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Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) - Issues and solutions

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Paschimottanasana Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Upper Back and Neck

            · Lumbar Spine

            · Hips and Hamstrings

            · Knees

            · Calf Muscles and Ankles

            Pregnancy




Upper Back and Neck

There is relatively little strain in the pose on either the neck or upper back if practised well. However, some upper back muscles have to work hard to maintain the elongation of the upper back. Two issues can make this quite hard: a habitual (even if slight) tendency to allow the upper back to curve forwards a bit too much (in normal everyday activities), or restrictions lower down in the spine, hips or leg muscles. For both sort of reasons, placing padding (height) under the hips is usually helpful – see section on lumbar spine and hips.

Many people find that there is a strong tendency to allow the thoracic spine to flex – a solution here is to think in terms of lifting the breastbone and imagining the shoulders broadening away from each other.

Some people tend to jut their chins forwards – a solution here is to draw the chin into the front of the neck or to imagine the top back of the neck being gently pulled away from the hips (or both). [The imagery of imaging trying to keep a grapefruit between chin and throat helps some.] This incidentally aids / encourages an elongation of the spine generally.

Lumbar Spine

Most people find there is some tendency to allow their spine to curve outwards in this pose. Problems with this include putting the lumbar spine into compressive flexion and also encouraging the upper back to curve outwards, tending to encourage thoracic kyphosis type problems. In this case, a solution is to tilt the pelvic girdle forwards. Putting padding under the buttocks so that the hips are raised a little or bending the knees (or both) will usually make it much easier to sit with the pelvis tilted forwards sufficiently. It can also help to put wedge-shaped padding under the buttocks with the slope facing forwards, as this will encourage the pelvis to be tilted forwards. Another thing that is helpful is lifting one buttock slightly and then using a hand to pull the flesh of the buttock backwards, lowering and then repeating on the other side before entering the pose.

The main approach to protecting the lumbar spine is to think more in terms of tilting the pelvic girdle forwards rather than leaning the trunk forwards (that is, the spine follows the forward movement of the top of the pelvic girdle). And the usual advice of not attempting to move further into the pose than one’s body is currently ready for. So, those with a vulnerable lumbar spine should not be aiming to go deep into the posture, but instead should focus on keeping the elongation and straightness of the spine, the openness of the chest and only tilt the pelvic girdle as far forwards as happens to feel comfortable.

Hips and Hamstrings

There are a lot of muscles in the hips that can restrict the ability to sit with the pelvis tilted forwards so that the hips are in full flexion. The most obvious of these are the hamstrings (see below), but there are many others, including tightness of gluteus muscles and some hip adductors/abductors/rotators. This need not cause problems as long as one acknowledges one’s current limitations and takes the hips as deep into flexion as is currently comfortable, whilst taking care to keep the spine elongated and close to straight.

For most people, the length of the hamstrings is limiting – and so practising with the knees bent usually allows for a great degree of hip flexion. Even simply sitting on a bit of padding and so having a slight degree of knee flexion can greatly ease how deep a degree of hip flexion one achieves.

Practising with legs wide vs. having them parallel can make quite a big difference – this is to do with the various hip adductor / abductors / rotators – and which is easiest varies from person to person, but usually legs wide is somewhat easier (suggestive of some hip abductors being tight).

Knees

For most people the knees are not vulnerable in this pose. However, those with hyper-mobile knees do have to take care not to hyper-extend the knees (in a way that tends to be damaging to the knees). For everyone, it is a good idea to think in terms of pressing the heels down rather than the back of the knees – as in addition to being much kinder to the knee joint (for everyone) this also encourages the spine to feel much more elongated and freer. Also, a good idea is thinking in terms of keeping a slight degree of knee flexion, whilst still thinking in terms of an elongation from the hip down the back of the leg to, and through, the heel. Imagining a space or softness at the back of the knee can help with this. Another (alternative approach) is to have the knees straight and then keep the knee-caps drawn firmly up towards the hips as this locks the knees into a safe position.

Calf Muscles and Ankles

In the full version of the pose the feet are pointing upwards – for some people tightness in the calf muscles limits achieving this sort of position, especially when the legs are straight. A solution is acceptance and simply dorsi-flexing the ankle to a degree that feels comfortable. It is perhaps worth mentioning that dorsi-flexing the feet tends to increase the stretch felt in the hamstrings – so attending to the feet position in this pose can feel a bit like putting the icing on a cake – a not fully necessary finishing touch.

Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that there is then  a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

This posture is relatively good during pregnancy – the circulation to and through the legs is fairly free if one does not flex the hips too much. However, it does need adapting - the most obvious change being the need to have the legs wide enough to allow space for the enlarging abdomen. Having a bean-bag, or pile of cushions to lean forwards to and rest one’s head and shoulders on can lead to one finding a nice position to relax in. Because ligaments become vulnerable (in preparation for allowing the baby’s exit) it is best not to think in terms of stretching into this posture but to look for a feeling of relaxation and have enough support (under head / shoulders / arms) that one can safely allow oneself (one’s trunk) to relax downwards.

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