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Paschimottanasana
Seat Borward Bend Pose


Bolstering Your Practice
Please appreciate that I am describing a lengthy process! The changes I just outlined may take years. You will most likely encounter many boundaries where your resistance temporarily slows you down.

Supporting your torso on a blanket roll or bolster is one way to ease yourself through those obstacles. The key to using a bolster well is to position it so you can fully release your weight into it. Where you position your bolster depends on how deep your existing forward bend already is. If you are only a few inches from your legs, place a blanket roll or bolster under your forehead. If you can't get so close to your legs, place the bolster under your chest or abdomen, and let your body fall into its support.

Here again, the mind can intrude, resisting the surrender that is required to fully benefit from bolster work. Explore the mental patterns you're bringing to the asana-an urge to push or a tendency to give up and space out-and redirect your attention to the sensations of letting go. As you deepen your pose by doing less, you may recognize how emotions stored in the body can mimic physical inflexibility-and your pose will most likely begin to move.

Here is another technique to help free your spine. Still resting on the bolster, cup the back of your head in your hands. Drop your elbows toward the floor and let your upper back spread. Then keep your shoulder blades wide as you exhale and raise your elbows, stretching them away from your sides. Press the back of your head into your hands as you open your chest and lengthen your torso forward (Figure 4). Expand this motion for several breaths and then release your elbows, chest, and head down again. You may find your forward bend to be both deeper and more extended. If you are supple enough to lay your whole torso on your legs, remove the bolster (Figure 5); otherwise, keep it in place.

As your pose grows quieter, supported by either a bolster or your legs, stay in touch with the form of the pose by sending delicate physical reminders to yourself whenever you feel the discomfort of misalignment disturbing your inner focus. Gently root your tailbone to earth. This action is not a tuck, since that movement will restrict the free rotation of your pelvis. Rooting your tailbone is really little more than keeping an awareness of your base and maintaining the idea that your tailbone is heavy. Keep your feet and legs active, as you have already practiced. Continue to deepen the sensation that your torso is at rest on your legs or the bolster, allowing your belly to feel liquid and cool. Let distractions diminish until they blur into the background and you find yourself immersed in the inner terrain of the pose.

Sustaining this inner focus is a challenge similar to what you might face in any style of meditation. The pose itself is a source of both inspiration and struggle as you dance between effort and surrender, between attention and distraction. As you become more successful at overcoming your physical impediments, the influence of your mind becomes more and more obvious. For example, you may be surprised by your resistance to prolonging the pose, particularly if you are quite flexible but not accustomed to long holds. Or maybe you're a "technician," fussing with your pose too much, unable to relinquish control and just be present. Are you at the mercy of nervous energy, itching to get on the move and into the next pose? At this point, whatever your tendencies, the mental challenges you encounter are the most likely threats to deepening your practice. Pride, expectation, and a host of other emotions will pass across the screen of your attention-a veritable analyst's couch of behavior for your consideration. And you thought this was just a hamstring stretch!

Inevitably, as you deepen your pose you'll encounter struggles that create agitation and sabotage a balanced, sattvic experience. Is laziness (tamas) trying to talk you out of persevering? Conversely, are you determined to stay no matter what even though your whole being is begging for relief? Look to the inner rhythm of your breath for guidance. It can help you know whether the urge to stop arises from truth or your same old propaganda; it can help you find a second wind that calms your agitation and refocuses your mind; it can help you recognize when staying in the pose is overly rajasic and punitive. If you can recognize the balancing act of asana as the dance it is, you can benefit from each insight that accompanies the process. With time and practice, Paschimottanasana can deepen into a prolonged, body-oriented meditation.

Erich Fromm, the 20th century social philosopher, observed that we are made anxious by freedom and that many of us prefer restriction to facing ambiguity. We encounter just such a challenge in Paschimottanasana. We want to find a formula that controls the process and guarantees success. Instead we are forced to deal with our attachments and habits, amending them or letting them go. By being consciously attentive to the ebb and flow of thoughts and sensations, you begin to understand that the mind can, and does, constantly influence your yoga. And you learn that the asana itself is not only a vehicle for physical restoration and wellbeing, but also an effective tool for developing the psychological hardiness that grows from self-reflection.

Barbara Benagh has been practicing yoga since 1974. She is grateful to her first teacher, Elizabeth Keeble of Birmingham, England, for igniting her passion for yoga. Barbara teaches seminars throughout the United States and has a particular fondness for her school, The Yoga Studio, in Boston, and for the devoted students there.

Paschimottanasana
Seat Borward Bend Pose

» Demonstrations

» Different Strokes

» Prepare the Ground

» A Delicate Balance

» Bolstering Your Practice

Benefits
• Tones abdominal organs and kidneys
• Stretches legs and spine
• Calms the nerves
• Quiets the mind

Contraindications
• Lumber disc injuries
• Sacrolliac strain
• Acute depression
• If pregnant, position legs wider apart

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© 2001 Barbara Benagh
Reprinted from Yoga Journal