As a society we are very aware and developed in our front body. We greet and explore the world with our face, front of the torso and pelvis, hands, and feet. In contrast, many of my students have told me that they experience their side body—the area from the hips up to the armpits—as a place that feels numb, dense, or heavy. Unless we get an ache in the back body, it's often forgotten about as well—out of sight, out of mind. One beauty of yoga, which means "union," is that it diminishes an emphasis on one part of the body and asks us to spread our interest and respect everywhere.
Parighasana (Gate Pose) energizes and lightens the side body and invites the breath to become truly three-dimensional. In Sanskrit parigha means "the bar used for shutting a gate." In Parighasana the body resembles that cross beam. The asana stretches the intercostal muscles that connect the ribs. When these muscles are tight, which commonly happens when we cough and sneeze repeatedly or have poor posture, the rib cage's movement is restricted, and so is respiration. Elongating the intercostal muscles improves breathing; consequently, Parighasana helps respiratory problems usually associated with asthma, allergies, colds, and flu. Before we do this pose, though, let's explore our breath with the three-part breath.
Yogic breathing helps calm the nerves, cleanses the circulatory system, nourishes the abdominal organs, and improves digestion; it also helps us feel more grounded and relaxed in the body. The three-part breath asks us to create a wave-like motion from the pelvis to the upper chest: inhaling into the belly, drawing the same breath up through the expanding rib cage, and still farther up into the chest.
Lie comfortably on your back with your knees bent. Place your hands on your belly (your middle fingers can touch at the navel). Exhale completely, drawing the belly inward. Then inhale, letting the breath touch the front, sides, and back of your belly. When you're ready, exhale completely. Next, place your palms on your rib cage so that your fingers no longer touch.
Allow the ribs to gently widen as you inhale. Sense how you are opening the front, sides, and back of the ribs. As you exhale, you'll feel the fingers move toward each other. Now, place one palm on the center of your upper chest, and breathe into that hand. Expand from your chest up to the collarbones. Exhale completely.
When you're done practicing a few rounds, take a moment to notice any changes. Become aware of your side body. How well is the air broadening the ribs? Let's see how Parighasana helps to widen our breath and our awareness of the side body.
Surveying the Threshold
To take gate pose, stand on your knees. If you are working on a hard floor, you might consider padding your knees with a mat or blanket. Stretch your right leg out to the right, with the heel of the foot on the floor and the toes stretching away from the body. Have the foot as flat on the floor as possible. Make sure the right leg is straight, with the knee facing the ceiling and the ankle in line with your right hip. Place the left knee directly below the left hip.
Stretch both arms out to the sides, palms facing downward. In the front body, reach from your sternum through the chest muscles, lengthening along the biceps all the way into your thumbs. Be careful not to poke your rib cage forward. Feel the back body extend from the thoracic spine into the pinkies. Inhale and feel some lightness in the side body; exhale and bend at the waist, dropping the right palm down to the lower right leg and stretching the left arm up, palm facing downward.
Each time you inhale, grow a little longer through the spine into the crown of your head, reaching into all the fingers of the left hand. With each exhalation gently deepen your side stretch, allowing the right hand to move down the right leg toward the ankle and the left palm to stretch away from the left hip.
Now that you are in the pose, you can refine it. Instead of closing down the face and belly toward the floor, press your right thumb into the inner right leg to help you twist. Feel the right hip and the back right ribs move forward as the heart opens. Try not to have the left arm block your sight; rather stretch it past your ear and overhead. Breathe into the left rib cage, feeling the intercostal muscles expand. Know that you are also providing a nourishing stretch to the liver.
When you feel ready to come out of Parighasana, use the inhalation to lift your left arm straight up toward the ceiling, draw your spine back to vertical, and reach your two arms horizontally once again. With the next exhalation let the arms drop. When you do the pose on your second side, you will not only stretch the right side body and intercostals, you will also provide an opening to the stomach and spleen.
Side bending can feel very different on the two sides, especially for people who have scoliosis. Ribs, muscles, and organs constricted from everyday posture will receive a welcome elongation in Gate Pose. Just be sure not to go deeper than you can comfortably breathe or move.
After doing the pose once or twice, sit on a folded blanket or bolster to take several three-part breaths. Have you awakened your side body? Can you feel how your intercostal muscles help to lift the ribs as you inhale and then draw the ribs down as you exhale?
One definition The Random House Dictionary gives for "gate" is "any means of access or entrance." Practicing Gate Pose grants us access to improved breathing and a greater movement of prana, the universal life-force energy, throughout the body. With the side body awakened, our experience of wholeness and vitality increases.
Barbara Kaplan Herring teaches yoga and meditation in and around Berkeley, California.