Stiff yoga guide: Paschimottanasana

Pushing along again in our look at a modified half-Primary Ashtanga practice, with a twin set of goals of trying to earn some flexibility and maintain proper alignments: straight back when appropriate, right dristi, etc.


Paschimottanasana, hopefully obviously, is one that cries out for focus on the uncooperative hamstrings. A few tricks:

I definitely have been pulling a strap out for this pose, but not at first. I found over my weeks of this practice that I was best served by first trying to loosen up my lower back and hips. And that meant starting with the knees bent so I could access those areas better.

Step 1: Grab the toes and try to loosen the back up. Hold for as long as you feel. (We’re already so far off the “proper path.”)

Step 2: Grab the outside of the feet (little toe sides) and focus intently on getting those feet “straight.” Hold again as long as ou like.

After that, I get the strap and straighten the knees. This is uncomfortable in any number of places: the knees, the quads, the hamstrings.

I’m not very far bent forward at this point, I’ll admit. And I’m focused on keeping the back straight and not bending my way toward my legs.

You can add a little in here by placing a block beyond your feet and wrapping the strap around it (and your feet by extension). This should recreate Step 2, above, to an extent.

Hold until you can’t take it anymore.

And, Merry Christmas.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

11 thoughts on “Stiff yoga guide: Paschimottanasana”

  1. “Hold until you can’t take it anymore” are directions you may want to reconsider. Pushing the body to pain till you can’t take it is akin to ripping a rose bud apart and forcing it to bloom. It is not necessary to do this to find alignment, contentment or inner peace. How does this align with the sutras where we are asked to find balance and remove obstacles to rid ourselves of avidya. This pose causes compression to the hip joint and over stretches the ligament tension in the back body to keep our body ‘strung’ in upright alignment. Doing things like holding till you cannot take it anymore may be causing more harm than good. Your body has intelligence and is wired to survive and protect itself. The body responds to all we do and all body positions we assume and I think there is good evidence to prove that it will actually release stress hormones to protect itself from the ‘attack’ by holding till you cannot take it anymore. Bending your knees is what should happen always which is why it feels more comfortable. Look beyond the linear aspects of these poses and the stretching of body ‘parts’. instead bend your knees and support the natural curves and cables that string the human body into a curving dynamic structure. Why make your body assume straight lines and right angles like the chairs we detest sitting in?
    Did you ever wonder why hamstrings feel tight or consider that they are actually weak and strained from balancing the shortness of the flexor forces in the anterior body from chair sitting and forward bending with the knees straight? Everyone gets old by folding forward and collapsing. Why speed it up by forcing your body forward and reversing your natural spinal curves. The hamstrings need to be ‘tight’ . They are the cables that stabilize the bottom of the pelvis and stretching them undoes that important function. Time to look beyond the hamstring stretches to what is happening to the sacral platform and the ligaments needed to keep the SI joint stable when doing straight leg forward bends. It looks like you are driving with your brakes on. It is not necessary to pull yourself apart at the seams to be aligned. Why are so many yogis needing hip replacements and SI joint therapy? This pose is one of the big reasons. I invite you to bloom like a rose and try YogAlign.

    1. I have to admit i find it interesting that you take away from the quote that I’m talking about pain. I might not be.

      Hold it until you’re so bored you have to move on, is one other option.

      The point, or one of them, of this exercise in stiff yoga / back to the basics was to focus on the most fundamental physical aspects of the asana practice. In my case, that’s some basic stiffness. So I worked within the Ashtanga system on finding some more flexibility.

      I’m also hard-pressed not to be worried that YogAlign lacks some sense of humor and lightness about it — hold it until you can’t take it anymore, in my book, is obviously said with a lot of humor. We’ve written about Ashtanga and humor and irony quite a bit.

      I’m happy to hear that I’m mischaracterizing YogAlign.


      1. It’s a critical comment by her, but I would characterize it more as tough compassion rather than humorless. Look, I know where you are coming from, because I have been trying and trying to come up with something from traditional asana practice that figures out how to get through the hamstring tightness, and it’s just not happening. I’m happy to try something new, so I’ll try the ‘glider pose’ that she recommends to see if it works.

      2. In other comments, I believe, the YogAlign people say “there are no straight lines in nature.” Since that isn’t true (ever see a cliff wall sheer or look at a crystal or gem?), I have a high degree of credulity. The metaphors don’t work for me.

        And, as the recent Guruji-focused posts are pointing out, yoga isn’t just about asana. There’s a lot more to it.


  2. I agree Yoga is not just about asana; so why are we putting so much time and energy into trying to perform poses that have nothing to do with how we use our body in daily life? It goes against basic ahimsa principles outlined in the sutras. We all know that being good at poses does not mean that you are a true yogi. Doing yoga poses that strain the spine such as paschiomottanasana can put up to 800 pound of pressure on the anterior spinal column.

    Look how tense the man’s toes are in the photo with the article and how the spine curves have been reversed in the lumbar/sacral region. This is not necessary and people struggle trying to bend over without bending the knees and the sacrum pays. The SI joint gets stretched and destabilized. Richard Freeman just got prolotherapy for his SI joint.

    Lets get rid of the belief that you are a born sinner and you have to suffer to feel good and become ONE with source. You cannot become comfortable by being uncomfortable. Our body does not need to be pulled apart at the seams, compressed and contorted to do YOGA.

    Do you feel ‘better somehow’ by overcoming natural joint functions and making your body do positions that feel uncomfortable? We used to believe the world was flat too so I guess we are in the age of believing our body is made of parts, straight lines, flat spines and that it must be pulled and compressed into alignment.

    I agree with Jerome. Straight lines do not exist in organic nature with living tissue. Animals, plants, etc are made of curves and spirals. Buildings are made with straight lines and right angles because they are static structures and are not designed to move. Humans are not buildings and we are designed to move in a spiral and diagonal fashion. The body is made of curves that are strung together with ligament and fascia forces and what happens in yoga poses that reverse the spinal curves is that ‘necessary tension’ is being undermined in the quest to get the knees straight. Walk without bending your knees and feel how strained the body is. Now ask yourself why are we even trying to bend over with our knees straight? This involves stretching the sacral platform and straining the SI joint. The body is a global continuum and not made of parts. Spinal integrity is being sacrificed to stretch parts.Check out Tom Myers Anatomy trains models showing the fascial tensegrity lines of the human body. There are no parts. Check out the YogAlign website. We focus on posture not poses. People get amazing postural alignment fast and NOBODY ever has to touch their toes with their knees straight. YIPPEE!

    1. The straight lines in nature argument just doesn’t make any sense to me. From what perspective? Just ours here awash in Maya? What about if we zoom way way out? Then organic nature is mostly nothing (or whatever we eventually will determine fills the empty space of the universe). Zoom way in and… well, same thing. Mostly empty space within atoms. And who knows what kind of lines at either end. The body isn’t made of curves. It’s made of atoms.

      The metaphor just doesn’t make any sense to me. I feel like I could start a yoga about emptiness, while pointing out that the universe is mostly empty and we should emulate it.

      Wait? Someone beat me to that?

      Even if the metaphor does make sense, isn’t talking about keeping things “straight” really just a way of describing what a teacher is trying to suggest one does? We can disagree about that practice, I suppose.

      And I’m sounded more argumentative than I mean to, for which I apologize. The thing is, and maybe I’m mistaken: In yoga, we are talking about poses, not posture. So it seems to me that YogAlign is something separate, an offshoot, from yoga (as it has been practiced for either 100 or so years or 5,000, take your pick). But I’m basing that on what you’ve written here.


  3. When you say proper alignment in the beginning of your article, I wonder how this pose helps alignment at all. If you take the photo of the man doing the forward bend and turn it so that his head is pointing up as though he was in a standing position, perhaps you can see what I mean. He is in misalignment with a rounded upper back, reversed lumbar curve and forward head carriage. What exactly is this going to accomplish and will it lead to a favorable outcome?

    The sutra below describes one of the hardest avidyas or avoidances to see which at this point I feel is the overemphasis of yoga poses that go against the fabric of our human structural design.

    “Anityasuciduhkhanatmasu nityasucisukhatmakhyatiravidya” (What at one time feels good or appears to be of help can turn out to be a problem; what we consider to be useful may in time prove to be harmful.) — From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written in Sanskrit approximately 2,400 years ago.

    Please read my article I wrote for Huffington post. I mean no harm but I am very concerned about the yoga injuries and spine and joint integrity in certain yoga poses. I have been working with clients with Si joint issues making it hard for them to even walk, torn labrums in the hip joint sometimes requiring FAI syndrome surgery, and weak stabilizers and tight short flexors that misalign the hips when moving. They did not walk in front of a car. They were doing forward bends with the knees straight and twists with the lumbar spine flexed.

    here are the posture gurus

  4. The body structure is made of curves and not straight lines although certainly anatomically we are mostly water and space or vibrating light particles if you have it.
    What makes us age and suffer pain is losing our posture alignment. My work and research has shown that doing yoga poses that support good alignment create naturally aligned posture.
    Aging is losing the lumbar and cervical curve shapes in our spine. People go back to the C shape. And when we do these straight leg seated bends, our spine looks like a C shape to me. How do these poses contribute to real life function where we live our yoga?

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