Our side muscles–or intercostals–are made to move with the “slide and glide” of breathing. But too much sitting, a lack of movement, excess coughing, or even a good night’s rest can tighten them, inhibiting our breath and freedom.
The intercostals continues down into your obliques–the supportive side muscles of our core. Our intercostals are responsible for side-bending, and contribute to our upright shape, breathing, and the complex movements of bipedal life. Cross-body movements using these muscles, activate both sides of the brain, and studies have shown that using them can improve memory. For these reasons and more, side-bending movements are an essential part of a holistic health routine.
This sequence, by New York City-based yoga teacher Dana Slamp, is perfect for anytime you need a quick mental and physical refresh.
Krishna Pose variation
Starting in Mountain Pose, step your left foot behind you and to the right, like a curtsy. Bend your knees to the degree that feels engaging for you. Lift your arms to frame your face, and use your right hand to guide your left forearm up and over to the right. Expand your left side with each inhale for 3-5 breaths.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose) variation
Return to Mountain Pose, bend your knees and lift your arms high to Chair Pose. On each inhalation, lift your fingertips a touch higher to the sky, breathing into your sides and extending your spine long. On an exhalation, “prayer” your hands and twist to the right, hooking your left elbow outside your right thigh near your knee. As you breathe deeply through your nose, press your top fingertips into the bottom ones–lifting the right side of your chest toward the sky in a twist. Keep your spine long, remaining for another 3–5 breaths, then release and gently fold into a Standing Forward Bend.
Moving through this sequence indoors? Try this supportive yoga mat.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) variation
Stepping your left foot back and tapping the back knee down, reach your left hand up and to the right to bring length down into your side and hip flexors. This variation can lengthen the psoas and the front-body muscles of forward movement. With every inhalation, reach your left fingers up and to the right. Play with slightly swaying your hand forward and back a little–looking for where in this long plane of muscles you could use a stretch. Enjoy for 5 breaths.
See also Learn More About Your Psoas
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) variation
From Low Lunge, place your hands down to frame your front foot. Then transition to Downward Dog Split by pressing your hips up and back. Keep your right leg lifting and open your right hip as you find the pose. Play with bending your right leg behind you–or extend it with your toes pointed while keeping your hips opening to the right. Keep reaching through your toes as you breathe fully into your side for 3–5 breaths.
Level up option (pictured): Lift onto your right fingertips and walk your hand forward to extend your right side. Place your right hand back on the earth in Down Dog before moving on.
See also Three-Legged Dog Dissected
Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reverse Warrior Pose)
Stepping your right foot forward between your hands, spin your back heel down to the ground for Peaceful Warrior footing. As you rise, pass through Warrior II, then reach your right arm up and over for a delicious side body stretch. Your left hand should be lightly placed on your back leg–avoid any pressure on the outside of your left knee. Peek past your right arm toward the sky and breathe fully into your side for 3 breaths.
Try these super soft yoga leggings for extra support in your side-body stretch exploration.
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
On an exhalation, tilt your torso forward and perch your right elbow on your thigh, or place your right fingertips just inside your right foot. Move your right knee to the right to help you stack that knee over your right ankle. Reach your left arm up and over your head, and spin your torso open slightly by peeking underneath your left triceps toward the sky. The pinky side of your left arm spins down toward the earth. Continue to reach as you breathe purposefully into your side for 3–5 breaths.
Level up option (pictured): Play with bowing this classic shape by lifting your hips up 2-4 inches and reaching the top hand toward the earth in front of your mat for an arc-like expansion in the right side. The resulting shape will look more like a rainbow and less like a straight line.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
First, look forward in front of your mat. Reach your right fingertips as far forward as they will go on the earth, or use a block underneath your hand. Begin to slide your back foot forward and lift it up to Half Moon Pose by straightening both legs in a 90-degree angle. Reach your top arm over your head and toward the earth as if you could do a cartwheel. You don’t need to touch the earth with your left hand–just the weight of the left arm relaxing contributes to the side extension. Dipping the back leg a little lower extends the stretch across the entire top hip.
Try working with a yoga block to support you in this pose.
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Extend your right leg out to the right and bend your left knee, placing your left foot by your inner right thigh. If your left knee is sensitive, you can perch it on a block or blanket. Inhale and extend your arms to the sky, then extend and bend to the right. The bottom hand or elbow can come to the earth as you reach with the top arm. Enjoy the feeling of seated pose expanse here without having to balance on your feet. Hold for 5–8 breaths.
Option (pictured): If you have the space, weave your bottom arm back to the left, snuggling your right shoulder to the inside of your extended leg as you lean back into that leg. Your top hand might be able to touch or hold the foot. Keep the feeling of leaning back in order to target the side body.
Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana (Compass Pose)
Now that your body is feeling a little longer and more open, consider playing with Compass Pose. Sit up and keep your left leg still bent. Now bend your right leg and lift the shin with both hands. Hook your right shoulder or right upper arm underneath your knee and place you right hand down and to the side like a kickstand. You may need to round your back to sneak your right shoulder in front of the leg as you wrap your right leg over the shoulder like a backpack. Hook your left hand on top of the foot, where shoelaces would be, and begin to lengthen the leg while peeking under your left arm. Remember that your leg does not need to be straight for you to receive the full effects of the pose. Stay mindful of your right shoulder, firming your right shoulder blade onto your back and leaning back into your right leg. This can be a challenging pose, so be sure to breathe throughout the process. Take 3 breaths in your final expression of the shape.
Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Now release your right leg and extend it directly in front of you. Inhale and extend your spine as you reach your arms over your head, then fold over your straight right leg. Play with walking both hands to the right side of your leg, targeting the diagonal muscles in your deep low back. This down-regulating pose lengthens your back side muscles to prepare you for a calming Savasana. Lengthen your exhales slowly over the course of 5-8 breaths.
Repeat poses 1-9 on the other side. Then treat yourself to a long Savasana (Corpse Pose), with your limbs wide like a star. Without manipulating your breath, observe its easy path and your belly moving in and out.
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About our contributor
Dana Slamp is a writer, a certified yoga therapist, and the Founder of Prema Yoga Institute, New York’s IAYT-accredited yoga therapy school. Her background in the arts and spirituality informs all that she creates. Dana has presented at Yoga Journal Conference, Telluride Yoga Festival, and teaches retreats and workshops internationally. She’s delighted to offer the IAY Yoga Therapy Program, an online RYT500 course and more alongside PYI’s diverse faculty at www.premayogainstitute.com. A self-confessed “Dog Mom,” Dana currently lives near Central Park with her dog Cooper. For online classes with Dana, check out Equinox+ and YogaAnytime.