Want to learn more about Paschimottanasana, aka Seated Forward Fold Pose? In this post, I share the benefits of Paschimottanasana, a complete pose breakdown, contraindications, myths, modifications and more.
Even though I struggled with it at first, Paschimottanasana has become one of my favourite yoga poses. It took me a long time to learn how to activate my hip flexors enough to really deepen the forward fold. But now that I can, I use the pose to stretch out my legs and back after a strenuous workout and it feels great.
I also love to do a Seated Forward Fold at the end of a long day. I love the symmetry of the pose and I find it really helps ground me, settle my mind, and put everything back in place after a long day of teaching, sitting, travel, hiking, or whatever. It acts as a full-body reset.
The pose appears frequently in the original Hatha yoga texts including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita, the Yoga Sikha Upanishad, the Hatha Tattva Kaumudi, and the Gherands Samhita. Several of these texts say that practicing the pose unleashes magical powers! While I’ve never seen this myself, you can find out more about that in the Myths section below.
- Paschimottanasana Quick Facts
- Paschimottanasana Benefits
- Precautions & Contraindications
- Misconceptions & Myths About Seated Forward Fold Pose
- Paschimottanasana Pose Breakdown
- Modifications & Variations
- Yoga Poses Related to Seated Forward Fold Pose
- Related Posts & Videos
- Gear & Resources for This Pose
- A Final Note About Seated Forward Fold Pose
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Paschimottanasana Quick Facts
|English||Seated Forward Fold Pose|
Intense Stretch of the West Pose
|Meaning||The word Paschimottanasana is a combination of:|
• Paschima (the West or back body)
• Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
In Sanskrit, paschima is the west, or the back of the body (more on that in the Myths section).
Ut means intense and is changed to ot when it joins two words together.
Tan means to stretch.
Uttana means, therefore, an intense stretch.
Asana means pose or posture.
The pose name literally translates as Intense Stretch of the West Pose.
Note: I only include the scientifically supported benefits of Paschimottanasana 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 Paschimottanasana include:
- Stretches hamstrings and gluteal muscles (butt and outer hips).
- Strengthen quads, abdominals, and knee joints.
- Stretches calf muscles.
- Elongates the spine when done with proper alignment (and suitable flexibility in hamstrings).
- Strengthens the erector spinae muscles.
- Builds strength in the shoulders.
- Strengthens biceps, if done with bent arms, and triceps, if done with straight arms.
- Helps improve flexibility of hips.
- Students may find release in the upper, mid, and lower back.
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 suffer from herniated vertebra discs, do not bend forward completely. See Modifications.
- If you have sciatica, bend your knees to protect the low back, or skip the pose altogether.
- Hamstring injuries can cause discomfort in this pose. Instead of practicing this with straight legs, bend your knees. See Modifications.
- If you have an abdominal hernia, it is likely best to avoid this pose until you are healed.
- If you are in the late second or third trimester of a pregnancy, you likely want to practice Seated Forward Fold with your feet wide enough apart so that your belly is not pressing into your thighs. You will also want to use a yoga strap around your feet. See Modifications below.
Misconceptions & Myths About Seated Forward Fold Pose
In Sanskrit, Paschima means the West, which is symbolic of your back body. So when we say that the pose name means Intense Stretch of the West, it is really saying Intense Stretch of the Back.
In the Hindu tradition it is said that all knowledge lives in your back body. Not all knowledge as in your own personal knowledge but literally all knowledge that has come before. The practice of poses that really activate and access the back body, such as Paschimottanasana, is said to help you access all of that knowledge.
All knowledge. Impressive stuff for a yoga pose.
Is this true or a great metaphor? I’ll leave that up to you to consider.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Chapter 1, Verse 29) it describes one benefit of Paschimottanasana as causing the breath to flow through the sushumna (the spinal column — or on a subtle body level, the pathway for your awakened Kundalini). This is said to fuel your appetite, reduce tension in your pelvis, and remove all ailments caused by the Ayurvedic concepts of pitta and vata.
In the 11th Century text the Shiva Samhita (Chapter 3, Verse 92), it says that the “wise man who daily practices this noble posture can certainly induce the flow of the air up through the anus.”
I’m not sure if this is meant to be a good thing? Perhaps I’m not wise enough but I can certainly say I’ve never experienced this effect myself!
I debated whether to put this next tidbit here or if it would be more appropriate in the Benefits section. But here it is…
The Shiva Samhita (Chapter 3, Verse 93) claims, “Those who practice this [Paschimottanasana] obtain all the siddhi; therefore, those, desirous of attaining power, should practice this diligently.”
The siddhi are magical powers which are said to be attainable through the diligent practice of yoga. They include such wonders as the ability to shrink to sub-atomic size or grow to an incomprehensibly large size. There’s also instant travel to anywhere at will, the power to control animals and humans, and the ability to attain complete satisfaction.
In some yogic traditions, these powers are taken literally, while in others, they are metaphors for less magical ideas.
Paschimottanasana Pose Breakdown
How to do Paschimottanasana / Seated Forward Fold
Paschimottanasana is one of the 15 poses described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the 15th century text that is considered by many to be the main, or original, text of Hatha yoga. It instructs the pose as:
Stretch out both legs like sticks and take hold of your toes. Lay your head down on your knees. This is paccimasana [paschimottanasana].”Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Chapter 1, Verses 28
If you know me, you know I like a little more detail than that. Here’s my take on it.
- Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your legs straight out in front of you. If your lower back rounds in Dandasana, sit on a yoga blanket or yoga cushion. See Modifications below.
- Stretch your arms up overhead. Tone your belly (Uddiyana Bandha), lift through the sides of your ribs, lengthen through your spine and stretch through your shoulders.
- Flex at your hips and fold over your legs. Reach for your big toes and grab your big toes with your index and middle fingers on the inside of the toe, and thumbs around the outside of your toe. You can also hold the outer edges of your feet if you prefer. If you cannot keep your legs straight and hold your feet, see Modifications below for two different options.
- Use your hands and legs to push down through your heels, keeping them on the ground to prevent hyperextending your knees. Pull on your feet with your hands. Move your shoulders away from your ears.
- Stretch your sit bones back behind you while working to tilt your pubic bone down and forward slightly. This is a very subtle movement.
- Keep pushing down and pulling back with your hands and stretch long through your spine. Stretch as if you can bring the top of your head to touch your feet.
- To deepen the forward fold, move your ribs away from your thighs a little, and pull back with your hands. Keeping this, tone your belly and stretch long through your spine. Fold forward bringing your chest towards your thighs.
- Breathe steadily and stay in the pose. Keep deepening the pose as your body adjusts to being in the shape. This is Paschimottanasana.
- To come out of the pose, keep holding your feet and lift your head and chest. Then release your feet and sit up, returning to Dandasana (Staff Pose).
- Reverse Plank Pose (Purvottanasana) or Reverse Table are good counter-poses to practice after a long hold in Paschimottanasana.
Pro Tip: To help deepen your forward fold, imagine shortening the distance between the bottom back of your ribs and bringing it down to the top of your thighs. This can help actively flex your psoas, one of your main hip flexors.
Modifications & Variations
If you are new to the pose (or hip flexion is difficult):
- Please be patient with yourself and your progress in the pose. There is little point in rounding your back, hanging your head down, and hanging in space. In fact, you are libel to put unwanted pressure on your vertebral discs if you do this. Over time this can cause back pain or damage to your discs.
- I recommend building strength in your back (Shalabhasana is a great pose for this) and working with the next few modifications to help improve your ability to flex at your hips and to keep your spine elongating in Paschimottanana.
If your chest is away from your thighs:
- Place a folded yoga blanket or yoga bolster on your thighs and bring your chest onto the prop. You will likely also need a yoga strap around the soles of your feet as they will be hard to reach with the prop on your thighs.
If you feel pain in your lower back:
- Back off in the pose. You should never force yourself into any pose to the point of pain. Paschimottanasana is a pose you need to practice with extra care. Newer students tend to round their lower back a lot when learning this pose and that can place unwanted stress on your vertebral discs. Work with the modifications below if you are feeling unwanted strain in this pose.
If your lower back rounds when sitting in Dandasana:
- See the next modification.
If you cannot hold your feet and keep your legs straight:
- Sit on a yoga block, yoga cushion, or a folded blanket. This will lift your hips and give you a little more mobility in your pelvis. That will help you find more length for your hamstrings and hip flexion.
- If sitting on a prop is not enough, use a yoga strap. Flip it around the soles of your feet and hold the strap in your hands instead of holding onto your feet. Then continue with the steps listed in the pose breakdown above.
- Another great option is to bend your knees and hold your feet. This is my favourite modification for Paschimottanasana — I practice it and teach it frequently. It allows students with tight hamstrings to get the full benefits of this pose. To do it, bend your knees as much as you need to so that you can hold your feet and rest your chest on your thighs. From there, follow the instructions in the pose breakdown above, keeping your knees bent.
If you have herniated disk or another back injury:
- If you have injuries that will still allow you to practice this pose, do not bend forward fully. Instead, place a yoga bolster or folded up yoga blanket on your lap close to your hip joint. This will limit how far you can fold forward and give you extra support at the same time.
If you have stiff knees:
- Use a yoga blanket or a yoga bolster underneath your knees to support them. This will help to reduce the stiffness over time.
If you are pregnant:
- Particularly if you are in your late second or third trimester, widen your legs so that when you fold forward your belly comes between your thighs. You may also wish to use a strap around your feet.
Yoga Poses Related to Seated Forward Fold Pose
- Prasarita Padottanasana / Wide Leg Forward Fold
- Adho Mukha Svanasana / Downward Dog Pose
- Janu Sirsasana / Forehead to Knee Pose
- Ardha Bhekasana / Half Frog Pose
- Balasana / Child’s Pose
- Baddha Konasana / Cobbler’s Pose or Bound Angle Pose
- Dandasana / Staff Pose
- Uttanasana / Forward Fold Pose
- Purvottanasana / Reverse Plank Pose
- Tadasana / Mountain Pose
- Ardha Matsyendrasana / Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
- Dandasana / Staff Pose
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana / Bridge Pose
Poses To Take Your Practice Further
- Parivrtta Paschimottanasana / Revolved Seated Forward Fold Pose
- Padahastasana / Hand Under Foot Pose
- Padangusthasana / Big Toe Pose
- Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana / Half Bound Lotus in Seated Forward Fold
- Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana / Revolved Forehead to Knee Pose
- Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana / Three Limbs Face to One Leg Back Forward Fold Pose
- Sirsasana / Headstand
- Adho Mukha Vrksasana / Handstand
Related Posts & Videos
- Post: Benefits of Vajrasana
- Post: Benefits of Downward Dog Pose
- Video: Pashchimottanasana Yoga Pose Breakdown
Gear & Resources for This Pose
- BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga
- Darren Rhodes Yoga Resource Practice Manual
- Sustainable Cork Yoga Mat by Corq
- Cork Yoga Blocks
- Organic Cotton Yoga Straps
- Organic Cotton or Hemp Yoga Bolsters
- Cork Meditation Cushion
- Machine Washable Vegan Yoga Blankets
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A Final Note About Seated Forward Fold Pose
Paschimottanasana is a great pose for finding more flexibility in your hamstrings but, if you are starting with tight hamstrings, that can be hard to believe.
If that’s you, I recommend you start practicing the pose with bent knees, work for more anterior tilt of your pelvis (pubic bone down and forward, sit bones back and up, and a slight arch in your lower back). This will help increase the flexibility of your hamstrings over time. With consistent practice, the settling feeling of this pose will start to reveal itself to you.
Namaste OMies, Stephen
I hope this post has been helpful in expanding your possibilities with Intense Stretch of the West Pose. It’s my goal to inspire you to explore your yoga practice more deeply while enabling you to cultivate the strength and clarity needed to live your life’s adventure to the fullest!