Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) looks deceptively simple, but it takes time, practice, and attention to cultivate a deep relationship with this pose.
“Unless you’re already extremely flexible, my advice is to begin this pose with little thought of bending all the way to your legs,” says yoga teacher Barbara Benagh. “Paschimottanasana, for most yogis, is achieved slowly and with great patience.”
Seated Forward Bend is grounding (you are literally close to the earth) and instills a sense of calm and presence. This has also been called “Stretch of the West,” a name which has been linked to the ritual of yogis facing the sunrise as they practiced. (Paschima means “west” or “back” in Sanskrit.) When entering this pose, think about bending toward the sunrise to instill a greater sense of presence and attention to the posture. Once you are in the pose, observe the breath, the natural curves of the spine, and patterns of tension in the back and the hamstrings.
While it involves an intense stretch of the entire back body, this forward fold provides a great opportunity for “not doing.” Allow your body to draw closer to your legs in rhythm with your breath. In this way, Pascimottanasana builds a natural patience if you ease into the pose rather than over-stretching to meet an idea of what the pose “should” look like.
The mental effort needed to execute this pose can be profoundly impactful. “But forward bends, particularly prolonged forward bends, are especially fertile ground for cultivating the understanding that yoga must involve so much more than physical effort,” says Benagh. “The simplicity and symmetry of Paschimottanasana makes it an ideal asana in which to examine the ebb and flow of the mind.”Section divider
Seated Forward Bend basics
Sanskrit: Paschimottanasana (POSH-ee-moh-tan-AHS-anna)
pashima = west
uttana = intense stretch
Pose type: Forward fold
Targets: Lower body flexibilitySection divider
This posture provides a deep stretch to the spine, inner thighs (adductors), calf muscles, and hamstrings. By calming the mind, this pose may alleviate some symptoms of anxiety.
Other Seated Forward Bend perks:
- Improves posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting
- May ease symptoms of tension headaches and PMS
- Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Flex your feet and actively press your heels away and down into the mat. Draw your inner thighs deep into the pelvis, turn then in slightly and press them down into the floor.
- Press your palms or fingertips into the floor beside your hips.
- Inhale. Lift your sternum and lengthen the back, reaching the crown of your head toward the ceiling.
- Keep your front torso long as you exhale and lean forward from your hips. Lengthen your tailbone away from the back of the pelvis and, as much as possible, maintain the natural curves of the spine.
- As you lean forward, walk your hands forward as far as you can reach. If you can reach your feet without rounding your back, hold them by the outer edges, elbows fully extended.
- If you are ready to go further, lengthen your front torso as you keep your head raised with your neck in a neutral position.
- With each inhalation, lift and lengthen your back and front torso just slightly; with each exhalation, release a little more fully into the forward bend. In this way, your torso will lengthen almost imperceptibly with the breath.
- As you lean forward, your lower belly will touch your thighs first. Then your upper belly, then your ribs, and finally your head will make contact with your legs.
- If you are holding your feet, bend your elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor. Eventually, you may be able to stretch your arms out beyond your feet on the floor.
- Stay in the pose from 1–3 minutes. To come up, first lift your torso away from your thighs and straighten your elbows again if they are bent. Then inhale and lift your torso by pulling your tailbone down and into the pelvis.
Explore the pose
Never force yourself into a forward bend, especially when sitting flat on the floor. If you feel the space between your pubis and navel shortening in your forward fold, that signals that you are beginning to curve the lower back. Stop, lift up slightly, and lengthen your back again.
Maintain the integrity of the posture by keeping your feet flexed with your knees and toes pointing straight up.
One way to ease yourself into this pose is to put a blanket roll or bolster in your lap. Position it so you can fully release your weight into it.
- If you feel strain on the back of your knees, lift your chest slightly so you aren’t going as deep into the pose. The stretching sensations are safest felt in the center (belly) of the hamstrings rather than in the joints.
- If you can extend far enough to reach your feet with ease, add more challenge by clasping your hands around the soles of your feet. Or turn the back of one hand toward the soles and grip its wrist with the other hand. You can also place a block against the soles of your feet and grip its sides with your hands to extend your reach.
Seated Forward Bend variations
Seated Forward Bend with a strap
If your hamstrings are tight, sit on a folded blanket and loop a strap around the soles of your feet. As you come into the pose, inhale to lengthen your spine, and exhale to hinge forward slightly. Hold the strap taut and press your feet into it as you pull back on it. Your arms can be straight or bent. Let the tension in the strap pull you slightly forward.
If you have arthritis or pain in your wrists or hands, allow your hands to rest in the loop instead of grasping it.
Seated Forward Bend With a Flat Back
Keep your spine mostly neutral by leaning forward into the pose rather than rounding forward. As you come into the pose, inhale to lengthen your spine, and exhale to hinge forward from the hips. Focus on lifting the heart forward and keeping the natural curve of the spine intact. Stay for several breaths to a few minutes.
Supine Seated Forward Bend
If you experience any back pain in this pose, practice it lying down. Lift the legs up and, holding the back of the thighs, gently fold your legs toward your torso. Alternately, loop a strap around your feet and use it to ease your legs toward your body.Section divider
Preparatory and counter poses
You will derive the most out of Paschimottanasana when you first ease yourself into less-demanding stretches for your hamstrings and back. In counter poses, practice gentle backbends.
“Insightful teachers understand an ‘ideal’ distribution cannot be taught, as it will depend somewhat on individual anthropometrics (the science of measuring the size and proportions of the human body),” says Jules Mitchell, the author of Yoga Biomechanics: Stretching Redefined. “We can’t cue an individual into proper weight distribution, as the proportions between the top of the head and the forearms depend on an individual’s specific anatomy.”
Counter posesSection divider
Your body in Seated Forward Bend | Anatomy
This pose is a symmetrical forward bend that intensely and evenly stretches the calf muscles, the muscles down the back of the thigh, the large buttock muscles, and the muscles that run down the length of the spine, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon.
When the hands grasp the feet of the outstretched legs and gently pull, helping to fold the torso, that is the action of the upper extremities connecting to the lower extremities to transmit the force of the stretch to the spine and trunk.
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.
The hips are bent by the psoas, pectineus, rectus femoris, and sartorius muscles connecting the thigh bones and pelvis. The quadriceps straighten the knees. The act of contracting the quads initiates reciprocal inhibition, causing the hamstrings to relax and stretch. The ankles are bent upward by the tibialis anterior muscles along the front of the shins, stretching the muscles on the back of the calf.
Squeeze the thighs and knees together by engaging the adductor muscles. When you stretch the back of the body, the thighs and lower legs tend to turn outward due to the pull of the gluteus maximus. Adducting the thighs helps to counteract this.
A key agonist/antagonist relationship in this pose involves the psoas (which flexes the hips) and its antagonist, the gluteus maximus (which extends them). Activating the psoas produces reciprocal inhibition of the gluteux maximus, allowing it to relax into the stretch.
When you grasp the feet, press the sides of the feet into the hands to engage the gluteus medius and tensor fascia lata. The force of this contraction will aid to release the sacroiliac joint allowing the spine to flex deeper into the pose.
The biceps bend the elbows slightly to draw the torso farther over the thighs, intensifying the stretch. The infraspinatus and teres minor muscles located over the shoulder blades turn the shoulders gently outward to further flatten the upper body against the thighs.
The rhomboids and middle trapezius draws the shoulder blades toward the spine, opening the chest. The lower trapezius muscles that span the back draw the shoulders away from the neck and ears.
Contract the abdominals to flex the trunk. This creates reciprocal inhibition of the back muscles, allowing them to relax into the stretch.Section divider
Put Seated Forward Bend into practice
Ready to put this forward fold into practice? Here are a few flows to try:
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.