Yoga Asana Series: Paschimottanasana aka Seated Forward Fold

Paschima = West*
Uttana = Intense stretch
Asana = pose
(pronunciation: POSH-ee-moh-tan-AHS-anna)

*West… What? The back of the body is referred to as the west side, and the front of the body is the east side. Legend has it this is because, traditionally, you would practice yoga at the break of day facing the sunrise in the east (think of those Surya Namaskar, or sun salutations), hence the front of the body being the east side. If this is confusing for you, sub out west for ‘back of the body’. Paschimottanasana = intense stretch of the back of the body pose. Or just call it a seated forward fold because that is what it is!


Why You Should Practice Paschimottanasana

Hello, hamstrings! Paschimottanasana is a seated forward bend that will not only help you gain flexibility through your hamstrings (the back of the thighs) but also create space through the entire back of your body — particularly your lower back. Like Tadasana, it’s a foundational yoga pose and one that I recommend practicing regularly!

It’s a bit of a love-hate pose, but usually, the journey goes you hate it at the beginning when you are tight in the back of the body… and the more your body opens up through yoga the more you love it. There are also a ton of paschimottanasana benefits that will help you both on and off the yoga mat.

Paschimottanasana Instructions

  1. Sit down on your yoga mat with your legs extended in front of you. (Don’t worry about sitting in any particular way, the fine-tuning comes next).
  2. Sit up as tall as you can by lengthening the spine. Slightly engaging your core will help you find more space in your back. 
  3. Pull the flesh out to the sides of your butt so you can feel your sit bone — the two bony points on the bottom of your pelvis — grounding into the mat.
  4. Set your pelvis up by finding your anterior pelvic tilt, so it feels like you are tipping forward off your sit bones and your butt is sticking out behind you. If you feel a lot of rounding in your lower back or are struggling to find the tipping forward action, bend your knees as much as you need to find the space. You can also try sitting up on the edge of a block or cushions. (More on this in the tips and tricks section).
  5. Engage your legs and flex your feet so your toes point towards the sky. If it’s comfortable for you, bring the big toes to touch, otherwise take the legs a few inches apart. 
  6. Place your hands next to your body. 
  7. Keeping the spine long and the chest open, on an exhale, start to bring the upper body into your forward fold. The knees can stay bent if this enables you to keep the tilt in your pelvis and your back long. As you bend forward, start to walk your hands forward. Keep your head and neck in line with the rest of your spine.
  8. Notice the increasing sensation in the back of your legs. Once it becomes too intense, there is no more space, or you feel your spine rounding, stop. Grab onto your shins, ankles, or feet with your hands. You may be able to pull yourself a little deeper into the pose.
  9. If your knees are bent, after a few breaths you may find there is more space to straighten your legs a little.
  10. If you can bring your belly onto your thighs with straight legs, you can let your spine round and bring your forehead to your shins.
  11. Stay for at least five breaths.  

Benefits of Paschimottanasana

  • Improves hamstring flexibility.
  • Helps create more space in the lower back, which can potentially help with lower back pain.
  • Improves overall posture.
  • Helps with all other yoga poses — standing, balances, seated, splits, and lying down — that require hamstring flexibility. 
  • The forward folding action can be really relaxing and grounding. 
  • (Contrary to all the yoga bullshit floating around the internet, there is no reason why this pose will help you lose weight, overcome depression, or improve digestion. Sorry.)

Paschimottanasana Tips, Tricks and Variations

It’s all about that anterior pelvic tilt

Finding the forward tilt in the pelvis is the key to this pose: it’s the thing that will actually create more space in the hamstrings, help with lower back compression, and bring you deeper into the pose. It’s also one of the most subtle things about the pose and can be easier to gauge as a feeling than a look.

There are three stages of pelvic tilt that might help you nail it:

  • Posterior pelvic tilt: this is when the tailbone is tucked under and you are rounding through the lower back (looks like slumping, and those images of paschimottanasana where people’s spines are rounding and their legs are straight as they desperately reach for their toes. Not hot.)  
  • Neutral: this is when you sit up straight, the spine naturally stacked and lengthened on top of the hips. If you have a desk job, one of the major paschimottanasana benefits is improving your posture and preventing lower back pain.
  • Anterior pelvic tilt: this is when the spine tips forward of the pelvic, or when you stick your butt out behind you whilst creating a little bend in your lower back. If you are struggling to feel this tilt, stand up and stick your butt out. 

So, how do you make sure you are doing it in this pose? Spend some time exploring your range of movement in your pelvis either standing or in tabletop position. Once you have figured out what your anterior pelvic tilt is, feel for that same tipping sensation in the pose.

What if you can’t get that pelvic tilt?

The two best tricks for ensuring your pelvis is doing what it’s supposed to do are bending your knees or sitting on a block. Bending your knees whilst you are in anterior pelvic tilt does NOT make your hamstrings shorter it ACTUALLY STRETCHES them. Why? Because you are moving your pelvis and the back of your knees (where the hamstring muscles attach) away from each other, it’s like creating tension in a rubber band. Sitting up on the edge of a block or blankets means you can maneuver your pelvis into that tilt. The trick is to sit on the edge of the blocks, as if you are sliding off them, as this tips the pelvis forward.

Focus on the journey not the destination

You may think this pose is about straightening your legs and getting your nose onto your shins. It’s not. It’s about finding more space in the body, so don’t get hung up on how it looks, but focus on the feeling. Chances are if you can suddenly get your head onto your legs and it feels easy, you have lost the pelvic tilt.

Don’t forget about that west side…

A forward fold stretches the entire back of the body, not just the legs. Focus on keeping the spine long and chest open.

Seated Forward Fold Variations

Uttanasana, Pada Hastasana, and Padangusthasana

Yup, your standing forward bends. These poses are basically seated forward bends BUT stood up. They are also easier as you have gravity helping to guide you down and finding the anterior pelvic tilt comes more naturally when standing. If you have a lower back injury, skip the seated forward bend and focus on standing ones.

Hand Placement

As you get more familiar with the pose you can play around with where your place your hands: grabbing onto the shins, using a strap looped around the feet, hooking your peace fingers around the toes, holding the sides or tops of the feet, or even wrapping your wrists all the way around your feet. You can also just let your hands rest next to you on the ground. Where you are holding will change what your shoulders are doing, so make sure they stay soft down the back and not up by your ears.

seated forward fold

Partner Variation

You can also try this one out with a buddy! I included a partner forward fold in my guide to the best yoga poses for two people.

Sequencing Paschimottanasana

Your seated forward fold is much easier after the body is warmed up! I recommend doing some sun salutations, standing poses such as Trikonasana, and a standing forward fold, before starting off your seated poses with paschimottanasana. If you are interested in Ashtanga, paschimottanasana is the first seated forward bend of the primary series.

I hope you are enjoying these yoga asana guides, let me know what pose you want next!