Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch) simultaneously stretches the hamstrings and opens the shoulders—two actions that will improve your yoga practice and increase mobility in your daily life. Acumen is required to make progress in both areas, which sometimes seem to be in conflict. When you pursue the forward-bending aspect of the posture (which elongates the hamstrings) with so much enthusiasm that your shoulders round forward and your chest collapses, you’ve missed an excellent opportunity to increase the range of motion in your shoulders and counteract some postural habits that our increasingly computer- and car-driven lives promote. Although Parsvottanasana contains a forward bend, it’s dramatically improved by weaving in an element of backbending: keeping length along the front of your body.
Marrying opposites, of course, is central to the big picture of hatha yoga, often defined as the union between the opposing solar and lunar energies. You also need to find a balance between freedom and stability in Parsvottanasana. The freedom you can find in your upper body as you extend your spine and open your shoulders is very much facilitated by the stability of your base and the strength of your legs. As you explore the pose, embrace its dualities. Your physical alignment will improve, and with the liberating effects of embodying opposites, you may experience an energetic alignment as well.
To begin, stand facing a wall and place your hands on it shoulder-distance apart and at hipbone height. Step your right foot back about 4 feet, placing your left foot about 1 1/2 feet from the wall and reaching your hips back so that your arms and torso are parallel to the floor. Make sure you create a straight line from your hands to your shoulders to your hips, with your ears in line with your upper arms and your gaze to the floor. Set up with your heels in line with each other, with your front toes pointed forward and your back foot at a 45-degree angle.
Now start to bring the base of the pose into alignment. The goal is to square your hips; this usually involves pulling the front hip back and shifting the other hip forward. To achieve this, press down with the ball of your big toes and engage your quadriceps, drawing your front outer hip back and up and firming it into the midline of your body. Then release your back inner thigh to the wall behind you to roll your back hip forward.
Notice whether your thigh rotation caused your back foot’s inner arch to collapse; this is fairly common, but you want to make sure to lift the inner arch so that the outer edge of the foot stays heavy and grounded. Once your hips are even, use the strength of your arms pushing against the wall to lengthen your spine and the sides of your body by pressing your hips into the center of the room.
The asana name Parsvottanasana derives from the Sanskrit words parsva (side, or flank) and uttana (intense stretch). Remember this as you aim to establish an expansive quality along your torso. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
For the next variation, face the center of the room and place one heel against the wall. Use the same stance as in the last round, and square your hips again. Try “scissoring” your inner thighs: Energetically draw them toward each other, which will help create stability in your base. With your next inhalation, take your arms out to the sides and internally rotate the upper arm bones (humeri) in your shoulder sockets so that your palms face the wall behind you.
As you exhale, make gentle fists and bring your knuckles together behind your back just below your shoulder blades. When you do this, your shoulder heads may collapse forward, and your trapezius muscles may tighten up. Rather than reinforce this less-than-ideal position, draw the shoulder heads up and back and externally rotate the upper arms by spinning the inner arm toward the outer arm.
It won’t be a dramatic motion, but the action is important for developing the range of motion in your shoulders. Make sure when you do this that there is no pain in your shoulders; if there is, back off slightly so you can ease your way into creating openness.
Take an inhalation, and accentuate the space along and across the front of your body by lifting your sternum (breastbone) away from your navel and spreading your collarbones. With your next exhalation, extend out over your front leg as you keep your hips square and your shoulders drawing up and away from the floor.
Resist the impulse to surrender to gravity, which would cause your shoulders and chest to collapse. Instead, keep your base active by engaging your quadriceps—drawing the inner thighs toward each other—and pressing the back femur (thighbone) firmly toward the wall behind you so that your heel is grounded between the floor and the wall to secure the pose. Let the crown of your head be an extension of the length of your spine, so that your entire neck is long and your gaze is toward your big toe. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths, and then switch sides.
For the classical version of the pose, move your mat to the center of the room. Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the front of the mat, place your hands at your hips, and feel your frontal hipbones pointing straight forward like a pair of headlights. Keeping your hips square, step the right leg back 31/2 to 4 feet, and recreate the heel-to-heel alignment from the last rounds. For maximum extension in your spine, take a long stance. To make sure your hips are square, activate your front thigh and draw your outer hip back and into the midline of your body. Before you shift your other hip forward, however, make sure that your back foot is at a 45-degree angle, which will help protect your knee and align your hips. If the angle of your back foot is too open to the side, the knee gets wrenched when you roll the right hip forward to square it with the left. If, on the other hand, the toes point too far forward, you’ll struggle to keep the back heel down and will lose stability.
Now, direct your back inner thigh to the wall behind you so that your hip spins forward. Keep your tailbone heavy so that it anchors you. On an inhalation, take your arms out to the side. As you exhale, rotate your arms and press your palms together behind your back. If you can, point your fingers up in a prayer position. Your -shoulders might immediately collapse forward. Externally rotate the upper arms in their sockets, spinning your inner arm toward your outer arm so that your shoulders and chest lift.
With your next inhalation, reach your sternum away from your navel to open your heart. Keep your quadriceps engaged and your hips square. On an exhalation, extend forward without shortening the front of your body. Look toward your left big toe with a gaze that is soft but unwavering. Remain rooted through your feet and legs and stay compact in your hips; the steadiness in your base will translate into greater freedom in extending your spine as well as more latitude in opening your shoulders. A firm foundation will help you maintain your balance so that you can focus on the work in your upper body.
There’s also a link between the stability of your foundation and the spaciousness in your torso—you’re basically flavoring your forward bend with a backbending element when you strive for length along the front body. This is the union of opposites&mdashthe yuj, or yoke, which yoga teaches us to inhabit.