देवमनुष्या दिशो व्यभजन्त प्राचीं देवा दक्षिणा पितरः प्रतीचीं मनुष्या उदीचीं रुद्रा [Tait. Samh. – 6.1.1]
Gods and men divided the directions. Gods took the east, pitaras took the south, men took the west and rudras took the north.
Paschimattanasana, or stretching the west pose, is one of the archetypal forward bending asanas. It is a symmetrical forward bend that, done properly, stretches the entire back line of the body. But why is the backline of the body considered to be the west? Traditionally practice was done facing to the east, and so the back of the body would have been west facing. Many religions advise prayer to be done facing east with a variety of myths, metaphors, or prophecies to explain why. This is why we place the altar in the north or east, and why we turn around during savasana. There are also traditional recommendations for what direction we should lie in while sleeping. A hypothesis about why this might be has to do with the earth’s geomagnetic field and human sensitivity to it. While it has been shown that birds and certain mammals are responsive to this field, it has yet to be proven in humans though research continues.
Paścimattānasana begins by flexing the feet to stretch the plantar fascia, strengthening the legs to stretch from the Achilles tendon to the hamstrings, engaging the lower abdomen and finding the best pelvic tilt to stretch the gluteus maximus and flexing the spine, and then lengthening towards the crown to stretch the upper back and neck.
It is quite tempting in this pose to be goal oriented about touching the head to the legs, or stretching the torso along the legs. However in our ambition we may lose sight of some of the common areas of congestion in the joint transitions from one body part to the next. As in any asana, when we lose sight of the underlying patterns and connections of the bodily tissues in an effort to reach a superficial goal, we sacrifice the gradual progress towards health in order to appease the thinking mind and ego. Guruji was fond of saying that in our asana practice there should be “no thinking.” I interpret this to mean that the rational thinking mind can interfere with, rather than aid healthy postural alignment. As we begin to learn more textbook knowledge about alignment, we can begin to impose on our posture rather than finding the most beneficial expression of the asana for our current state of being. It takes us away from our sense of ease in the pose as we tap into notions of what we think the asana is supposed to be like. Being such a long line of the body, we find any number of areas that could interrupt the gentle stretching of the back line or interrupt its symmetry causing congestion at different junctures. It is particularly common to find overstitching or contraction in the areas around and including the pelvis, the lumbar spine above and the hamstrings below, as well as around the neck and shoulders. The way that we utilize our legs, our pelvis, our ribcage, shoulder girdle, and neck will all have an effect on the outcome of our pose.
In my experience, a very common example of this is when students attempt to fulfill the instructions to both touch the head to the legs and to maintain the drishti at the toes. However, if we look at Pattabhi Jois’s description on p. 68 of Yoga Mala he states “There are three types of Paschimattanasana: 1) holding the big toes and touching the nose to the knees; 2) holding on to either side of the feet and touching the nose to the knees; and 3) locking the hands and wrist beyond the feet, and touching the chin to the knee. All three types should be practiced, as each is useful.” You’ll note that it is only really possible to maintain a big toe driśti in the third variation he describes. Photos of Pattabhi Jois and Sharath Jois bear this out, and yet many students selectively focus on Guruji’s listing of the big toe driśti to their own detriment and not the process-oriented approach that is suggested. It is important to work with a teacher to receive feedback and appropriately interpret the suitability of specific asana instructions for your ability.
In the absence of a teacher, it is important not to strain and to attend to the even flow of breath in the body. Pattabhi Jois also recommends “It is worth noting that, for this asana, one has to retract, or squeeze, and hold the anus tightly, as well as squeeze the lower abdomen and hold it in, and concentrate on the nadis related to the kanda, or egg-shaped nerve plexus in the anal region. As there is no place for the apana vayu [downward flowing prana, or energy], which circulates in the anus, to go, it moves upward and becomes one with prana vayu [upward moving prana]. When this occurs, an aspirant has nothing to fear from old age and death, as Svatmarama Yogendra, the author of Gheranda Samhita, and the sage Vamana both inform us from their own experience.” The quality and direction of prana is inferred from the breath. And so the ideal posture is intended to elicit the movement of the breath to access specific areas of the body for therapeutic benefit. Below are two translations of Paścimatānāsana’s benefit from Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
HYP 1.31 This Paścimatāna carries the air from the front to the back part of the body (i.e., to Sussumnā). It kindles gastric fire, reduces obesity and cures all diseases of men.
Translation from Pancham Sinh
Principle among asanas, Paschimattanasana causes vital energy to be carried up the spine. As well, it should lead to the rising of digestive fire, slenderness in the abdomen, and freedom from sickness for all. HYP 1.29 translation from Yoga Mala
This movement of breath from the front to the back of the body and then up the spine is, in my experience best practiced in that order. Finding flexion in the spine is healthy and necessary barring contraindications due to injury or degeneration in the lumbar spine. In this case, modification may be necessary. Otherwise, it is best to round the spine and bring the head to the knees or shins first, before then lengthening the torso along the legs. Eventually the torso will lay against the legs and the abdomen will continue to draw away from the thighs. If however, one extends the spine too far, it will interfere with the contraction of the abdomen and cause tightening of the muscles on the back of the torso. One will then notice increased difficulty in keeping the abdomen drawn in as the breath movement is unable to access the back body.
This pose is one of the beautiful fundamental poses, or as Pattabhi Jois notes it is “principal among asanas.” It is one of the poses that we have a textual record for, dating back to the medieval hatha yoga texts and so is considered classical. Once one appreciates its full benefit, it is clear to see why it should be given a lot of emphasis and care so that one can enjoy it with grace and ease.