Most people find forward bending asanas reasonably difficult. This is because their backs have lost their flexibility through lack of exercise. This flexibility is most important, for it keeps the spinal column and associated nerves in the best possible condition. In fact, a flexible spine is often a clear indicator of good health, while a rigid spine often signifies poor health. This is illustrated in the case of children, who generally radiate abundant energy and good health, and who find forward bending asanas very simple. Of course, there are many other reasons for their wonderful health, but a supple spine is a contributing factor.
If a person takes sufficient exercise, then the spine will automatically remain flexible. The problem of stiffness and rigidity of the spine only arises with sedentary life, where people don't use their bodies enough. Probably any person who belongs to one of the more primitive tribes in the world would be able to do forward bending asanas without the slightest hesitation or difficulty. People who live close to nature keep their bodies flexible and healthy because of their active way of life. Modern man must find other methods of maintaining health and exercising his body. One method is to do asanas, including forward bending poses, on a regular basis.
The forward bending asana we will describe here is called paschimottanasana. It is one of the best of all asanas.
PASCHIMOTTANASANA (BACK STRETCHING POSE)
This asana has many other names. The most common are ugrasana (fierce or powerful pose) and paschimatanasana, which has the same meaning as paschimottanasana.
There are many meanings associated with the name of this asana. Literally, the word paschima means 'the back', or 'posterior'; it also means 'the west'. The word utthan means 'to stretch'. Therefore, the usual English name of this asana is 'the back stretching pose'.
The word utthan is also akin to the word 'tan', which makes up part of the word tantra (the mother system of yoga). In this context, it is not physical stretching that is implied, but stretching or expansion of awareness. The word paschima still means the back, but has greater significance if it is taken to mean the sushumna nadi. This nadi is the most important psychic pathway in the body. During higher states of awareness, prana ascends this nadi from the bottom of the back (perineum) to the head (sahasrara). In fact, it is said that the experience of higher awareness cannot take place unless prana flows within this nadi. So this asana has a very elevated meaning. It means the asana which expands awareness by unleashing pranic currents which flow upwards within the sushumna nadi. This is a fitting name, for this is indeed a powerful asana.
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