Paschimottanasana, despite the mouthful of a name, is one of the simplest basic yoga postures. Used in ashtanga, vinyasa, and hatha yoga, paschimottanasana is a forward bending stretch that may be done as a part of warm-ups or cool-downs, and can even be incorporated into longer series of poses. Extremely beneficial for the thighs, back, and abdomen, paschimottanasana is easy to practice, but can take a long time to truly master.
To begin paschimottanasana, it is often easiest to start seated with legs flat on the floor in front of the body. Less flexible practitioners may want to bend knees slightly or place a blanket or roll under each knee. The spine is held straight, making the torso as long as possible from seat bones to shoulders. The neck should not be strained, and the head should float on top of the spinal cord. It may help to imagine a taut fishing line extending from the top of the spine to the ceiling, gently tugging the spine up. Arms are usually extended out in front of the shoulders, with palms facing down.
Exhaling, the practitioner scoops the abdominal muscles in toward the spine as he or she begins to bend from the hips. Bending from the hips is important to correctly performing paschimottanasana, because it activates the lower spine. The goal is to keep the abs scooped and the spine straight as the torso and arms stretch down toward the legs. The bend should only extend as far as the practitioner can manage without compromising the correct posture; at first, a practitioner may only be able to reach knees or lower thighs with his or her hands. More advanced practitioners may be able to rest their hands on either side of their feet, placing the head on or near the knees.
Once fully into the pose, focus can shift to the breath. Deep, even breaths are taken in through the nose, and out through the mouth. With each exhale, the practitioner can attempt to release a little tension to get deeper into the pose. It is important to think of each exhale as a release rather than a push; the goal is to relax further into the pose, not push harder into it. After five to ten breaths, the torso is lifted and the spine position maintained as the yogi moves back into a sitting-up position.
People with lower back problems may want to move very slowly while entering and exiting paschimottanasana. While the pose can be a great spinal stretch, it should never be painful. It may help to place a cushion or folded blanket under the buttocks to perform this pose. Those looking to increase flexibility may also want to use a strap or belt to loop around their feet. Pulling on the ends of the belt, the practitioner may find it easier to stretch throughout the back and move deeper into the pose.