In the traditional version of Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose), the palms are pressed together behind the back in Anjali Mudra. Anjali means “offering” and the mudra, done by placing both palms together as if in prayer, is a gesture of respect. In India, people often greet each other with this mudra accompanied by “Namaste,” which loosely translates to, “The light within me honors the light within you.”
Parsvottanasana (6* on the difficulty scale) is a deep forward bend that also stretches the sides of the chest. The use of Anjali Mudra can greatly help or hinder the pose, depending on how it’s done. Drawing the hands together behind the back in Anjali Mudra requires you to externally rotate your arms first, rolling your shoulders slightly forward in order to bring your palms together high up on your back. But, once you’ve placed your hands in the mudra, you must roll your shoulders back and towards each other in order to re-establish the crucial opening in the chest. This interplay between external and internal rotation of the arms and shoulders presents a great challenge within the asana. Many people place their hands in Anjali mudra, then collapse the chest in order to force their upper body closer to their front leg. This constricts the breath and limits the pose’s benefits.
Since we’re bringing our hands together in a gesture of respect, why would we disrespect the intention of the pose by forcing ourselves into it? Anjali Mudra is a beautiful aspect of Parsvottanasana, but not essential. If you find yourself struggling to incorporate the mudra, offer your respect to the asana in another way. Clasp your opposite elbows or wrists rather than drawing your hands together in prayer. This will create more space for you to open up your heart.
Honor the asana by honoring the unique needs of your body. Namaste.