Parsvottanasana is also known as Intense Side stretch, because as Mr. Iyengar says, the name “implies a pose in which the side of the chest is stretched intensely.” Now let’s be honest. Most people don’t feel this stretch in the side of their chests, they feel it intensely in the backs of their legs. And the tendency is not to feel solid and balanced in this pose, which would cause a lack of strength and stability. So how can we use the inconsistencies or “mis” alignments of Parsvottanasana to bring clarity and direct us toward the path of strength and stability? Well, it doesn’t begin with our hamstrings or even with the placement of our feet, but with our approach to the practice instead.
The way we approach our Parsvottanasana is very telling of how we approach our practice as a whole and maybe our lives as well (as is usually the case). If we find that balance is a challenge in this pose, then perhaps we notice a weak foundation in many of our asanas, and a general feeling of ungroundedness in our lives. Maybe we forgo the balance to strive for the deep forward fold, sacrificing all of the support that we can create for ourselves, and then at the completion of the pose, or the practice, or the life situation, we feel spent. Empty of any real benefit, and maybe a little bit pulled apart at the seams. When we practice Parsvottanasana in the most aware way, we find that it is incredibly balancing and stabilizing and offers us the potential to expand and grow into our chests in a way that supports breaking through self imposed boundaries and limitations
To find the deep strength, stability and expansion that can be accessible in this pose, it is helpful to understand the basic anatomical structure. Parsvottanasana is a standing asymmetrical forward fold. It involves mild spinal flexion at upper thoracic, but this spinal flexion is often experienced as a misalignment of more severe spinal flexion especially around the lumbar spine. With deep hip flexion in front leg, and knee extension in both legs, there is a tendency to hyperextend the knee joints and grip in the hip flexors (from side to side). The pelvic floor (mula bandha) is powerfully engaged to support the base/foundation of the pyramid. Quads, adductors, calves and feet all work continuously to maintain balance and stability. In the front leg, the hamstring and glute stretch is intense, while the soleus and gastrocnemius (calf muscles) of the back leg are lengthening. The spinal erectors are also lengthening proportionate to the depth of the fold. Though the back toes angle out slightly, the intention of the muscle action is toward internal rotation to balance and stabilize the pelvis. If we place the hands in the more intermediate/advanced position of reverse prayer pose, then we create downward rotation and abduction leading toward adduction of the scapulae. As well as deep dorsiflexion in the wrists and forearm pronation. The pectoralis major works in conjuction with the subscapularis and teres major to internally rotate the humerus. All culminating in a profound opening and stretch of the chest.
As with any deep work, the process takes time and patience, and we simply can’t bypass the importance of creating a strong foundation in order to reach the expansive feeling at the heart of this pose (intense side stretch). To build Parsvottansana from a place of strength and stability allows us the solid base that we need in order to grow and expand into new and sometimes frightening places. The practice of asana is training for the deeper and more intense work of Yoga, to dive deep into the places that we’ve guarded or hidden from ourselves in hopes of finding freedom. When we move from perfecting our pose and toward allowing the asana to unfold, we find strength and stability bubbles up from someplace deep inside. We are set free from the pattern of superficial strain and outward performance. In making that shift, the effort of the pose is greatly decreased and the elegant grace at its essence is attained. Alignment becomes more intuitive and accessible. We trade our exertion for elegance. We shift from accomplishing a pose to embodying an intention, and the experience becomes more fulfilling.
Ultimately the practice of Parsvottanasana leads us in the direction of this elegance. It guides us to stability, strength and balance so that we may expand to our fullest potential. Eventually, we are no longer distracted by our hamstrings, or discouraged by the alignment of our pelvis, and we are able to stretch deep into our chest and upper body and open the places that we so quickly and easily close to the world and to ourselves. In finding that space, we move from our mat and into our lives with the sense of ease and grace. We dance with life rather than wrestle with it.