We spend a lot of time in yoga forward bending and back bending, but side bending is equally important for a well-balanced practice. We don’t often think about being tense in our sides, but like every other nook and cranny of our body, our sides accumulate tension and stress. The good news is the side body responds quickly to lengthening and opening up those spaces, and doing so improves how you carry yourself and how you breathe.
The muscles between your ribs are called intercostals. Slouching and sitting can tighten and shorten these muscles, making it harder to maintain good posture. Tight intercostals can also affect your breathing, but side bends open up the ribcage and lungs. One of the first things I notice while practicing a deep side bend is that I am able to breathe deeper, especially into the side I’m stretching.
Side bending also helps open the hip and QL muscles. The hard-to-reach quadratus lumborum is the source of many lower back issues, including mine. I was very pleased to discover how much side-bending poses helped, especially when practiced regularly.
Side bends can be surprisingly intense so I’ve offered modifications to show how you can start small and work with your breath to go deeper.
- Sprinkle these side-bending poses into a more comprehensive yoga practice that includes sun salutations to warm up and additional standing poses, versus practicing them alone. The last two poses (Vishnu’s couch and gate pose) are best practiced after building heat.
- It’s important in all side-bending poses to align yourself, well, sideways. There is a tendency to lean forward, which is incorrect. Imagine yourself between two panes of glass to help stack everything properly, and focus on opening the armpit and tilting the ribs up.
- Imagine a gentle tug-of-war while side bending. For example, in a standing pose, pushing down through your foot while reaching up through your fingertips will maximize the side stretch. Tune into the opposing energies at play in these poses.
These are great poses to start any yoga practice and delve right into opening the side of your body.
Parsva Tadasana – Side-bending Mountain Pose. Find a good, solid foundation with your feet hip distance apart in Tadasana. Extend your arms up and circle your left wrist with your right hand, thumb facing forward. Lengthen up on an inhale, and bend to the right on your exhale. Use the grip on your wrist to help lengthen the left side body. Hold for five breaths, come up on an inhale, and switch sides.
Sidebending Sukhasana – Easy Pose Variation. Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position; or, as I like to do, tuck your right foot into the space between your left thigh and calf (pictured). Walk your right hand out to the side, letting your elbow drop towards the floor. Don’t take it all the way to the floor if that lifts your left sits bone. Press down through your left sits bone as you take your left arm over your ear, reaching to the side through your fingertips (don’t let your hand drop towards the floor). Tilt your armpit up to avoid coming forward with your torso. The more awareness and weight you can bring to your left seat, the more you will lengthen through the side body.
Best Standing Side Bends
It’s a tie–these standing poses win hands down for best side stretch.
Parsva Konasana – Side Angle Pose. I like to come into this pose from Warrior II. Start with your right foot forward, and make sure your feet are wide apart with your left toes turned in 45 degrees. Take your right forearm on your thigh, and sweep your left arm over your ear. Push down through your left foot and reach forward through your fingertips, creating a straight long line from fingertips to heel. Open your armpit and tilt your ribs to the sky. To deepen the pose, drop your left hand to the floor inside your right foot. Hold for five deep breaths and come back to Warrior II on an inhale. Repeat on the other side.
Reverse Warrior. This is a perfect combo of back bend and side stretch, and easily adjusts to how deep you take it. It’s an elegant pose.
Do your best Warrior II pose with your right foot forward. From here, drop your left hand to the back of your left thigh and take your right arm up and over, palm down. Don’t put too much weight in your back hand, and focus on rooting down in your front foot to lift up through your right arm. Feel that you are creating space between your right ribs. Hold for five deep breaths and repeat on the other side.
Anantasana – Vishnu’s Couch
This is my new favorite pose. Partly because of its name, but also because it’s great for your core. It’s not as easy as it looks, since it requires core stability in order to balance. You won’t just stretch the side body, you’ll balance on it.
I don’t think I could explain the story of this pose any better than Pure Inspiration Etc. Please take a moment before you practice it to read Vishnu’s Couch – Dreams of the Universe. Then imagine your leg as the strong, stable stem of a lotus and your flexed foot the flower.
Anantasana – Vishnu’s Couch (Prep Pose). Lay on your right side with your right hand supporting your head and your left hand on the floor in front of you. Flex your feet and stack your ankles. Once you feel balanced on your side body, bring your left hand to your hip. You’ll probably lose your balance once or twice but keep trying! You’ll create muscle memory during this prep phase. Don’t forget to draw your navel into your spine to engage your core, which is the key to finding balance here. Take three to five breaths.
Anantasana – Vishnu’s Couch (Full Pose). Lift your left leg and catch hold of your big toe with your first two fingers. Straighten your leg as much as possible, but it’s fine to bend your knee if necessary. Press down through your bottom leg to help balance. Tip: for some reason, flexing the bottom of your foot also helps. Hold for as long as you can balance, then switch sides.
Open the Gate
Sideways, of course.
Prep Pose » Parighasana – Gate Pose (Prep Pose). Stand on your knees and take your right leg out to the side, angling your toes forward and pushing down through the outside edge of your foot. Place your right hand on your hip and sweep your left arm up and over your ear. Reach through your fingertips. Hold for five breaths and move into the second prep pose from here; or, if that was enough, switch sides.
From the first prep pose, move your right hand from your hip to your leg, taking care to avoid your knee. Hold for five breaths. Push down through your left shin and come up on an inhale. Repeat on the other side.
Parighasana – Gate Pose (Full Pose). Extend your right leg and bend your left leg, placing your foot just outside your hip (if that doesn’t work for your knee, see modification note below). Your legs should make a 90-degree angle. Bring your right hand into your upper shin or right ankle, and sweep your left arm up and over your ear. Extend out through your left fingertips to lengthen your left side. Hold for five breaths and if you feel you can go deeper, move on to:
Option 1. Drop your right forearm to the floor inside your right shin. If you can, grab your right big toe. Continue to lengthen through your fingertips. Hold for five breaths and if you feel you can go deeper, move on to:
Option 2. Reach your left hand down to take hold of your right foot, taking care not to come forward with your torso. Pull back through your left shoulder to tilt your ribs towards the sky. Hold for five breaths, then come up gently and repeat on the other side.
Modification. A more knee-friendly version of this pose is called Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. The main difference is the position of the leg. If you cannot bend your leg behind you, bring it in front.
Take These Poses Sideways
It’s easy to add a side bend to the following poses.
Vrksasana – Tree Pose. Come into tree pose on the right side. Take your arms up and then lower your right hand to your right thigh, palm up. Slowly lean to the right, pushing your left hip out and bringing your left arm over your ear. Hold for five breaths and then center your tree on an inhale, release and repeat on the other side.
Trikonasana – Triangle. Take triangle pose with your right foot forward. Reach up through your left hand on an inhale, and sweep your arm over your ear on an exhale. Push down through your back foot and lengthen forward through your fingertips. Hold for five breaths and repeat on the other side.
Vasisthasana – Side Plank. Come into side plank with your right hand down (facing left). Reach up through your left hand on an inhale, and sweep your arm over your ear on an exhale. Ground through your feet to create length on the entire left side of your body. Hold for five breaths extending your top arm up on an inhale and repeat on the other side.
Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Big-Sky-People.com
Fall 2014 Yoga & Yellowstone Retreat! Join Margaret at the at the B Bar Ranch in Tom Miner Basin, just north of Yellowstone National Park, for three days of yoga and reconnecting with yourself and nature. Oct 2-5, 2014.