Paschimottanasana translates as "intense stretch to the West," an intriguing name for a sitting forward bend. In this pose, the legs are outstretched and the upper body bends toward the lower. That this is an intense stretch is especially obvious when you first try it. But why "to the West"?
To explore the symbolic meaning of Paschimottanasana as the "intense stretch to the West," I practice the pose while facing in that direction. What is the West? The image that arises in my mind is of sunset, the day's end. In Western mythology, sunset is a magical time of transition, a liminal time between worlds, the movement from the bright daylight world of the conscious mind to the dusky dream world of the unconscious. In India, sanyasins wear ochre robes to remind them that they have died to the dazzling attractions of the world the brilliant orange colour symbolizing the sun setting on desires. From this perspective, West points to a time of turning within, of renouncing, of small deaths leading to a deeper wisdom.
Paschimottanasana is a challenging position for me, or maybe I should say, for my ego. Tight hamstrings slow me down and offer the opportunity like it or not to learn more about preparation and patience. I can't simply will my way forward. If I push, I go nowhere. I have to renounce instant results and go slowly softening, breathing and relaxing as I extend. One of my biggest challenges, not just in the pose, but in my life is this practise of patience.
Paschimottanasana is a powerful teacher. As I come forward, it takes a certain amount of mental control to simply stay with the discomfort of the process. Sometimes the impatient part of me wants to pop out and escape, or skip the steps and the time it takes to make progress. Paschimottanasana reveals my limitations and offers an exceptional opportunity to practise humility a quality that is easier to talk about than to experience. A proud, competitive aspect expresses its dissatisfaction with where I am and wants me "to get there," to reach the final goal and be perfect. Only then can I relax!
My strategy is to gently encourage myself and lend support to the part of me that wants to move forward and evolve. I'm reaching forward and something holds me back. What is that something? How do I work?
The more flexible I am, the more I move forward in the pose, and yet the more restricted my vision becomes. Folding over onto myself, the external world disappears. When I relax, the process becomes a prostration, an intentional surrendering.
I catch the spirit of the pose and it has nothing to do with how far forward I've come or how I may look to an outside eye or an inside critic. It is a feeling of warmth and expansion within, a softening and receptivity, an allowing of what is already there to be given space and honoured. Physically, the upper body is moving in the direction of union with the lower, a union within myself.
The promise of the asana seems to me to be wholeness, not in the sense of accomplishing an end goal, but in the acceptance of both sides of myself the one that struggles and the one that knows. As a Western woman and a sanyasin, I am intricately involved in this stretching from East to West and West to East.
For me, yoga is not a discipline for its own sake, but a way of learning how to live my life with awareness. Slowly, I am developing patience. Slowly, I am seeing pride and competition for what they are. Slowly, I am allowing the renunciation sunset to warm and penetrate my being. I'm in good company: Yoga itself is actively stretching from its origins in India to its new incarnation in the West. Happily, I am part of it.
how to do paschimottanasana:
the forward bend
The more warmed up you are, the more ease you'll feel in the pose.
- One of my favourite warm-ups is to lie with my legs up the wall. An excellent, gentle release for the hamstrings and a wonderful way to encourage an overall feeling of relaxation. Take your time and let the softness happen.
- For a good hamstring stretch, lie down on your back and bring one knee into the chest, keeping the other leg extended on the floor. Tuck your hands behind your knee or thigh, lifting your foot up toward the ceiling while holding your thigh down toward your chest. Breathe! Repeat with the other leg.
- For a forward bend that is less intense than Paschimottanasana, draw one foot to the inside of the opposite thigh, stretch the other leg out at an angle. Reach up and extend forward over the outstretched leg. Repeat on the other side.
questions for reflection
- Sit up with your legs stretched out in front of you.
- Lift your arms above your head and give yourself a good long stretch. Begin moving forward by extending your arms forward, bending from the hips and keeping your legs straight. Alternately, bring your arms down and walk your fingers along your legs, gradually bending forward.
- Soften, breathe, relax. If you have limited movement, go as far as you can with straight legs, then bend your knees and allow your upper body to rest on your thighs.
- Warm up your mind by asking, "What does the West mean to me?"
- What does it mean to stretch intensely to the West?
- What do I need to surrender or renounce?
- What holds me back? What helps me release?