Exploring parsvottanasana or intense side-stretching pose
In this article, I’ll wrap up my series on the fundamental standing postures in the Ashtanga vinyasa practice. Parsvottanasana is the last pose in a sequence of postures that begins the Ashtanga vinyasa style practice. All of the postures in that sequence are also foundational postures in many other styles of practice. So, it’s worth taking a closer look at the intentions of these postures and exploring techniques for evolving them in your own practice. The postures that I covered in previous articles include: standing forward bend, triangle, revolved triangle, side angle, revolved side angle, and wide-legged forward bend.
Parsvottanasana might appear simple, but there is actually a lot going on in this pose! Parsvottanasana is closely related to revolved triangle pose, which we’ve already seen.
The foot foundation, legs, and pelvis are all set up in the same way as revolved triangle. That is, we set up the feet and legs in a way that allows us to have our pelvis more or less square with the front or back of our mat. The back leg externally rotates and this is what puts the foot at its more or less forty-five degree angle. Similar to revolved triangle, we place the majority of our body weight onto the front leg. The hamstrings on both legs eccentrically contract to slow our momentum as we fold forward and then lengthen as we relax into the forward bend aspect of the pose.
One of the unique aspects of this posture is what’s going on with the upper body and shoulder girdle. We are internally rotating the humerus (upper arm bone) at both shoulders to bring the arms around behind the back, ultimately intending to bring the hands together in a “reverse prayer” position. Muscles of the rotator cuff are involved in this action. Subscapularis is contracting to create internal rotation of the upper arm. Infraspinatus and teres minor are external rotators of the humerus, so they are being lengthened in this action.
The scapulae get involved when we hit the end of range of motion of the humerus doing its internal rotation. The scapula typically tilts in a way that we often refer to as winging of the scapula. In this situation, it’s not a problem because we’re not weight-bearing and in need of stability through the shoulder girdle.
Primary patterns and intentions
Developing the foot foundation
As with the other fundamental standing postures we’ve looked at, the foundation for parsvottanasana is the feet. How we place the feet impacts how stable the pelvis and torso feel above them. How we establish our foundation on the ground affects how much length we are able to create. Connecting with our feet in this posture is our grounding, or mula, element.
Working around the pelvis
As with triangle, revolved triangle, side angle, and revolved side angle, this posture contributes to the openness of the muscles around the hip joints, which allows the pelvis to move more freely. Whether we are looking for deeper ranges of motion for future yoga postures, or we are simply looking for a greater access to functional movement in daily life, movement at the pelvis is key. The pelvis sits at the center of our body and joins our upper and lower halves. So, more freedom of movement around the pelvis gives us access to more movement both below and above it.
Folding forward without our hands gives us a chance to work on aspects of balance. When our hands are tucked behind us, we have to use our sense of proprioception — our internal feeling of where we are in space — to fold forward and stay balanced.
Working the shoulder girdle in a new way
This pose is asking for a deeper range of motion in the shoulder girdle than we have seen in the fundamental standing poses so far. The action of internally rotating the upper arm to reach behind the back comes up in many other yoga postures. We see this same action often in twisting postures when we reach an arm around to “bind” to the other hand or a foot.
As with the other fundamental standing postures that we’ve covered, I’ll include an older traditional perspective of what this asana might be contributing, physiologically, in the body. Very little has been studied, from the perspective of modern Western medicine, when it comes to the physiological effects of yoga asana. So, while it’s worth considering the traditional perspectives, it’s hard to say at this point how accurate they are from the point of view of Western medicine.
“This asana reduces excess fat on the waist and legs and strengthens and tones the muscles of the legs. It helps to clear mucous blocking the respiratory tract.”
– Pattabhi Jois in Lino Miele’s Astanga Yoga book
Techniques and restrictions
First, the foot foundation
The feet are what you’re standing on here, so it makes sense to me to build the posture from that base. Where we place the feet impacts how we place the pelvis above them. And then further up the chain, it affects how we move the spine. As with revolved triangle pose, it’s not uncommon for students to have heard the cue to line up the heel of the front foot with either the heel or instep of the back foot.
For some students, the narrow base that is created by arbitrarily applying either of those cues results in an unstable, wobbly posture. Where and how you set up the feet is directly related to how flexible the hips themselves already are or are not. The tighter the hips are, the wider (side to side) the stance should typically be. The more open the hips are, the more narrow the alignment can be.
Establish an appropriate base
How we set up the base of parsvottanasana relates to each individual’s own proprioception and ability to balance. If the hips are on the tighter side, then taking the feet a little bit wider apart can allow greater stability in the pose. Ultimately it might allow the student to put more attention on creating length through the spine because they aren’t putting all their attention on not falling over. We want to challenge balance but also have enough stability to work with the pelvis and spine above.
Getting the hands behind the back
One part of this posture that students often struggle with is getting their hands behind the back in the reverse prayer position. Remember, the hands, wrists, elbows, shoulder joints, scapulae, and clavicles are all connected. Any restriction in any part of this chain affects where and how the hands appear at the end of the chain.
The shoulder piece
If we look at how this chain functions, we see from the top of the chain that the scapula protracts and makes room for the shoulder joint itself to internally rotate. As we said, the internal rotators are subscapularis as well as the larger pectoralis major and latissimus muscles. But, it’s often not strength of the internal rotators that restricts range of motion. It’s the opposing muscles. In this case, internal rotation is restricted by the external rotators of the shoulder joint. The external rotators are two of the rotator cuff muscles, infraspinatus and teres minor. In addition, the posterior section of the deltoids externally rotates the shoulder joint.
As we move down the chain to the elbow, you could hit restrictions in the rotation you need to pronate the forearm. That means essentially, putting the forearm in a position that has the palm facing down. As we continue our way down the chain to the wrist, we can also run into many issues. Basically, we need to hyperextend the wrist. That is made more difficult by the pronation of the forearm you need in order to take your hands behind your back.
So, as I’ve just shared, there are multiple reasons why bringing the hands into reverse prayer position might be a challenge, but the first place I would look to is the shoulders. Start the movement from the shoulders, then continue the action with movement at the elbow to move the forearm. Finish with movement at the wrist last.
Putting the arm chain into motion
If the shoulders are tight, or motion is restricted in a way that doesn’t allow us to position the hands well behind the back, then trying to force the reverse prayer position is likely to cause wrist pain. If the hands don’t meet yet, work with a modification. I often suggest having the hands flat on top of one another with the palms facing away from one another. This reduces the amount of pronation required in the forearm and typically allows students to work the other aspects of the posture, especially the shoulder rotation itself. You can also bring just fingertips together and work there for a while. Give yourself time for the shoulders and muscles of the forearms to open and allow the wrists to move into the “right” place.
It’s also possible for the shoulders to allow the hands to go in the “right” place, but to still experience wrist pain. We often spend a lot of time at a keyboard typing these days. This action can overwork the wrist flexor muscles and the extensors may be tight from resisting this action. Go gently into the position of fully extending the wrists and don’t force it if it doesn’t go.
Should the back be flat in parsvottanasana?
I often get asked the question in this posture: Should the back be completely flat when we fold forward in parsvottanasana? The short answer is not necessarily, no. The intention is length in the spine, not flatness of the back per se. The spine has natural curves, so some amount of rounding of the back is part of its structure. We also need to consider the hamstrings. Similar to other forward bends, the pelvis and spine will be affected by the flexibility of the hamstrings. The tighter they are, the more likely the spine will round. The more flexible, the flatter the back will appear. Start the forward fold from the hip joints, then continue the forward fold with the intention of length in the spine, and let the back be however it is.