The practice of hatha yoga is a process of relocating ourselves through the tangible reality of the body. This sounds wonderful in theory, but in reality most people set off on this journey as ill-equipped as a sailor setting out for the open sea without navigational instruments. Finding our compass and developing an interior map takes time, and there are no simple formulas—it is, like life, a necessarily messy business.
The practice of hatha yoga is a process of relocating ourselves through the tangible reality of the body.
For the most part, we begin to practice hatha yoga with only a vague and blurry sense of our body; at first it may seem like just an undifferentiated block of solid substance. There is nothing particularly romantic about this experience, as many newcomers discover when the idea of doing hatha yoga meets the reality of the practice. Forget the tantalizing promise of chakras whirling in precise synchronization or sudden flashes of insight into higher realms. Our attempts to grasp the notion of parts, relationship, and whole are frustrated by screaming hamstrings, spinal columns that sag or bend in all the wrong places, and joints that feel as immovable as a deck chair left out over the winter. Where is my arm? Is it bent? Is it straight? Are my feet hips-width apart…well, how wide are my hips, anyway? For the most part this is where we all begin, not only in asana practice but in life—trying to figure out where and how we are, given the perceptual skills available to us in the moment.
We progress on a continuum from gross awareness to fine distinctions. Only gradually are we able to discern subtler layers of sensation, feeling, and thought. But when we have an appreciation for this continuum we can use it to our advantage, learning to cue ourselves first with what we can see, hear, feel, and touch in order to access the more subtle information that is still outside our awareness. For instance, we may not know the position of our hips, but we can probably figure out where they are by looking at our feet and feeling how our weight is distributed through them. We may not know how our head and neck are positioned, but perhaps we can glean information through the angle of our gaze. These more accessible signposts can take us to the places we can’t yet sense or feel. And as we get better and better at knowing where we are physically, we can use this skill to help decipher the sensations that accompany our emotional and mental states. For example, we may notice that our jaw tightens when we are about to get angry. Like a blind person feeling the boundaries and markers of a room, we learn to infer what a sensation means and use this heightened awareness to find our way through life with greater ease.
The posture we will explore here offers many rich possibilities for honing the process of internal navigation. The variations that follow progressively build the skills required to practice parshvottanasana well. Just as one might have to fulfill prerequisite courses to understand a subject, each of these variations is a prerequisite for the next. Do not progress onto the next variation until you have mastered the skills of the preceding stage. As you work your way through the preparatory movements and inquiries, notice which cues and images work best for you. Even more important, allow the images that arise in your imagination as well as the techniques you discover through your own exploration to be springboards for deepening your practice. In the beginning you’ll have to work with conscious competence, directing and reminding yourself frequently of where you are and how you are. Gradually, as new skills become anchored, you’ll find yourself moving with the same unconscious competence you achieved when you mastered the skill of riding a bicycle. And just as you would not want to continue noticing the exact position of the bike pedals while you are out enjoying the countryside, when you reach the stage of unconscious competence in asana practice, let go of the objectified process of directing and simply enjoy the ride.
In the flank pose the easiest way to find the correct distance in your stance is to begin in the mountain pose with the feet hips-width apart. Imagine that you are standing with each foot on a railway track that is exactly the width of your hips. Step your left foot behind you, and keep that back foot on its rail. If you stand with the back foot inside the line of the rail, the feet will be narrower than the width of your hips, making your balance unstable.
Take a moment to experiment both with the distance between the two feet front-to-back, and with the width of your stance to find the position that feels the most stable. The weight will feel equally distributed over the sole of each foot in a balanced stance.
Notice the tendency in this stance for the abdominal organs to be thrust forward off the spine, and for the weight to come off the back heel. As you stand, draw your abdomen in toward your spine. Notice that working from this outer layer tends to restrict your breathing.
Now imagine the soft organs underneath your abdomen, and slowly roll the contents of your belly back toward your spine. See if you can distinguish between initiating movement from the interior of the body and initiating it from the exterior. Notice that moving from this deeper layer allows you to remain connected to your breathing. When the contents of the belly are in parallel contact with your spine, the weight will be firmly anchored down the back leg into the Earth. This sensation of groundedness is very distinct; wait until you have established it before continuing.
See if you can distinguish between initiating movement from the interior of the body and initiating it from the exterior.
Place a chair in front of you against a wall. With your hands on your hips, slowly begin to tip forward, rotating the trunk around the axis of the hips. Now place your hands on the chair for support. Look back at your hips to check that they are equidistant to the floor and equidistant from the wall in front of you. This visual cue is essential, because it can be exceedingly difficult to sense the symmetry of the spinal column. If the hips are positioned precisely, however, you can infer that the spine is also well-positioned.
As you can see from the incorrect stance in the image below, when the hips come off this symmetrical axis the spinal column follows suit, twisting or laterally flexing more to one side or the other. Use what you can see (your gross perception) to move toward the more refined perception of how your spinal column is positioned.
Slowly tip forward. If your hamstrings are tight they will tend to limit the forward rotation of your pelvis and you will tend to shorten your spinal column instead of flexing from your hips. To correct this tendency, take a visual sighting of the distance between your breastbone and your pubic bone, and sustain this distance as you tip forward.
If you tend toward hypermobility (sometimes referred to as a swayback), your dilemma is somewhat more challenging. Your tendency will be to break the line of force at the level of your sacrum and lumbar spine and thrust the lower ribs forward. Rather than pulling the ribs in, which only serves to restrict breathing, imagine the organic line from your kidneys (either side of your spine, just below your waist) through your ureters (the long tubes that run from the back of the body to the front) to your bladder (just underneath your pubic bone). Before you tip forward, draw any slack out of your ureters, so there is a long, unbroken tautness from the kidneys to the bladder. Just as the psoas muscles provide a connecting bridge between the spinal column and the pelvis, the organic connection of the kidney, ureter, and bladder maintains the same integration. As you tip forward, concentrate on sustaining that taut inner support. Feel your kidneys expand upwards toward the surface of your skin so that they float on the back. This image is immensely helpful in gaining control over a hypermobile back without restricting the breathing process.
As you come up out of the posture, again feel the support of your digestive tract lying parallel to the entire length of your spine. Sustain this parallel inner support, from mouth through to anus, as you come up out of the pose.
Now stand with your front foot about a foot and a half away from the wall. Slowly tip forward again until the spine is parallel to the floor and the back forms a table. Place your hands on the wall shoulders-width apart. Press back strongly through the arms, sending force through the shoulders, through the spine, and down into the back leg. This long power line, from head to tailbone through to the back leg, is one you’ll wish to replicate in your freestanding practice of the posture.
If you can tip forward only 45°, try resting the crown of your head against a wall (with a cushion between your head and the wall). Using your head as a fifth limb, you can press through the top of the head to lengthen your spine. This is also a useful technique for learning to reach through the crown of the head, as well as to reach back through the tailbone.
Being where you are is the only starting point for getting where you want to go.
Supporting the head makes this variation easier on your back muscles. It is also a helpful technique for learning the correct position of the head in relation to the rest of the body. The head and tailbone should be in one line so that there is a clear line of force running from the crown of the head through to the base of the pelvic floor. One of the more common errors in coming into parshvottanasana is to lead from the head and chin, or to literally be “ahead” of oneself. Thrusting forward through the throat causes all the digestive organs to drop away from the spine, placing undue strain throughout the whole of the back. It also has a concomitant psychological effect: you’ll find that when your head is forward you are automatically in the next moment, anticipating where you want to be rather than feeling where you are. Being where you are is the only starting point for getting where you want to go. So instead of focusing on attaining the ideal form of the posture, let your primary imperative be to establish a sense of integrity in your movement, even if this means that you only come halfway into the pose. When you focus on your immediate experience, the mind becomes calm and clear. This is the goal of yoga practice, not getting your head to your shin!
In a freestanding position, place the hands behind the back, holding the outer edge of the elbows. Press firmly against the elbows to broaden the shoulders. First establish the connection between your soft inner body and your hard spine until you feel the long line from the crown of your head through to your perineum and down into the heel of the back foot. Now begin to tip forward from the hips. You’ll notice that without the support of the arms, balancing presents a new challenge.
Focus on sustaining an equal distribution of pressure throughout the soles of both feet as a way of refining the symmetrical use of your legs. Only go as far as you can while sustaining the integrity of these connections.
Final Posture and Refinement
Take the preparatory stance, and on an inhalation extend your arms to the sides and bring them behind your back into the prayer position (namaste) with the palms pressing together and the fingers facing up toward your neck. Tip forward from your hips while you focus on sustaining the firm cohesion among your trunk, your legs, and the ground. If your palms begin to separate, you are rounding your shoulders forward and shortening the spine in an attempt to come forward.
You’ll notice that as you approach your limit you will be on the razor’s edge between feeling together and falling apart. When you reach this edge, slow down. Open to the incremental sensations in each breath cycle, and let your intention be to sustain your integrity rather than focusing on how far you can go. The true measure of advanced students is how committed they are to advancing toward themselves—advancement cannot be measured in inches; it is a state of mind. As you explore that razor’s edge, the moment may open to take you a little deeper to a new edge. In the final stages of the physical posture the head rests on the shin. Stay here long enough to experience both the physical and the psychological benefits of this gesture of repose.
- Opens and releases the deep muscles of the hips
- Lengthens the hamstrings
- Improves flexibility of the wrists
- Provides a deep opening for the shoulders
- Cools and calms both body and mind
- Those with carpal tunnel syndrome should be cautious of placing the hands in prayer position behind the back
- This pose may exacerbate sciatica or hamstring injuries