Wide-legged standing forward bend, known as prasarita padottanasana in Sanskrit, is a standing forward fold that stretches the muscles of the calves, hamstrings, hips, and back. It focuses on the body’s alignment as much as it does on the body’s flexibility, promoting good form for standing postures and inversions.
The pose is insurance against back injuries and pulled hamstrings, but wide-legged standing 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.
Wide-legged standing forward bend is an inversion that, in reversing the normal hierarchical relationship between the body parts, benefits both the body and mind. First, the pose stimulates circulations in the spinal nerves, throat, and nasal passages for a healthy nervous and respiratory system. By sending rushes of blood to the head and abdominal region, the pose can relieve painful headaches and the symptoms of menopause.
Second, like other inversion poses, wide-legged standing forward bend calms the less literal nerves, relieving mental stress and anxiety. The pose teaches practitioners to trust the ability and, particularly, flexibility of their bodies over the mental blocks that make inverting their bodies seem impossible. Letting go in wide-legged standing forward bend releases anxiety and can relieve temporary insomnia.
Wide-legged standing forward bend beneficially compresses the abdominal organs. This action relieves gas, constipation, and indigestion for a comprehensively healthy digestive tract. According to guru Swami Satyananda Saraswati, standing forward folds increases vitality, improves metabolism, increases appetite, and, of course, boosts nasal and throat health.
Do not attempt wide-legged standing forward bend if you:
- have serious back problems.
- have sciatica.
- have high blood pressure.
- have heart disease.
- have an abdominal hernia.
Wide-legged standing forward bend is technically an inversion (although the hips are only half inverted), so women on their periods should exercise caution in practicing it.
Always practice a forward fold, like wide-legged standing forward bend or any of its variations after intense back bending poses, since forward folds and backbends are counter poses that target antagonist muscles for strengthening and stretching. Wide-legged standing forward bend is beneficial after bow pose (dhanurasana), bridge pose (setu bandhasana sarvangasana), camel pose (ustrasana), or circle pose (chakrasana).
How to do the Prasarita Padottanasana
- Begin in mountain pose (tadasana) at the top of the mat. Exhale and turn to your left. In the same fluid motion, step your left foot three to four feet behind your right (closer if you’re shorter than average, further if you’re taller than average).
- Turn the toes of both your feet toward the long edge of your mat so they are parallel to one another. Root down into the mat through all five toes and four corners – the right side of your heel, the left side of your heel, the sole of your foot below your big toe, the sole of your foot below your little toe – of each foot. Take care to weight the outsides of your feet to prevent the ankles from collapsing inward.
- Place your hands on your hips. Inhale and extend your spine by lengthening your back toward the sky.
- Exhale and, keeping your knees soft to prevent hyperextension, bend forward from the hips. As you bend, draw the lower belly in to make room for your torso against your upper thighs. To avoid rounding your back and shoulders, keep the spine extended.
- Take your hands off your hips and plant your palms hip distance apart, fingers facing forward, on the mat between your feet. Spread your fingers wide and ground through all five fingers and the palm of each hand. Inhale and look up, straightening the spine.
- Exhale and fold forward, bending your elbows straight backwards. Look between your legs. Relax your upper body. Instead of straining to move deeper into the pose, let gravity draw your upper body gently towards the mat. As your head drops lower toward the mat, position it between your hands. If possible, bring the crown of your head onto the mat.
- Shift your weight forward so that your legs are perpendicular to the mat, not tilted backwards. If your hamstrings are flexible, straighten your knees completely. Engage the muscles surrounding the knee caps to prevent hyperextension even when the joint is extended.
- Internally rotate your thighs by drawing the tops of them in towards each other. This will lengthen the back horizontally, protecting it and engaging the inner hamstring muscles.
- Breath and hold the pose. With every inhale recommit to the spinal extension, with every exhale recommit to the bend.
- Place your hands on your hips. Inhale. Come up. Turn to the right and step into mountain pose at the top of the mat.
Modifications and Props
Rest your head on a block. If you’re deep in the pose, but not quite deep enough to touch your head to the mat, rest your head on a block placed horizontally or vertically between your hands in step five (above). This will give you a fifth base (after your two legs and two arms) in the wide-legged standing forward bend.
Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend II (Prasarita Padottanasana II). This variation, part of the Ashtanga and Iyengar canons, is generally considered more difficult because it involves an intense arm bind. In step three (above), don’t place your hands on your hips. Instead, fold your arms behind your back and press your palms together in prayer pose (anjali mudra). Slide your hands up your back so that they rest between your shoulder blades. Go through steps four through nine, keeping your arms in the bind.
Head to Toe Pose (Sirsha Angustha Yogasana). This variation changes both the arm and leg positioning of wide-legged standing forward bend. In step three (above), don’t place your hands on your hips. Instead, reach both arms behind you, interlace your fingers, and draw your palms together. Turn toward your right leg. Exhale and bend forward, lifting your arms as you go. When you’ve folded as far as you can go, bend your right knee. Breath and hold the pose. Push your arms higher into the air. Inhale and straighten your right knee, coming up to center. Repeat, bending toward the left leg.
Tarsal tunnel. The tarsal tunnel muscles – the flexor hallucis longus, the flexor digitorum longus, and the tibialis posterior – are located in the inner shin. They plantarflex and invert the foot. Wide-legged standing forward bend strengthens the tarsal tunnel.
Triceps surae. The triceps surae consist of the gastrocnemius, in the back of the shin, and the soleus, in the front of the shin. These muscles stabilize the ankles and provide the power when walking and jumping. Wide-legged standing forward bend stretches the gastrocnemius for more flexible, more resilient calf muscles.
Anterior tibialis. The anterior tibialis muscle runs down the front of the calf. It controls the backwards flexion of the ankles, the movement associated with dorsiflexing the foot. Pressing the heels to the floor in wide-legged standing forward bend strengthens the anterior tibialis.
Hamstring muscles. 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. Wide-legged standing forward bend stretches through the hamstring muscles, adding flexibility. For best results, be sure to internally rotate the thighs to stretch the inner hamstrings as well.
Hip adductors. The adductor muscles are located in the inner thighs. These muscles are responsible for leg movement away from the center of the body as, for example, during a star jump or split. Wide-legged standing forward bend lengthens the adductor magnus.
Gracilis. The gracilis muscles are located in the inner thighs, adjacent to the hip adductors. It is involved in adducting, medially rotating, and flexing the hip. Wide-legged standing forward bend stretches the gracilis. The wider the stance, the greater the stretch.
Gluteal muscles. The gluteal muscle group includes the three buttocks muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. Wide-legged standing forward bend stretches the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius.
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. Reaching towards the floor in wide-legged standing forward bend stretches and lengthens 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. Wide-legged standing forward bend lengthens the deep back muscles of the erector spinae.