fold forward, lift your hands up and away from your back).

Parsvottanasana indicates a delicate dance between boundaries and freedom, says Marla Apt, a senior-level certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. She relates Pyramid Pose to Patanjali’s eight limbs of classical ashtanga yoga. She explains that there is a careful calibration between the first limb— the yamas, “control” or “restraint”—and the eighth limb—samadhi or “union,” a stage associated with freedom.

“Boundaries help to guide your behavior and your thoughts as you progress down the path toward samadhi,” says Apt. “They help to provide an outer structure that leads you toward the ultimate goal of yoga—freedom.”

“In order to experience that depth in Parsvottanasana, you first have to create the boundaries through alignment,” adds Apt. “Once you set up a steady outer structure, you create the conditions for spaciousness, which then frees you to fold, lengthen, spread, or soften more deeply into the pose.”

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Pyramid Pose basics

Sanskrit: Parsvottanasana (parsh-voh-tahn-AHS-anna)

parsva = side, flank

ut = intense

tan = to stretch or extend (compare the Latin verb tendere, to stretch or extend)

Other names: Intense Side Stretch Pose

Pose type: Forward Bend

Targets: Lower Body

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Benefits

Pyramid Pose improves balance and posture. It can boost energy, fight fatigue, and build confidence.

Other Pyramid Pose perks:

  • Strengthens your thighs, core, and back muscles
  • Stretches the back of your thighs (hamstrings)—particularly the hamstring of the forward thigh—and strengthens and stretches around your ankles and shoulders.
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Pyramid Pose: Step-by-step instructions

  1. Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the top of the mat.
  2. Place your hands on your hips, making sure your hips are squared.
  3. Step your right foot back 2 to 4 feet. Line up heel to heel with your back foot at approximately a 30- to 45-degree angle.
  4. Keep your hips facing forward and both sides of your waist elongated by pressing down with your right big toe mound at the same time as you draw your left hip back and in toward your right heel.
  5. On an inhalation, spread your arms out to the sides. On an exhalation, internally rotate your arms, bend your elbows, and bring your palms together behind your back. If this isn’t feasible, release your hands alongside your feet, on blocks, or on your shin.
  6. Inhale, lengthen your spine, and engage your quadriceps.
  7. Exhale, hinge at your hips, and begin to fold forward and toward your front thigh. Reach your sternum away from your navel and keep your collar bones broad to maintain openness in your front body and length in your back body. Release your forehead toward your shin.
  8. Draw the heads of your upper arms back and up away from the floor as you remain in the pose.
  9. To exit the pose, inhale and use the strength of your legs to come up. Release your arms and step your feet together, returning to Mountain Pose.
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Explore the pose

Feel the line of power from the crown of your head down your back, and focus on stabilizing that line as you breathe in and out and lean forward in this pose. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a while to shift as far down as you’d like to. This pose is just as nourishing with a block or bolster to help you into proper alignment.

There are really two ways to position your torso over your front thigh in this pose—either aligning the midline of your torso over the inner side of your front thigh or rotating your torso and bring its midline down over the midline of your front thigh.

If you find it challenging to maintain your balance in Pyramid, step your feet wider apart from one another. If the stretch along the back hamstring is too intense, shorten your stance by bumping your back foot up closer to your front foot.

Be mindful!

  • If the hip of your front leg lifts toward your shoulder or swings out to the side, lower it away from that shoulder while you squeeze your outer thighs in toward each other.
  • If your front knee tends to hyperextend, place a thinly rolled blanket (about 3–4 inches in diameter) under the ball of your front foot and lift your toes. Micro-bend your front knee as you push your instep into the blanket to fire up your calf muscles, which prevents the top of the shin from popping backward or creating hyperextension. Hold the top of the shin forward as you slowly straighten your leg.
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Pyramid Pose variations

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Pyramid Pose with blocks

If you can’t comfortably reach the floor without rounding your back, place blocks or other support under your hands, rather than sacrificing the integrity of the pose.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Pyramid Pose on a chair

Another option if you can’t reach the floor: Place your hands on the seat or back of a chair. Elongate your spine. This variation is particularly good if you need to avoid rounding (flexion) of the spine due to osteoporosis, spinal disc issues, or other back issues.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Pyramid Pose on a wall

Start with your hands at the wall, hip height or higher. With your arms straight, position your front foot slightly in front of the wall. Firm your legs and press your hands firmly into the wall to help create a healthy curve in your lumbar spine while you work toward straightening your leg.

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Preparatory and counter poses

The alternate name of Pyramid Pose, Intense Side Stretch, implies that it can be a challenge—and it is. It demands a great deal of lengthening not just along the sides but in the hamstrings. Stretch yourself accordingly in other poses that target these areas prior to attempting this pose to help you deepen the stretch.

Preparatory poses

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)

Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)

Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)

Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)

Counter poses

Dandasana (Staff Pose)

Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

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Your body in Pyramid Pose | Anatomy

In Parsvottanasana, your pelvis rotates to face your front leg. Turning your pelvis changes the orientation of the muscle fibers in the back-leg gluteals and front-leg hip flexors, activating the muscles from every direction, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga teacher.

The primary stretch in this pose can be felt in your front-leg hamstrings. Remember to engage the quadriceps and hip flexors of that leg to stimulate reciprocal inhibition of the hamstrings; observe how engaging these muscles changes the sensation of the stretch.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

Intense Side Stretch Pose: Parsvottanasana
Illustration: Chris Macivor

The main hip flexor of the front leg, the psoas, tilts the pelvis forward. This lifts the ischial tuberosity, which is the origin of the hamstrings, up and back. This stretches the back of the leg.

There is a tendency in Pyramid Pose to shift your weight onto the outside of your front foot, inverting your ankle. Counteract this by pressing the ball of your foot in the mat and engaging the peroneus longus and brevis muscles on the outside of your leg to evert the ankle.

A slightly less-intense stretch occurs in the back-leg hamstrings and gastrocnemius. The position of the pelvis, back hip, and back foot creates a unique situation for you to stretch these muscles. Engage the quadriceps to release the hamstrings on your back leg as well. Augment this stretch by attempting to drag your back foot away from your front foot on the mat, opening your back knee.

Intense Side Stretch Pose: Parsvottanasana
Illustration: Chris Macivor

Depending on your arm position, your shoulders also undergo a deep stretch in Pyramid. Taking your hands in prayer position behind the back stretches some of the more hidden and difficult-to-access muscles—the external rotators of the shoulders, including the infraspinatus and teres minor, as well as elements of the deltoids and other muscles. Do not put undo pressure on the extended wrists or force your hands into this position.

If you are unable to comfortably place your hands in reverse prayer in Pyramid Pose, then hold your opposite elbows, forearms, or wrists, or release your hands to the mat, blocks, or your front shin.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Vinyasa and Standing Poses by Ray Long.

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Put Pyramid Pose into practice

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8 Yoga Poses to Stretch Tight Calves

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About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.