To summarize: Inhale deeply in the starting position (stage 1). Exhale as you bend forwards (stage 2). Inhale as you hold your position (stage 3 or 4). Exhale as you puli yourself further forwards (stage 3 or 4). Continue inhalation and exhalation in stage 3 or 4 as you accentuate the flexion of the spine. Breathe slowly and deeply in the final pose. Inhale as you return to the starting position.
Points to remember when doing the asana
Paschimottanasana is an excellent asana that gives many benefits, if it is done correctly. Read the following instructions and carry them out when performing the asana:
Make sure that there is perfect coordination between the breathing and physical movement. This is necessary to bring about the best possible flexion of the spine.
Keep your legs straight throughout the entire practice. This applies particularly to beginners, who will be tempted to bend their legs in order to obtain a greater forward bend. If you bend your legs the asana becomes very easy and even those people with the stiffest body will be able to touch their heads to their knees. This may give you a glimmer of satisfaction, but you will obtain little or no benefit. One of the main purposes of the asana is to stretch the muscles of the spinal region and the back of the legs (hamstring muscles). So keep your legs straight and flat on the floor, even though you may feel disillusioned at your inability to bend more than slightly forwards.
Don’t use excessive force or violent jerks in order to do the asana. This is important, for it is so easy to strain the back and hamstring muscles. The muscles should be progressively stretched over a period of days and months. Don’t use undue force in order to perfect and master the asana during your first or second attempt. If you are unable to touch your knees, or even hold your feet, don’t worry or despair, all that is required is time and practice.
Relaxation of the back muscles is essential in order to gain proficiency in this asana. Even the slightest muscular contraction of the back will impede the forward bend to some degree. The more you relax the more you will be able to bend forwards. It is inability to systematically relax the spinal muscles that makes this asana reasonably difficult for beginners.
To gain the best possible flexion of the body, it is worthwhile spending a short period of time relaxing the back muscles before attempting the asana. A good method is to be aware of breathing and to simultaneously imagine that the spine is made of rubber. With practice you should find that you gain more control over your muscles and will be able to relax them at will.
Furthermore, it is important that the back remains relaxed when you bend forwards. To do this, you must allow the spinal muscles to be passive, letting the arm muscles supply all the effort that is required. The same applies to the hamstring muscles at the back of the legs; let them remain passive.
Anchoring points of the hands
The final position of the hands is important, for the hands provide the fixed point by which the back is pulled forwards by the arms. The following are the main positions:
The thumbs and index fingers of each hand hold the two big toes. This is the best position and should be performed by those who are able. By pulling the toes, one tends to simultaneously keep the legs straight by a levering action. The practitioner should experiment for himself. Therefore, using the toes as the anchoring point simultaneously gives the hamstring muscles the best possible stretch.
The fingers can be interlocked and the hands hooked around the bottom of the toes.
This is as good as holding the big toes.
One can hold the heels. This method is not as good as methods 1 and 2, for it tends to bend the legs.
The hands can grasp the ankles or calves. This is for beginners and not very useful for keeping the legs straight and stretching the hamstring muscles. As soon as your back becomes more flexible you should try to hold your feet or toes.