The nature of yoga is to shine the light of awareness into the darkest corners of the body. While not exactly "corners," the sides of the body are in need of such awakening. Your spine flexes when you bend down, extends when you stretch overhead, and rotates when you glance over your shoulder. But everyday actions rarely call for the spine to bend sideways. Even in yoga class, forward bends, backbends, and twists frequently outnumber sidebends.
But yoga offers an entire category of postures with which to stretch the side seam of the torso. They're also the most efficient way to stretch some of the major muscles of the back and sides, such as the latissimus dorsi and the quadratus lumborum, which may leave your lower back feeling more comfortable and flexible.
The three poses here use the wall as a prop to help you gain deeper access to your side body. By taking the time to practice and refine postures that open the side body, you won't just awaken this region-you'll want to return time and time again to it.
Action Plan: These poses stretch the latissimus dorsi (broad back muscles), the obliques (muscles that connect the outer ribs to the outer hips), and the quadratus lumborum (deep muscles that originate on the back of the hip bones and insert on the bottom ribs).
The End Game: Increasing your range of motion in the side body will help create more mobility in your spine and shoulders, leading to a feeling of greater ease and contentment in your body.
Before You Begin: To prepare for sidebends, first lengthen your spine in Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Then build heat through the entire body with 4 to 5 repetitions of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). Standing postures that stretch the inner legs and lengthen the side body, such as Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), also plant the seeds of opening.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana II (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), variation at the wall
How to: This posture begins to unwind your hamstrings, adductors (inner thighs), and side body. You'll need a stable chair (preferably a folding chair), a mat, and a blanket. Place the back of the chair parallel to the wall and a few inches away from it. Drape a folded mat over the back of the chair. Then place a folded blanket on top of the mat.
Stand with your right hip parallel to the seat of the chair. Shift your weight onto your left foot and step your right foot onto the seat (toes pointing toward the wall). Pause for a moment. Place your right heel on top of the chair back and straighten your right leg. Press your right foot into the wall. Depending on your height, flexibility, and initial position, you may need to come out and change your footing so that the left foot stays directly under the center of your left hip, like a column supporting your body.
With your standing leg straight, begin the posture by tilting the top of your right hip toward your right thigh until you feel a stretch on the inside and back of your right leg. Press the right heel down into the blanket to deepen the stretch, rooting the base of your right big toe into the wall and grounding the head of your right thighbone down. Now, slide your right hand down your right leg and take hold of your right shin or ankle. If possible, bend your right elbow and bring your forearm to your shin. Reach your left arm toward the ceiling, arc it overhead, and bring your fingers or palm to the wall to deepen the sidebend. If your hand does not touch the wall, just continue to reach through your fingertips. Settle and feel the sensations of your left side. Take 4 to 5 slow, deep breaths before lifting out of the posture and taking the second side.
Why This Works: Using a chair to support your foot allows you to enjoy stability while accessing a deep stretch and moving into a hard-to-reach sidebend.
Parighasana (Gate Pose), at the wall
How to: Parighasana picks up where the previous pose left off by adding leverage that allows you to intensify the side body stretch. You'll need a blanket and a block.
Kneel on the center of the folded blanket with your right hip facing the wall. Straighten your right leg and press the ball of your foot against the wall. Align the foot in the same plane as your left knee and rotate the ball of the foot and kneecap slightly out. Complete the setup by adjusting your distance from the wall so that your kneeling leg is positioned directly under your hip.
Initiate the sidebend by tilting the top of your right hip toward your right thigh. Feel the stretch in your right hamstrings and adductors as your right hip dips toward your thigh. Reach your right hand to your ankle. Then place it on a block inside the front foot or bring it to the floor inside your front foot. Root down through the left knee and reach your left arm toward the ceiling.
Pause here for a slow, deep breath and bring your awareness to the sensations of your side body and spine. Refine your pose by rooting your right hand into the floor, block, or shin and pressing your left hand and right foot firmly into the wall. Contrast these movements by pressing your left hip away from the wall and gently rounding your left rib cage toward the ceiling. Feel the long, deep stretch from your outer shoulder down through your left ribs and waist to your outer hip. Direct your breath and attention to any stuck spots along this seam. Take 4 to 5 smooth breaths.
To come out of the pose, take your left hand to your left hip, slightly bend your right knee, and lift your torso to vertical. Take a moment and feel the energetic quality of the posture before you repeat the pose on the second side.
Why This Works: The wall provides stability and a source of leverage for rotating your spine and lengthening your side body.
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose), at the wall
How to: Sit with the right side of your body against a wall and straighten your right leg. Bend your left knee and slide your left heel to your pubic bone. The sole of the left foot rests against the inner right thigh, and the left knee is on the floor.
Root down through the sitting bones and lift through the crown of the head. Rotate your chest toward the center of the room. Staying lifted, tilt your right hip toward your right thigh. This tilt is far more subtle than in the previous postures, but it's no less essential. Reach your right hand to your right shin and lengthen your left arm overhead. Keep your hand on your shin or bend your elbow and rest it on the floor just inside your right leg. Take hold of the outer edge of your right foot with your left hand. (If you're feeling stuck, place a block under your hips.)
To deepen your sidebend, move your right hand from your shin or the floor to your left thigh. Hold the top of the thighbone, press down, and gently pull it toward your knee. This will anchor your thigh and give your pelvis and spine a reference point to lengthen away from. Press your right elbow into the floor and bend your left elbow toward the ceiling. Take a breath and notice how this increases the stretch in your outer ribs and shoulders. Start to roll your back body toward the wall, especially the left ribs, bringing as much of your spine against the wall as possible. Direct 4 to 5 breaths into your left ribs and waist before releasing the posture and sitting up. Register the feeling in your side body before changing sides.
Why This Works: The wall will help orient you in space, as well as provide a welcome source of support, especially if you're new to the pose.
Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.
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