Want to learn more about Parsvottanasana, aka Pyramid Pose? In this post, I share the benefits of Parsvottanasana, a complete pose breakdown, contraindications, myths, a step-by-step video, modifications and more.
I almost never teach the full form of Parsvottanasana. The full form has hands behind the back in Reverse Prayer. I often skip Reverse Prayer when teaching Pyramid Pose because I know how uncomfortable this is in most people’s wrists. More often, I ask students to bring their hands down to the ground or hold their front leg if they cannot touch the ground with both legs straight.
I thought I was doing the right thing. But writing this post, I realized I may have been holding students back when I should have been pushing them forward. So be prepared for more Reverse Prayer in my classes, because Parsvottanasana is helps counteract the shapes we hold all day due to overuse of smartphones and other devices.
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Parsvottanasana Quick Facts
|Sanskrit||Parsvottanasana / Parshvottanasana|
|English||Pyramid Pose / Intense Side Stretch Pose|
|Meaning||Parsva means side.|
Ut means intense.
Tan means stretch.
Asana means pose or posture.
Parsvottanasana means Intense Side Stretch but it is often called Pyramid Pose because the shape your body makes resembles a pyramid.
Note: I only include the scientifically supported benefits of Parsvottanasana here. Plenty of claims about other supposed benefits (from the plausible to the magical to the ridiculous) have been made. To me, pseudo-scientific claims only serve to harm the yoga community, so I choose not to give them airtime here.
The main physical benefits of Parsvottanasana include:
- Stretches your hamstrings.
- Strengthens your quads.
- Strengthens your calf muscles in your front leg and stretches them on your back leg.
- Builds strength in your hip stabilizers including your gluteus medius and minimus.
- Strengthens your spine.
- Strengthens your ankles and feet, as they are key to finding your balance in the pose.
- Helps to build support for your lower back.
- Builds strength in your upper back.
- Tones and strengthens your core.
- If you’re doing the full pose, with Reverse Prayer, it stretches your wrists.
- If you’re doing the full pose, with Reverse Prayer, Parsvottanasana helps to open your chest and strengthen your shoulders, which helps improve your posture.
If you want more on the benefits of yoga, see our complete guide to the benefits of yoga, which includes a history of yoga plus the origins of our modern yoga practice and much more.
Precautions & Contraindications
Remember that while yoga is for everyone, not all poses are for all people!
- If you have a hamstring tear you should not go all the way down into the forward fold. Instead place your hands on the wall or a chair. See Modifications section below.
- If you have high blood pressure or a back injury, practice Ardha Parsvottanasana. This is similar to Parsvottanasana, except that your torso is parallel to the ground. Place your hands on the wall, or the back of a chair, to help hold your torso in this position. See Modifications section below.
- If you have a hip injury it is probably best to avoid Pyramid Pose until your body heals.
- If you are in the third trimester of a pregnancy you may wish to avoid this pose. Do not fold forward fully over your front leg. Instead, lift your torso away from your leg. See Modifications section below.
Misconceptions & Myths About Pyramid Pose
The History of Parsvottanasana
Parsvottanasana first appears in T. Krishnamacharya’s Yoga Makaranda, which was published in 1935. Instead of instructing you to have your hands in Reverse Prayer, he recommends that you “clasp the hands together behind the back,” as you can see him demonstrating in the photo below.
In his book Yoga Body: the Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton writes that Krishnamacharya was influenced by the gymnastics culture of the time and adopted gymnastics poses into what Pattabhi Jois would name Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
In fact, if you look at Niels Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics from 1924 and his follow-up, Fundamental Gymnastics, published in 1928, you will see several exercises detailed that are common in modern yoga classes today. In particular there is one photo in Primary Gymnastics that shows a pose that appears the same as Parsvottanasana (hands to the ground variation).
Myth-Busting Pyramid Pose
In reading other blog posts while preparing for this post I read several times that practicing Parsvottanasana tones the liver and the spleen. That is just NOT TRUE.
Do you want to know why that’s not true? Click through to this post and read it because it does a great job of explaining it in a light-hearted, fun way. This quote summarizes what the write has to say.
Sometimes we forget that the state of homeostasis (internal balance) within the body hinges on a delicate interplay between different forces, including pressure changes, fluid regulation and waste removal. It seems pretty cavalier to think that we can just barge in and begin to manipulate organ function, telling the body how to do its job properly or rushing the process.”Olga Kabel, sequence Wiz
But, I recommend you read the whole post to truly understand why yoga poses don’t tune your internal organs. Go read it. Then come back and learn how to do Parsvottanasana with me.
Parsvottanasana Pose Breakdown
How to do Parsvottanasana / Pyramid Pose
- Stand in Tadasana.
- Step your right foot back, roughly between 3 and 4 feet (one meter or more).
- Place your right foot flat on the ground and line up your left heel and right heel. Turn your right foot so that it points toward the front right corner of your mat, and have your left foot facing forward.
- Reach your arms behind your back and bring your hands together, palms together, with your fingers pointed towards the ground. Bring your hands close to your back so that your thumbs touch your back.
- Move your wrists away from your back and turn your hands so your fingers point forward and touch your spine.
- Move your shoulders back and expand your chest. Turn your hands up so that your fingers point up and slide your hands up your spine. Maybe you can even slide them up between your shoulder blades. If you can’t do Reverse Prayer, see the Modifications section below for some suggestions.
- Pull back through your left hip and draw your right hip forward as your turn your right leg in. Squeeze your thighs towards each other. These actions will help make your hips square to the front of your mat and more stable.
- Lift through your chest, flex at your front hip and fold your torso over your front leg.
- Lengthen through your spine. Instead of giving into the rounding in your back that the shape of this pose encourages, work to find more of the natural curves of your spine. Work to slightly arch your lower back and your upper back as you lengthen your torso down your leg.
- Straighten your knees, engage your quadriceps to keep your legs strong and straight and stretch your spine long. Be careful to not hyperextend your knees. Pull up from your heels slightly to help create support for your knees from your hamstrings.
- This is Parsvottanasana.
- To come out, keep your legs straight and strong — OR bend your front knee slightly — and lift your torso. Bring your hands out of Reverse Prayer and into Anjali Mudra (Prayer Position) and step forward, back into Tadasana.
- Pyramid Pose is a two-sided pose so be sure to practice the second side.
Modifications & Variations
If you can’t bring your hands into Reverse Prayer
Hold your elbows or opposite wrist behind your back. You can also practice Parsvottanasana with your hands on the ground on either side of your front leg, or holding your leg. If it’s good enough for Krishnamarcharya, it’s good enough for you!
If you can’t bring your hands to the ground
Place blocks on the ground on either side of your front leg so that you can place your hands on the blocks.
Another good modification is to hold your leg somewhere where you are able to keep your legs straight. Be sure not to push back on your front knee/leg as this can force your knee into hyperextension. Instead, pull up with your knee to help engage your quadriceps.
If you can’t straighten your front leg
Don’t fold forward so much and don’t do Reverse Prayer for now. Place your focus in your legs instead. Hold your front leg where you are able to keep your legs straight. Be sure not to push back on your leg as this can force your knee into hyperextension. Instead, pull up on your leg to encourage engaging your quadriceps.
If your back heel won’t come to the ground
When you have tight calf muscles or a tight Achilles tendon it can make it hard to get the heel of your back foot to the ground. Not to worry! Grab your yoga blanket and place it under your back heel, folded up just enough so you can press your heel down into it. This will help you build the strength and get the stretch needed to get your heel down — one day.
If the forward fold causes pain in your lower back
Do not go as deeply into the forward fold. Instead you can set up to practice Parsvottanasana facing a wall, and stretch your arms forward, pressing your hands into the wall.
Another good option is to practice standing behind a chair. When you start to fold forward, reach for the back of the chair and hold onto it, instead of going into the full forward fold.
If you have a hamstring injury
As your hamstring heals (and this can take time — give it time!), follow the advice above: use the wall or a chair for support. You should not go all the way down into the forward fold until your hamstring injury is fully healed.
If you have high blood pressure
Place your hands on the wall or the back of a chair to help hold your torso parallel to the ground, or even a little more upright, as is appropriate for you.
If you are pregnant
Generally, you will be able to keep practicing Parsvottanasana as you did before your pregnancy. However, in the third trimester it may become uncomfortable to fold forward and have your belly press onto your thigh.
Instead of going into the forward fold as deeply, use the same modification suggested for hamstring injuries or high blood pressure: keep you head above your heart and do not lower your torso any more than parallel to the ground. Use a wall or chair to support yourself.
Yoga Poses Related to Pyramid Pose
- Adho Mukha Svanasana / Downward Dog Pose
- Anjali Mudra / Prayer Position
- Dandasana / Staff Pose
- Gomukhasana / Cow-Faced Pose
- Janu Sirsasana / Forehead to Knee Pose
- Uttanasana / Standing Forward Fold
- Ardha Uttanasana / Half Standing Forward Fold
- Prasarita Padottanasana / Wide-Legged Forward Fold Pose
- Trikonasana / Triangle Pose
- Virabhadrasana 1 / Warrior 1 Pose
- Ardha Parsvottanasana / Half Pyramid Pose
- Adho Mukha Svanasana / Downward Dog Pose
- Tadasana / Mountain Pose
- Paschimottanasana / Intense Stretch Of The West Pose (aka Seated Forward Fold)
- Virabhadrasana 1 / Warrior 1 Pose
- Virabhadrasana 3 / Warrior 3 Pose
- Purvottanasana / Upward Plank Pose
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana / Bridge Pose
Poses To Take Your Practice Further
- Parivrtta Trikonasana / Revolved Triangle Pose
- Ardha Chandrasana / Standing Half Moon Pose
- Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana / Revolved Half Moon Pose
- Virabhadrasana 3 / Warrior 3
Related Posts & Videos
- Post: Virabhadrasana 1 Benefits & Yoga Pose Breakdown
- Post: Paschimottanasana Benefits & Yoga Pose Breakdown
- Video: Yoga Pose Breakdown — Parsvottanasana
Gear & Resources for This Pose
- BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga
- Darren Rhodes Yoga Resource Practice Manual
- Yoloha Cork Yoga Mat with plant-based foam
- Yoloha Cork Yoga Blocks
- Machine Washable Vegan Yoga Blankets
- Folding Yoga Chair
Save 10% on cork yoga gear
- Use our code AYO10 at checkout for 10% off all Yoloha yoga mats & gear.
Good for the planet and great for your practice!
A Final Note About Pyramid Pose
Even though we generally call this pose Pyramid Pose if we are using an English name for it, Parsvottanasana actually means Intense Side Stretch Pose.
One thing I never really addressed in this post is this: Is it really an intense side stretch? Or would a more appropriate name be Intense Front Leg Hamstrings Stretch Pose?
Even Mr Iyengar couldn’t bring himself to say it actually stretches your side. In Light on Yoga he wrote, “The name implies a pose in which the side of the chest is stretched intensely.”
It “implies a pose”. Not “is a pose”. At no point in his instructions and description for Parsvottanasana does he say it stretches your sides. You know why?
For most of us it doesn’t stretch our sides. It is a great stretch for the hamstrings of your front leg. It gives a fantastic stretch/twist/wrench to your wrists. But I have yet to experience what I would call an “intense side stretch” when practicing Parsvottanasana.
I guess that’s probably why Pyramid Pose became the go-to name in English. It definitely resembles a pyramid a lot more than it stretches your side.
Namaste OMies, Stephen
I hope this post has been helpful in expanding your understanding and possibilities with Parvottanasana. I want these posts to inspire you to explore your yoga practice more deeply and I hope this post helps you see this fairly common pose with new awareness and understanding. The more you understand about each pose the more you’ll understand yourself, which will help you find the strength and clarity needed to live your adventure to the fullest!