Intense side stretch pose, known as parsvottanasana in Sanskrit, is a standing forward fold that stretches the hamstring muscles deeply. The pose also stretches, secondarily, the erector spinae in the back and the calf muscles in the lower leg. Intense side stretch pose strengthens the agonists/antagonists to the hamstrings – the quadricep muscles in the thighs.
As its name implies, the pose is an intense one a tangible effect on leg flexibility and strength. Although the pose’s therapeutic benefits are not as well documented as its muscular benefits, intense side stretch pose is a surrendering posture that calms the mind and relieves mental stress. It also improves posture, sense of balance, and digestion.
- Begin in mountain pose (tadasana) at the top of the mat. Ground through your right foot with all five toes and all four corners of the foot.
- Inhale. Step your left foot back, approximately three feet behind your right (increase the distance if your legs are longer than average, decrease it if they are shorter). Align your heels. Rotate your left foot outward 45° and plant it firmly on the mat.
- Exhale. Square your hips toward the front of your mat. Sink your right groin area deep into your pelvis. Then, internally rotate your thighs by drawing the tops of your thighs toward each other.
- Inhale. Straighten and lengthen your spine to extend it upward. Press the bottom corners of your shoulder blades toward your heart center to bring your shoulders down and back.
- You may bend your right knee slightly to avoid hyperextension or, if you do not have a tendency to hyperextend your knees, engage the muscles of your right knee to protect the knee joint. Exhale. Bend forward over your right leg, from the hips.
- Rest your fingertips on the mat on either side of your right foot. If your hamstrings are exceptionally flexible, plant both palms on the mat with your fingers facing backwards. Slide them along the mat toward your left foot.
- Breath and hold the pose. With each inhale, extend the spine. With each exhale, bend further forward.
- Inhale. Push off the mat gently to lift out of the forward fold. Bend the left leg and gently kick off the mat to bring the left foot to the right. Return to mountain pose. Repeat the pose on the with the left leg forward.
Tips, Photos and Videos for Beginners
Like all forward bending poses, intense side stretch pose targets the hamstrings. It is a particularly intense yoga hamstring stretch that targets each leg individually. Unlike many other forward bending poses, intense side stretch pose is more active than restorative. The pose builds quadricep strength in the leg by engaging the hamstrings’ antagonist muscle group.
Mentally, this intense yoga pose is a surrendering posture that relaxes the mind as it engages the muscles. Therapeutically, the pose’s abdominal compression massages the abdominal organs for improved circulation and healthier digestion.
Do not attempt intense side stretch pose if you:
- have a back injury.
- have a headache.
- have low blood pressure.
- have vertigo.
- have colitis.
Because intense side stretch pose incorporates elements of poses like triangle pose (trikonasana) and half moon pose (ardha chandrasana), there are many fun flows you can build by combining intense side stretch pose with other, similar asanas.
Writing for Gaia, Dr. Ray Long suggests practicing a parsvottanasana sequence between half moon pose and revolved triangle pose (parivrtta trikonasana). The sequence, he says, is a natural progression in hip rotation where the pelvis moves from an external rotation (the open, extended raised leg in half moon pose) to an internal rotation (the intense twist in revolved triangle pose).
This hip rotation sequence stretches the glutes in the back leg and the hip flexors in the front leg from multiple directions. This leads to a more comprehensive, more beneficial stretch of the muscles that intense side stretch pose targets secondarily.
Modifications and Props
Plant your hands on blocks. If you can’t reach the mat when you bend forward, you can decrease this intense yoga pose by planting your arms on blocks instead. Place two blocks on either side of your right foot in step two (above). In step six, rest your fingertips on the blocks instead of the mat.
Open the chest with reverse namaste. A spinal extension is insurance against hunching into the forward fold (very bad for posture). Taking reverse nasate with the hands opens the chest even more. In step four (above), fold your arms behind your back. Bring your palms together and rotate them so that your fingers face upward in anjali mudra.
Support your back by pressing your hands against the wall. If your lower back is weak, support and strengthen it by practicing intense side stretch pose with your forward leg approximately one foot away from a wall. When you bend forward, plant your palms against the wall and press actively.
Triangle Pose (Trikonasana). Triangle pose opens the hips and stretches the arms alongside the hamstrings, calves, and hips. In step three (above), instead of squaring your hips to the front of the mat, square them to the side. In step five, bend sideways over your right leg. Keep your back straight, as if you are sliding down an invisible wall behind you. Place your right hand on your shin, ankle, or the mat outside your right foot. Inhale. Press off your hand to open your chest. Raise your left arm straight up into the air. Breath and hold the pose. Come out of the pose and repeat with the left leg forward.
Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana). Revolved triangle pose is a twist that stretches the arms alongside the hamstrings, calves, and hips. In step four (above), extend your arms out horizontally. As you bend forward, twist your torso to the right. Plant your left hand outside your right foot. Inhale. Raise your left arm straight up into the air. Press off your hand to twist further to the right. Breath and hold the pose. Come out of the pose and repeat with the left leg forward.
Hamstrings. The hamstrings are the three long muscles that run along the back of the thigh. They extend the hip, flex the knee, and rotate the lower leg. Intense side stretch pose stretches the hamstring muscles of the forward leg, building flexibility and resilience.
Glutes. The gluteal muscle group includes the three buttocks muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. Intense side stretch pose stretches the gluteus medius and minimus. It also strengthens the gluteus maximus, which does the heavy lifting.
Triceps surae. The triceps surae consist of the gastrocnemius, in the back of the calf, and the soleus, in the front of the calf. These muscles stabilize the ankles and provide the power when walking and jumping. Intense side stretch pose stretches the gastrocnemius for more flexible, more resilient calf muscles.
Quadriceps. The quadricep muscles cover the front and sides of the femur, making up much of the muscle mass of the thighs. The quads stabilize and allow extension of the knee joint. Intense side stretch pose builds strength in the quads, which engage as antagonists to the hamstrings.
Hip flexors. The hip flexors are a large group of muscles located deep in the thighs, hips, and buttocks. They connect the leg, pelvis, and abdomen and allow you to lift your upper leg towards your body or bend your body over your upper leg. Sitting for long periods of time weakens the hip flexors, making it difficult to lift the upper legs and bend over. Intense side stretch pose stretches the psoas in the inner hip/groin area of the lifted leg.
Hip rotators. The hip rotator, or lateral rotator, muscle group includes six small muscles in the hip that control external rotation of the legs. Short hip rotator muscles lead to poor pelvic alignment. Intense side stretch pose lengthens the tensor fascia lata, contributing to improved range of motion for kicks, jumps, and splits. Internally rotating the thighs in step three (above) deepens the stretch in the hip rotators.
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a bundle of muscles and tendons in the back that control extension and rotation. Because they are responsible for straightening the back, the strength of the erector spinae muscles are closely linked with posture. Folding forward in intense side stretch pose lengthens the erector spinae.
Hip adductors. The hip adductor muscles are located in the inner thighs. They are are responsible for leg movement away from the center of the body as, for example, during a star jump or split. Intense side stretch pose stretches the adductor muscles, particularly when you internally rotate your thighs in step three (above).
Abdominals. The abdominal muscles are located in the lower belly, between the ribs and the pelvis. They control the tilt of the pelvis and the curve of the lower spine. Intense side stretch pose stretches the abdominals as you bend forward.