In Yoga Pretzels, a resource for teaching yoga to children, Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) is referred to as River. “I am long and fluid… I breathe and flow… I am a water current… I am a deep river”–each phrase is said while guiding students through the steps of the pose.
Of the many poetic and useful yoga cards in the collection, this one stopped me cold. River? I don’t feel particularly fluid or flowing in this pose even when I am truly folded in half (!), but I reserved judgment and tested it on my young students. Turns out they didn’t feel the ripple either, though there were ripples of laughter as a few of them looked over at a boy who couldn’t reach his hands below his knees. (He laughed, too.)
This is a challenging posture for many, and it is one in particular where the breath must be explored in a deeper, more personally meaningful way. Many teachers, including myself, “hold” adults in the pose for a couple of minutes when offered at the end of class. Why? It takes time to explore the self, and Paschi is a pose of self-exploration. It takes time to deepen, to lengthen— for your top, thinking, feeling… expressive half to move into a quieter, more internal mode.
Anatomically speaking, when we turn our gaze inward in this shape, the hips and pelvis as fulcrum become more apparent as flexion increases. If there is tension in the shoulders, pelvic region, or hamstrings (or stress in the lower back), it will be challenging, if not painful, to move forward. Contracting the quads will allow the hamstrings to relax (the concept of reciprocal inhibition), allowing for greater ease as you move forward and down. Consciously relaxing the glutes also affords an expansion and release through pelvis, allowing for more ground, more fluidity, and more length.
It’s a matter of only using the movement necessary, in other words, not “over-efforting,” which is a temptation as we reach for our feet. Think of it like psychotherapy, where an issue is explored over time, and often the same territory is reviewed again and again, as one moves toward self-acceptance. It’s about creating enough movement and stillness (Ah, like a river!) in this shape that guides you into darkness, where your breath can be a soft light in your metaphysical body—a place of rooms, each breath opening a door. Use the shadowy darkness to feel and see the quiet part of yourself.
When we do this together—everyone turning in, breathing, lengthening—we create a holy space for inner dwelling, where we become faceless, hidden. Discreet Pose, I sometimes think while breathing in Paschi.
Swami Sivananda Radha in her book Hatha Yoga, The Hidden Language, invites us to ask ourselves What is holding me back? What do I need to surrender or renounce? in the pose. Profound questions. Ones that need not be finalized in 10 or 15 breaths, but ones you can acknowledge as you feel yourself stretch.
“Intense Stretch of the West” is the literal Sanskrit definition. The West, referring to the back of the body, as the ancient yogis faced the sunrise as they practiced. This image evokes so much: a spiritual as well as physical awareness of the spine, the column that connects inner and outer strength… the gradually lightening day, gaze… backbone along the sky.
River of rooms. Sky. Breath. Pachimottanasana.
Kathleen Kraft is a poet and yoga teacher. She was born and raised in New York City and made the move across the Hudson several years ago to Jersey City. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, and her chapbook Fairview Road is forthcoming in December from Finishing Line Press. This is the fourth in her series exploring her favorite poses. To read the first, click here; the second, click here; and the third, click here.