Parsvottanasana: Intense Side-Stretch Pose

In Parsvottanasana, the pelvis rotates to face the front leg. I place this pose after Ardha Chandrasana to create continuity in the sequence. Later in the practice we rotate the pelvis further, so that this type of pose fits naturally in a sequence that moves from the pelvis facing forward, to turning to face the front leg, to rotating into a twisting pose such as Parivrtta Trikonasana. Turning the pelvis changes the orientation of the muscle fibers in the back-leg gluteals and front-leg hip flexors, activating the muscle from every direction. This illustrates how designing your yoga practice to have continuity yet change awakens muscle groups efficiently, making the whole of the practice greater than the sum of its parts.

The focal point of the stretch in Parsvottanasana is the front-leg hamstrings. Remember to firmly engage the quadriceps and hip flexors to stimulate reciprocal inhibition of the hamstrings; observe how engaging these muscles changes the sensation of the stretch. A subplot of this pose is the stretch of the back-leg hamstrings and gastrocnemius. The position of the pelvis, back hip, and back foot create a unique opportunity to stretch these muscles. Augment this stretch by attempting to drag the back foot away from the front foot on the mat, opening the back of the knee.

The classical version of Parsvottanasana has the hands in prayer position (namasté) on the back. This is one example of the ancient yogis devising a way to stretch some of the more hidden and difficult-to-access muscles—the external rotators of the shoulders, including the infraspinatus and teres minor, as well as elements of the deltoids and other muscles. Be careful not to put undue pressure on the extended wrists in this pose.

Basic Joint Positions

  • The back foot rotates inward 30 degrees and supinates.
  • The front foot rotates out 90 degrees.
  • The trunk flexes.
  • The front hip flexes and externally rotates.
  • The back hip internally rotates.
  • The knees extend.
  • The shoulders internally rotate.
  • The wrists extend.
  • The cervical spine flexes slightly.

Parsvottanasana Preparation

Begin by positioning the hands in reverse namasté while standing in Tadasana or with the feet apart. Do not force your hands into this position, as you can injure your wrists (do not let anyone else force your hands into this position either). Roll the shoulders forward to release the external rotators. Take advantage of this release and move your hands higher up the back; then roll your shoulders back again. If you are unable to comfortably place the hands in reverse namasté, then hold the elbows, forearms, or wrists. Internally rotate the back foot about 30 degrees, with the front foot turned out 90 degrees. Lift the chest with a deep inhalation. Bend the front-leg knee to release the hamstrings, allowing you to bring the torso into contact with or close to the front thigh. Squeeze the torso against the thigh to activate the hip and trunk flexors; maintain this position of the trunk, and contract the quadriceps to straighten the knee. If you feel strain at the back of the leg, lift the torso off the thigh. Carefully come out of the pose by maintaining the front femur in alignment with the lower leg. Bend the front knee, and push yourself up by straightening the leg. Use the extensor muscles of the back to lift the chest.

Muscles

  1. Use the hip and trunk flexors to draw the torso over the thigh. The main hip flexor, the psoas, tilts the pelvis forward, lifting the ischial tuberosity (the origin of the hamstrings) up and back. This stretches the front-leg hamstrings. Note that one of the heads of the quadriceps, the rectus femoris muscle, crosses the hip joint. When you engage the quadriceps to straighten the knee, this muscle synergizes the psoas in flexing the hip. Engage the abdominals, including the rectus abdominis, to flex the trunk forward.

  2. Contract the quadriceps to straighten the knee and stretch the hamstrings. Feel how the hamstrings become taut. This is because stretching a muscle causes it to contract—an unconscious reflex that aids to protect the muscle from tearing. You can safely overcome this reflex by engaging the antagonist muscle group, in this case the quadriceps. This creates an alternative reflex known as reciprocal inhibition that signals the muscle to relax into the stretch.

There is a tendency to shift the weight onto the outside of the front foot in this pose, inverting the ankle. Counteract this by engaging the peroneus longus and brevis muscles on the outside of the leg to evert the ankle and press the ball of the foot into the mat.

  1. Look at the subplot in the back leg. The back knee is straight with the ankle turning in and dorsiflexing. Engage the quadriceps to straighten the knee, the tibialis anterior to dorsiflex the ankle, and the tibialis posterior to invert the foot. This creates reciprocal inhibition of the hamstrings and gastrocnemius/soleus complex, allowing them to relax into the stretch. Augment this stretch by attempting to drag the back foot away from the front. This cue stimulates the back-leg gluteals and adductor magnus to contract. The force of the contraction is transmitted to the back of the knee, further stretching the hamstrings and gastrocnemius/soleus complex.

  2. Observe the muscles used to bring the hands into namasté position on the back. The biomechanics of this position stretch the external rotators of the shoulders. Accentuate this stretch by contracting the lower pectoralis major; the cue for this is to roll the shoulders forward, engaging the muscle at the front of the chest. The anterior deltoids, the muscles that lift the arms overhead, also internally rotate the shoulders. Visualize activating these muscles to accentuate this internal rotation. Similarly, visualize the subscapularis muscles on the insides of the shoulder blades contracting to rotate the shoulders inward. Bend the elbows to engage the biceps, synergizing the subscapularis. Train yourself to engage these muscles even when the arms are behind the back. Activate the rectus abdominis to flex the trunk. Feel how this action increases the stretch of the shoulders.

Summary

This image gives a rear view of the muscles that stretch when the upper extremities are in reverse namasté. These include the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles of the rotator cuff and the wrist flexors. Although the front-leg hamstrings and gluteals are the main focus of the pose, you can accentuate the stretch of the back-leg hamstrings and gastrocnemius/soleus complex as described.

Disclaimer Always, in your particular case, consult your health care provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. Yoga must always be practiced under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor may reduce the risk of injuries. Not all yoga poses are suitable for all persons. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor, in addition to the direction of your health care provider, can also help determine what poses are suitable for your particular case. The information provided in the blog, website, books, and other materials is strictly for reference only and is not in any manner a substitute for medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. The author, illustrators, editors, publishers, and distributors assume no responsibility or liability for any injuries or losses that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program. The author, editors, illustrators, publishers, and distributors all make no representations or warranties with regards to the completeness or accuracy of information on this website, any linked websites, books, DVDs, or other products represented herein.

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