Happy Friday. Today we’re taking a fresh look at a common seated forward fold. I want to acknowledge Leslie Kaminoff for influencing how I’m thinking about and practicing this pose these days.
Pashimottanasana (Intense Stretch of the West Pose) is a seated forward fold usually done with the legs together. It’s often done either holding the feet or with a strap around the feet. Sometimes it’s instructed keeping the spine neutral and hinging at the hips; other times, it’s suggested to round the spine and bring the head towards your knees.
(If you live with tight hamstrings like me, notice your reaction to that instruction and the following picture. I want to assure you that you have a yoga body. All bodies are different, and it’s OK not to have a deep forward fold. Your hamstrings do not determine your worth. Read on for more.)
Challenges of Paschimottanasana
If you have tight hamstrings, I’d guess this might not be your favorite pose. For one thing, the starting position for this pose (Dandasana, or Staff Pose) already requires us to have a 90 degree angle between the legs and the torso if we’re seated flat on the floor. Not everyone has that, which means we’re uncomfortable and destabilized before we even attempt to fold forward. Seated is probably the most challenging position to work on this category of poses because we are starting at 90 degrees, and because our relationship to gravity requires us to hold ourselves up.
So why are we doing this pose anyway?
This pose is often thought of as a hamstring stretch, and we might think we’re doing it in order to get more flexible hamstrings. I have two thoughts on this. The first is about hamstring tightness, flexibility, and stretching in general. The second is about this pose specifically.
Your body is not the enemy.
Sometimes we approach tight areas like we need to beat them into submission, but your body is on your side. It’s doing the best it can to do what you need it to do. If your hamstrings feel tight, there’s a reason for that. Sometimes they’re providing pelvic stability that is lacking in other areas. Our poor hamstrings are just trying to hold it all together. Frankly, I can relate.
When we create the conditions for the hamstrings to be less tight, they might lengthen. Or they might not.
Does it matter?
What does it mean to have tight hamstrings? Contrary to popular belief, tightness is a nervous system thing, not a muscle length thing. Our muscle tissue doesn’t change length; but our nervous systems respond to the stimulation of stretch receptors and decide how long is long enough. When we think we’re getting more flexible, actually what’s happening is the nervous system learning to tolerate more stretch.
In the yoga world, at least in the West, we’ve come to fetishize flexibility. But is it really better to be more flexible? Is increased flexibility helping us to do things that we need to do in life? How flexible is enough? Can you be too flexible? Talk to someone with a hypermobility disorder or who has an injury from over-stretching, and their answer to that last question might be yes.
Additionally, sometimes people really crave a stretch sensation because it helps them feel their bodies. This seems to especially be the case for more mobile folks. It’s important to know that sensation just means that your nervous system is registering something new. It doesn’t mean the pose is “working” – it says nothing about safety or effectiveness towards achieving your goals.
So should you stretch?
Say you’ve decided that you actually would benefit from more flexibility. So now you’re going to stretch the life out of your hamstrings, right?
Well, hold on a minute.
What if, instead of challenging our stretch tolerance, we actually addressed our function? This could mean improving hip and spinal mobility, working on pelvic stability, strengthening the hamstrings, or a lot of other things. Stretching can have benefits, but it may not be the most effective route to flexibility, and it may not be what your body needs. Personally, I love a balanced approach that uses different methods for more functional yoga poses and movement.
[Want to know more about your movement patterns and how to work on these areas? Contact me to book your free 15-minute online functional assessment.]
So what about Paschimottanasana?
So if we let go of the urgency to force our hamstrings to be longer, what are we left with in understanding Paschimottanasana? The Sanskrit name for this pose tells us this is an “intense stretch of the West”. The West here refers to the back side of the body (because of the practice of facing the rising sun in the East). There is way more to your back body than just your hamstrings. What I’m doing these days is exploring a more balanced lengthening through the whole back line of the body, making adjustments to ease off of any areas of dominant sensation or pain, and seeing where I might be able to distribute a little more movement through parts of the body that are commonly left out of this pose.
Always pay attention to how you feel when you’re practicing. Don’t do anything that hurts, feels forced, or makes you uneasy. When in doubt, trust your instincts and check with a doctor or physical therapist regarding any medical conditions or injuries.
If you try this, let me know how it goes in the comments!
The information, instruction, and advice contained in this video and post are in no way intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is for general informational purposes only. Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Consult your doctor before beginning this or any exercise program.