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Yoga Pose: Prasarita Padottanasana

April 30, 2010
In our modern world, we are well trained to operate in two modes: breathlessly supercharged and flat-out exhausted. Most of us are experts at speeding through life at a caffeinated clip, our days stuffed to the brim with non-stop activity. When this ambitious pace overwhelms us, we fall headlong to the opposite extreme. We drop into dull and depleted couch-potato mode, with our inner batteries stuck on empty.

But yoga teaches us there is a third way to live: a state of balance that allows us to feel simultaneously energized and relaxed, traveling at a speed happily between overcharged and empty. Ancient yogis called this energy sattva, and they offered it as a key to both radiant health and spiritual illumination. In a sattvic state we feel alert yet at ease, luminous yet serene, uplifted yet grounded. This balanced wellbeing is contrasted in yoga philosophy with the fiery, overcharged energy of rajas and the dull, depleted energy of tamas.

Prasarita padottanasana, wide-legged standing forward bend, offers an excellent opportunity to explore the harmonious and clear-headed energy of sattva. In this pose we are offered a firm feeling of earthiness in our lower body, while the mind grows spacious and tranquil. Our legs are challenged to be strong, steady and well rooted, while our heart and head are soothed, calmed and rinsed clean. It’s no surprise that this asana is often offered as a balm for frayed and anxious nerves.

Let’s explore the roots of prasarita padottanasana first. Stand with your feet parallel and your legs wide enough apart so that when you stretch your arms out to the sides at shoulder height, your ankles are beneath your wrists. Root your feet into the earth to make deep footprints in the floor, and let this grounding action rebound up through your inner body to straighten the legs and brighten the spine. Gently hug the leg muscles into the bones so your lower body feels firm and energized.

Readjust your legs until the footprints of your pose are even and balanced. Are you collapsing into your inner arches? If so, send a surge of energy from the hips along the outside seams of the legs toward the floor, buttoning down your outer feet and buoying up the inner arches. Are your footprints deeper at the toes than the heels? Draw your thighs back in line with the ankles so the deepest part of the footprint falls where the front heels meet the earth. At the same time, keep the back body easy and neutral, with your tail releasing comfortably toward the floor.

Before folding forward, let's explore one of my favorite gestures for the upper body, a movement my friend Marcia calls "hallelujah-asana." Imagine your deepest wish had just been granted, and then sweep your arms upward toward the heavens in elation and thanksgiving. The arms will be wider apart than shoulder distance in a gentle "v" shape, with the elbows slightly bent and the palms facing one another.

If you've truly got the hallelujah feeling, your heart and eyes will spontaneously reach skyward along with your arms, and your entire torso will feel full and delighted. Notice how in this position your chest feels expansive, your heart feels uplifted and your front spine feels long. Maintain this hallelujah feeling while bringing your arms back down to rest comfortably on your hips. Pause for a moment and let the memory of this gesture settle into your bones. We'll want to maintain this same length and expansiveness even when we fold forward.

When you're ready to move on, recommit your legs to strength and rootedness. Inhale as you stretch your chest up toward the ceiling and then exhale as you fold forward from the hips, letting your tail tilt upward behind you as your heart sails happily forward. Take care to fold at the hips and not the waist, forming a deep and even crease at the very tops of the thighs. Remembering hallelujah-asana may help here: Look for a long and unwrinkled feeling in the front body even as you melt forward at the hips.

If you can comfortably reach your hands to the floor without disturbing the long and neutral alignment of your spine, place both hands onto the ground directly beneath your shoulders, with your fingers facing forward. If the ground is too far away, place two blocks or a chair on the floor in front of you and rest your hands there. Root down through the hands and enjoy the subtle lift this offers the heart. Breathe comfortably and quietly. Keep the back of your neck long so that your eyes, chest and belly all look in the same direction.

In forward bends like prasarita padottanasana, it's likely that your ego will be eager to reach for the floor even if you're forced to sacrifice ease, alignment and integrity in the process. But remember, we're searching for the balanced state of sattva, and it’s highly unlikely you’re going to find it if you pull a hamstring or strain your spine. So temper your enthusiasm with wisdom, pausing when you know your body has reached its comfortable limit.

Once your hands are supported on the floor, blocks or chair, return your attention to your legs. Draw your inner thighs back so your hips are over your heels. Imagine spreading your sitting bones apart, and let the base of the pelvis bloom evenly in all directions into the space behind you. At the same time, let the crown of your head shine forward until your spine feels long and bright. Trace an inner energetic line from your top to your tail, and invite the spine to float peacefully upon it. Imagine that even now the spine is lengthening forward in a mini-hallelujah.

Deepen your footprints into the earth, gently pressing into the ground and letting that vitality rebound up through your strong and steady legs, so that your pelvis feels light and buoyant. Now do the same with your arms. Root your hands into the earth and invite that action to rebound through you, offering a sense of spaciousness to the upper body.

Linger here a few moments to let the benefits of the pose seep into your core. Continue to reach actively through the legs while letting all effort drain from your brain. Ask yourself where in your body you still feel tough or knotted. Make any subtle adjustments that help dissolve these knots and deepen your sense of extension.

Breathe comfortably and let your gaze be soft and tender. Notice how the belly moves to the tune of the breath, and how the inhalations and exhalations send little ripples through your spine. Invite the tough spaces within to melt away and a cool-headed breeze to waft through you. This is the place of magic where the effort of the pose falls away and quiet attentiveness is left behind.

When you’ve marinated long enough in prasarita padottanasana, reverse your movements to move out of the pose. Place your hands on your hips, and then root strongly through your feet as your tail swoops toward the ground and your heart wafts upward to bring you to standing. Extend your arms overhead for one last hallelujah, release your arms and step your feet back toward one another into mountain pose.

Stand here quietly for just a few breaths to absorb the afterimage of prasarita padottanasana. Do you feel taller, perhaps, than a few moments ago? Do your legs feel more stable and rooted? Does your upper body feel more buoyant and clear-headed? Enjoy this delightful state of balance that allows you to stand with your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds - steady, luminous, happy and free.

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (March 2003)