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Seated Forward Bend

Fold into Paschimottanasana to help your distracted mind—and your hamstrings—unwind.


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Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) is a foundational pose that many yoga practitioners breeze past. But extending the top half of the body over the seated lower half helps stretch the entire back of you body to enhance your physical flexibility. Folding inward in this way also brings mental calm.

“Forward bends are a struggle for most of us,” says yoga teacher Barbara Benagh. “Many of the things we do for fitness, such as running and weight training, make us strong at the expense of flexibility. Sitting at a desk all day doesn’t help, either.” Too much exercise and too much sitting can result in tight hips, back, and legs. Pascimottanasana helps to counter that.

“Explore the mental patterns you’re bringing to the asana—an urge to push or a tendency to give up and space out—and redirect your attention to the sensations of letting go,” says Benagh. “As you deepen your pose by doing less, you may recognize how emotions stored in the body can mimic physical inflexibility—and your pose will most likely begin to move.”

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Sanskrit

Paschimottanasana (POSH-ee-moh-tan-AHS-anna)

pashima = west
uttana = intense stretch

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Seated Forward Bend basics

Pose type: Forward fold 

Targets: Lower body flexibility

Benefits: 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

 

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How to

Woman demonstrates Seated Forward Bend
  1. Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose), sitting on the edge of a folded blanket. Press your heels away from your body; press your palms or finger tips into the floor beside your hips.
  2. Inhale. Keeping your front torso long, exhale and lean forward from your hips. Lengthen the spine to fold toward your legs, without rounding your back.
  3. Walk your hands out along the outside of each leg as far as they will go. If you can reach them, hold the sides of your feet with your hands.
  4. With each inhalation, lift and lengthen your front torso just slightly; with each exhalation, release a little more fully into the forward bend. If you are holding your feet, bend your elbows out to the sides and lift them away from the floor.
  5. Stay in the pose from 1–3 minutes. To come up, release your feet. Inhale and lift your torso by pulling your tailbone down and into the pelvis.
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Beginner tips

Resist the urge to dive your head and shoulders down toward your shins; doing so will cause you to round your upper back. Pascimottanasana maintains a flat back.

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.

Be mindful!

  • 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.
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Teacher tips

Use these cues to help protect your students from injury and help them have the best experience of the pose:

  • Flex your feet and actively press your heels forward. Turn the top thighs in slightly and press them down into the floor.
  • If you need more space for your stomach or chest, separate your legs slightly—no wider than the width of your hips.
  • For people with tight hamstrings, bending your knees will make the pose more accessible. This also puts less pressure on your abdomen and diaphragm.
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Seated Forward Bend variations

Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

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.

Photo: Andrew Clark

Seated Forward Bend With Bent Knees

If your hamstrings or low back are tight, you can bend your knees and keep your spine mostly neutral by leaning forward into the pose rather than rounding forward. Inhale to lengthen your spine, and exhale to hinge forward from the hips. Focus on reaching your chest forward rather than down.

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Why we love this pose

“This looks like such an easy, even lazy, pose: You just drape your upper body over your legs and there you have it. And if you have long hamstrings like I do, the pose is easy peasy,” says Yoga Journal‘s Senior Editor Tamara Jeffries. “But practicing with intention means paying attention to lengthening the legs, releasing the hips and buttocks, and extending the whole length of the spine. You also have to remember to activate the quads and make space for the front of your body. I like being able to play with the hand position, too.”

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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.”

Preparatory poses

Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)

Dandasana (Staff Pose)

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)

Counter poses

Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby Pose)

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank Pose)

Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)

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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.

Seated Forward Bend: Paschimottanasana
Illustration: Chris Macivor

 

The hips are bent by the psoaspectineusrectus 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.

Seated Forward Bend: Paschimottanasana
Illustration: Chris Macivor

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.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends by Ray Long.

Put Seated Forward Bend into practice

Ready to put this forward fold into practice? Here are a few flows to try:

15 Yoga Poses to Help You Sleep Better

A Yin Yoga Sequence for When You Feel Outrage

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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.