Paschimottanasana roughly translated from Sanskrit means “intense stretch in the back body.” Until viewing instructional videos by Leslie Kaminoff, I always thought of this as a pose primarily interested in the hamstring muscles and secondarily interested in the low back. Really, though, its Sanskrit name suggests that pose offers benefits for the entirety of the back side, from the calves to the nape of the neck. Where you feel the most intense stretch will depend on your body– some people feel it mostly in the hamstrings, others in the low back, others in the calves. To feel the stretch and release more evenly, try making adjustments like bending or straightening the knees, or use some of the props listed below.
If you feel pain, that is your body’s signal to stop or pull back significantly. Start with the first step, and if everything feels good there, try the next step. Be gentle with yourself and enjoy the release in this pose.
Here’s how you do paschimottanasana;
1. Come to a comfortable seat on the floor or bed. Extend your legs in front of you and flex your toes toward your face. Keep a slight to generous bend in your knees to protect the hamstrings and ease the stretch in the low back; you may even feel a deeper stretch this way! If your hamstrings feel pretty open, wrap your peace fingers around your big toes or reach your hands toward your feet. Alternatively, you can loop a strap around your feet. A third option is to place your hands on the floor beside your hips.
2.Bend forward from the hips with a flat spine. You may start to feel a stretch in your hamstrings and calves as you bend. If your hands are on the floor, creep them toward your shins or feet.
3. Keep the spine straight for as long as you can, then tuck your chin toward your face and round the back as you continue to fold. Maintain a slight to generous bend in the knees. Now, you may begin to feel more of a stretch in the back as well. Try to feel this stretch throughout the back body and avoid dumping the weight of the posture into one area of the spine. If you want more support for the upper body, place blocks beneath your forearms, or place a bolster or pillow on your thighs.
If you do this stretch and don’t feel much of a stretch anywhere, try placing a block behind your heels and reaching for it. Or, increase the bend in your knees and take your forehead toward your knees. You won’t look like the version of paschimottanasana found in all the yoga books, but you might be able to feel the back body elongate here.
As you try paschimottanasana, remember that you’re stretching the entire back body and not just the hamstrings. Try the versions above and let me know how it goes!