Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
Seated forward bend, known as paschimottanasana in Sanskrit, is a seated forward fold that stretches the muscles of the calves, hamstrings, hips, buttocks, and back. Alongside standing forward bend (uttanasana), it is one of the two simplest and most effective forward folding postures in yoga. Mentally, this restorative pose teaches us to trust the ability and, particularly, flexibility of our bodies over our mental blockades.
Aside from being insurance against back injuries and pulled hamstrings, seated forward bend has a wide range of other health benefits. The pose massages the abdominal organs for healthy digestion and stimulates circulation to the stomach organs and spinal cord. The pose also engages the abdominal muscles to tone the stomach and trim belly fat.
- Begin seated on the mat, with your legs extended in front of you in staff pose (dandasana). Plant both your seat bones firmly on the mat. Do this by (a) shifting your weight onto your right buttock and gently pulling your left hip away from the seat bone with your hand, then shifting onto the left buttock and doing the same to your right hip, or by (b) planting your palms against the mat and briefly lifting your buttocks off the ground before lowering down onto your seat bones evenly.
- Heel-toe your feet. Flex them and, if possible, splay your toes apart to keep the legs engaged and the feet active throughout the pose.
- Internally rotate your upper legs by drawing the tops of your thighs toward each other. The internal rotation will engage the inner hamstring muscles.
- Inhale. Sweep your arms above your head. Extend your spine by lengthening your back upward. Press the bottom corners of your shoulder blades toward your heart center to bring your shoulders down and back.
- Exhale and bend over your legs from the hips. As you bend, maintain the spinal extension and draw the lower belly in to make room for your torso against your upper thigh.
- If you have the flexibility, interlace your fingers and hook your hands around your feet. Alternatively, hold the outsides of your feet or rest your palms against the mat on either side of your legs.
- Look at your toes. Draw your chest forward toward your shins, rather than down toward your knees. This action will help prevent your back from rounding. The bend should always come from the hips, not from the waist.
- Breath and hold the pose. With every inhale recommit to the spinal extension, with every exhale recommit to the bend. Inhale – extend. Exhale – fold.
- Inhale. Bring the fingertips of both hands to the mat and gradually push yourself up into staff pose. Lift from the hips and keep your spine extended. Exhale and release.
Tips, Photos and Videos for Beginners
Modifications and Props
Reach your feet with a strap. If it isn’t possible to take hold of your feet in step six (above) with your hands, you may use a strap instead. In step two, loop a strap around the foot of your extended leg. When you bend forward, take hold of the strap instead of taking hold of your feet directly.
Cushion your hips with a folded blanket. In step one (above), place a folded blanket under your buttocks. Elevating the pelvis will increase mobility in the hips, making it easier to internally rotate the thighs. It’s also more comfortable for long sits in seated forward fold.
Dynamic Back Stretch Pose (Gatyatmak Paschimottanasana). This dynamic variation of seated forward bend works the abdominal muscles. Begin lying supine on the mat. Raise your arms above your head with the palms facing up. Inhale. Sit up. Exhale into seated forward fold. Breathe and hold the pose for one breath. Inhale and sit up. Exhale back into a supine position. Repeat several rounds.
Legs Spread Back Stretch (Pada Prasar Paschimottanasana). This seated forward fold variation stretches the hip adductors with a gentle split. Begin in staff pose. Swing your left leg out to the side to come into a wide-legged split. Turn toward your right leg. Inhale. Straighten and lengthen your spine to extend it upward. Exhale. Bend over your right leg from the hips. Breath and hold. Inhale and come up. Turn toward the center. Exhale. Forward bend. Breathe and hold. Inhale. Turn toward your left leg. Forward bend. Breathe and hold. Inhale and come up.
Head-to-Knee Forward Bend (Janu Sirsasana). Head-to-knee forward bend focuses the forward fold on one leg at a time. Skip steps two and three (above). Instead, bend your left leg and draw it toward your body. When it’s as close to your hips as possible, exhale and open it outward. Press the left thigh into the mat and your left foot against your inner thigh. Square your hips to your right leg. Inhale and extend the spine. Exhale and bend forward from the hips. Breathe and hold the pose. Repeat with the right leg folded.
Half Lotus Stretching Pose (Ardha Padma Paschimottanasana). This variation of head-to-knee forward bend intensifies the external rotation of the bent leg by drawing from half lotus pose (ardha padmasana). Do as head-to-knee forward bend above, but tuck the top of your left foot into the crease of your right foot for half lotus pose. Maintain this leg positioning throughout the pose.
Revolved Head-to-Knee Forward Bend Pose (Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana). This more difficult variation of head-to-knee forward bend involves an abdominal twist that stretches the abdominal muscles and massages the abdominal organs. Take the head-to-knee forward bend leg positioning. Then, place the fingertips of your hands on the mat and rotate to the left. Exhale. Bending forward, drop your right shoulder inside your right leg. Inhale. Lay your right arm on the mat, palm facing up. Exhale. Bend your right elbow back and take hold of your right foot with your right hand. Inhale. Raise your left arm up. Exhale. Bend your left arm over your head, reaching for your right foot. Breathe and hold the pose. Exhale and come out. Repeat on the opposite side.
Seated forward bend massages the abdominal and pelvic organs including the liver, pancreas, spleen, urinary tract, kidneys, and adrenal glands. This relieves gas, constipation, and indigestion for a healthy digestive tract. According to guru Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the pose also increases vitality and improves metabolism.
The action of the forward fold also relaxes the nervous system, relieving stress and calming the mind. The pose can relieve headache and put an end to temporary insomnia. Seated forward bend is a submissive, restive pose and, therefore, an ideal forward bend for restorative yoga sequences.
Seated forward bend also teaches practitioners to trust the ability and, particularly, flexibility of their bodies over their mental blocks. Inversions and forward folds are challenging postures, mentally, because they involve reversing the body’s normal hierarchy. In seated forward bend, having a flexible mind is just as important as having a flexible body.
Do not attempt seated forward bend pose if you:
- have a slipped disk
- have sciatica
- have an abdominal hernia
Always practice a forward fold, like seated forward bend, head-to-knee forward bend, or any of its variations after intense back bending poses, since forward folds and backbends are counter poses. Seated forward bend is beneficial after bow pose (dhanurasana), bridge pose (setu bandhasana sarvangasana), camel pose (ustrasana), or circle pose (chakrasana).
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. Seated forward bend stretches the gastrocnemius for more flexible, more resilient calf muscles.
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. Seated forward bend stretches the hamstring muscles up and down the legs, adding flexibility.
Glutes. The gluteal muscle group includes the three buttocks muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. Seated forward bend stretches the gluteus maximus and the outsides of the gluteus minimus.
Hip flexor muscles. 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 to bend over. In seated forward bend, the hip flexors lengthen.
Quadratus lumborum. The quadratus lumborum is located deep in the abdominal wall. When it is short and weak, the muscle is often attributed to lower back pain. Bending actively toward the shins in seated forward bend stretches the quadratus lumborum.
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. Seated forward bend lengthens the deep back muscles of the erector spinae.