Updated: Sep 22
I've been doing a lot of posting recently about stuff that isn't really yoga postures. Yoga, of course, isn't all about the postures; I'd say it's really best described as a system of self-development or a way of being. However, the postures are an important part of the journey for a lot of us and it can be incredibly helpful to delve into them in some detail from time to time.
Parsvottanasana (translating from Sanskrit as "intense side stretch" or "intense torso stretch"), AKA Pyramid Pose, is I must admit one of my favourite yoga postures. I don't look forward to all the standing postures in the Ashtanga primary series, but this is one I'm always pleased to arrive at because of the way it stretches out the back of the body, creates an inversion (where the head is below the heart) and gives a sense of drawing inwards.
To practice Pyramid Pose we face the short edge of the mat and take a medium sized stride between the front and back legs, with the back foot facing around 10 o'clock to the middle of the mat, keeping both legs straight. With the arms, in the traditional ashtanga manner, we may find reverse prayer (where the palms meet at the middle of the back) or clasp opposite elbows behind the back.
To finish the pose, we hinge from the hips over the straight front leg, keeping the back long and straight from the tailbone to the crown of the head. The drishti or gazing point is towards the front leg big toe. For those of us who are already very flexible in the back, if the chest meets the thigh and the nose comes somewhere close to the leg, we may round the back slightly and hug the torso into the leg.
We try to focus on keeping the hips level, as the front hip will usually want to creep forward and the back one backward. By keeping the hips in one line we can feel the work of the pose more effectively.
If we're practicing hatha yoga or a vinyasa flow, for example (rather than the ashtanga primary series) we may release the hands towards the floor and come up onto the fingertips.
We'll then repeat the pose on the other side to make sure we're properly balanced out.
Sensations in the Body
Pyramid Pose is usually described as a hamstring stretch, and this can be pretty intense. The back of the front straight leg is getting a serious stretch, and this is intensified when the pelvis is aligned (i.e. hips in one line). It's also common to feel the stretch in the hamstring of the rear leg as you fold forward, as this is in a similarly strong position. I also often find strong sensations in the calves of both legs, as I have slightly shortened soleus (inner calf) muscles, which begin to speak to me in this pose. One way to soften the sensation of this stretch, if required, is to "micro-bend" the knees to ensure we don't over-stretch the muscles on the back of the legs (particularly useful to remember if you have knee hypermobility). In fact, I always "micro-bend" before bringing the upper body back upright to come out of the pose.
The lower back may be a source of sensation for some of us depending upon how straightforward we find the forward bend. We only need to go as far forward as we feel comfortable; yoga postures should always be within our reasonable range and it's more than okay to go less deep or take another variation if it feels too strong (more on variations below).
With the arms behind the back in reverse prayer or catching the opposite elbows we stretch across the front of the shoulders and open the chest, bringing the shoulder blades in towards one another, which can sometimes feel super strong for those of us who spend a lot of time texting/typing/driving/gaming/ slouching, etc!
Reverse prayer can be especially activating as it stretches the nerves that travel down the arms and terminate in hands, resulting in quite a unique sensation throughout the upper body.
You may find other sensations in other parts of the body in Pyramid Pose! If so I'd be fascinated to hear about them, so please let me know in the comments section.
As Parsvottanasana targets the muscles on the back of the legs, other poses that work gently into the hamstrings and calves are ideal preparatory poses.
In the Ashtanga primary series, we do our sun salutations to warm up, which include the relatively gentle back body stretch of holding Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) for 5 breaths each time. We then proceed to stronger back-of-legs stretching poses including forward fold variations (Padagusthasana and Padangusthasana, then Wide Leg Forward Fold or Prasrita Padottanasana variations) and Triangle pose (Trikonasana). These should get our hamstrings well into the stretch groove before we hit Pyramid Pose halfway through the standing sequence.
In other approaches to yoga, we often use these too but we can also get creative about preparatory poses to warm us up into Parsvottanasana.
In my own classes, I often include a supine hamstring stretch (think, one let out long on the floor and the other stretched up towards the ceiling) in the warm up. This may be followed by a seated Forward Fold (Pascimottanasana) and even a Butterfly or Half Butterfly (Janu Sirsasana) pose or two before getting to Pyramid Pose.
Essentially, we want to make sure that the backs of the legs are a little more open and ready for the intense stretching sensation available in Pyramid Pose.
Parsvottanasana helps us to work into the energy of the lower two chakras (the Root, or Muladara, and the Sacral or Svadisthana). Muladara is located at the pelvic floor and Svadisthana on the front side of the the spine where it meets the pelvis. The energy of these chakras is engaged when we practice poses that root our bodies to the ground and work the muscles of the legs, hips and abdomen (including the lower back). Accessing this energy and helping it to flow freely may mean that we feel more comfortable in and sure of ourselves as well as feeling more creative and productive.
Parsvottanasana may also work with the energy of the throat or Vishudda chakra as we naturally engage the Throat Lock or Jalandhara Bandha if we get to go deep into the forward fold. However, this is not essential, as not everyone will be able to do this in Parsvottanasana.
Bandha or "great locks" of the body are used in yoga poses to help move the breath and vital energy around the body to where it's needed. As far as I'm aware, we don't consciously engage the pelvic floor (Mula Bandha) or the diaphragm (Uddiyana Bandha) in Pyramid Pose, although you may find it an interesting exercise to notice how much these areas are naturally either soft or engaged when you're in the pose.
As mentioned above, if you do fold fully forward in the pose then you will enter Jalandhara Bandha where the chin is tucked into the chest and the muscles of the neck switch on.
You can keep a tiny bend in each knee to avoid too much sensation in the back of the legs (in yoga, we really want to be about 70% of maximum stretch or sensation at any time). Remembering this can be really helpful if you know you tend to overstretch or you have hypermobility in your knees, because you may not always realise when you've overflexed the joint- not all teachers will cue this, but I think that if in doubt, bend a little bit.
Taking a longer stance between the front and back leg may increase the sensation in the front leg, whilst taking a shorter stance may increase sensation in the back leg. Either is good to experiment with, depending on how the body feels during yoga practice. With a shorter stance, it may be more difficult to stay long in the spine and fold forward if the lower back isn't feeling flexible. A longer stance may also make it more challenging to keep the hips in one line.
Traditionally, the heels are in line with one another, but if you feel unstable you might shuffle the back foot out slightly towards the edge of the mat.
You may like to try the hands in reverse prayer, where the palms meet behind the back and the fingers point upwards towards the head. I often cross the thumbs (remembering to swap the cross over on the second side!) to prevent the palms peeling away from each other when folding forward.
If this is not accessible or too intense, reverse prayer but with the fingers pointing down can be an interesting option.
Grabbing opposite elbows from behind also opens the front of the chest and brings the shoulder blades towards one another.
If not practicing Ashtanga Yoga, the option of keeping the hands on the hips whilst folding forward may provide a better understanding of where the hips are or are not in line with one another (it may be different on one side!).
If the forward fold is challenging, try bringing the hands down onto blocks or bricks to support the upper body, or even try using a chair or a wall.
Even when we can access the forward fold, it is interesting to experience the changes in body and mind sensation that variations give us, so try them out!
Because Parsvottanasana is so good at stretching out the back body, and the back of the legs in particular, there may be other poses that seem more of a breeze when practiced following on from it.
In the Ashtanga primary series, it is followed by Uttita Hasta Padangusthasana (standing head to big toe pose) which is an intense stretch in both the standing and the outstretched leg. Staff Pose (Dandasana), Seated Forward Fold (Pascimottanasana) and Head to Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana) all also follow, with the backs of the legs flat to the floor for those with hamstrings which allow that sort of thing.
In a non-Ashtanga practice, I enjoy experimenting with Downward Facing Dog before and after Parsvottanasana. It can feel quite different, do try it! A Wide Leg Seated Forward Fold (Dragonfly Pose or Upavistha Konasana) can also be interesting following Pyramid Pose, as the hamstrings should be more open and Dragonfly begins to work into the inner thigh muscles. Half Splits or Ardha Hanumasana may feel good as it allows more of a passive stretch into the back of the front leg. Finally, Pyramid Pose may be an excellent warm up for those who do practice Front Splits or Hanumasana, allowing us to dial in more exactly to what's going on within each muscle group involved before taking the plunge into full splits.
Hopefully you've found the dive into Pyramid Pose useful and inspiring! You don't have to do every (or strictly, even any) yoga pose to practice yoga, but when you do, it can be a full on experience, so let yourself feel it, notice it and appreciate it in all its glory.
If you'd like to try practicing the pose with me, you can book onto one of my local classes in North Leeds or book an in person or online 1-1 class with me via my website (link below). I would very much like to guide you through a practice so that you can further explore how yoga works for you.