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Side Plank Pose

When's the last time you reminded yourself that you can do difficult things?


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Side Plank Pose, or Vasisthasana, is named after Vasistha, one of the oldest Vedic sages and the author of a number of Vedic hymns. The revered sage is known to have counseled a ruler who was seeking clarity through his clouded vision. Clarity is exactly what is required as you orchestrate the various actions within your body in this challenging—some would say confidence-building—arm balance.

As with so many things in life, the learning comes with the doing. As with so many things in yoga, the lesson tends to be less about physical strength and more about finding mental steadiness within uncertainty.

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Sanskrit

Vasisthasana (vah-sish-TAHS-anna)

vasistha = most excellent, best, richest

asana = seat; posture

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Side Plank Basics

Pose type: Arm balance

Targets: Upper body

Benefits: No matter which version of the pose you practice, Side Plank can strengthen your wrists, arms, shoulders, legs, and core, including the difficult-to-reach obliques and the muscles that support your spine. It also stretches your hamstrings and hips. In terms of less tangible benefits, the pose challenges your balance and enhances your proprioception.

Cautions & Contraindications

It’s best to avoid this pose if you have an injury to the ankles, hips, wrists, shoulders, or back. Also, check with your physician before practicing this pose if you experience unregulated high blood pressure, have had abdominal surgery, or are pregnant.

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How to do Side Plank Pose

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  1. Begin in Plank Pose. Bring your wrists slightly in front of your shoulders.
  2. Roll onto the outer edge of your left foot and stack your right foot on top of your left as you shift your weight into your left hand. Bring your right arm to your right hip.
  3. Reach through your heels, flex your feet, and lengthen your body to create a long line from your heels to your head.
  4. Gaze straight ahead at a steady point. Stay here or reach your right arm straight toward the ceiling and slowly turn your head to look at your right hand.
  5. Stay here for several breaths or lift your right leg, grasp your right big toeswith your first two fingers, and open your leg to the right as you reach through the heel to lift your hips toward the ceiling (see last variation below).
  6. Slowly reverse how you came into the pose and return to Plank. Repeat on the other side.
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Beginner’s Tips

  • If you feel unsteady, you’ll find more stability when you keep both feet on the floor (see first two variations below).
  • Start with your top arm alongside your body or bring your top hand to your hip. This keeps your center of gravity lower and makes finding your balance easier.
  • If you’re wobbling in the pose, that’s normal. It can help to look straight ahead at a fixed point on the wall in front of you or turn your gaze down to your hand on the floor.

Common Misalignments

  • Check if your hips are sagging toward the mat. Lift them to form a long line from your heels to your head. You can also try reaching your left big toe mound toward the floor.
  • As you teeter to find balance, notice if you tend to lean backward or hinge at your hips and stick your bum out slightly behind you. To counteract this, engage your core by drawing your navel toward your spine as you thrust your hips forward ever so slightly to bring your entire body into the same plane.
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Teaching Side Plank

  • Demo different iterations of Side Plank and encourage them to take their time and explore different versions, whether it’s their first Side Plank or their 347th.
  • Beginners can become more comfortable with the basic shape when you first practice Parighasana (Gate Pose), in which their lower knee remains on the floor to help with balance. They can work toward Side Plank by first lifting their bottom knee in a supported Side Plank (see the first two variations below).
  • Remind students they can keep their top hand on the hip until they find their drishti and balance. They can stay there or slowly reach their top arm toward the ceiling.
  • You can the offer option to extend their top arm overhead, as you would in Utthita Parsvokanasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), or slowly step their top foot behind them into Camatkarasana (Wild Thing).
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Side Plank Variations

Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

Variation: Side Plank With Scissors Feet

From Plank Pose, roll onto the outer edge of left foot, but instead of stacking your left foot on top of your right, place it in front of your right to create more steadiness. Keep your top hand on your hip.

Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

Variation: Side Plank With a Kickstand

Set yourself up to come into Side Plank but rather than stacking your right foot on your left, bend your right knee and step that foot in front of your body. Lift your hips and bring your right hand to your right hip or lift your right arm toward the ceiling and slowly start to look up.

Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

Variation: Side Plank With Leg Extended

Come into Side Plank. Bend your top knee and draw it toward your chest as your grasp the big toe with your first two fingers. Rotate your knee as far to the right as you can and keep your gaze straight ahead as you press through your heel and start to straighten your leg. It’s fine to keep your knee slightly bent. Lift your hips. Slowly turn your gaze toward your top foot.

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Why We Love This Pose

“As someone who is not a fan of most arm balances in my practice (which are very few to begin with), I actually enjoy Side Plank,” says Yoga Journal staff writer Ellen O’Brien. “Rather than focusing on the concentration of weight on one arm, I tend to think more about lifting up and engaging with my abdominal muscles. By focusing on lifting toward the ceiling and turning my gaze up, I tend not to focus as much on the difficulty of the pose.”

 

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Preparatory and Counter Poses

Preparatory Poses

Parighasana (Gate Pose)

Plank Pose

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Utthita Parsvokanasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)

Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose)

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)

Counter Poses

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)

Balasana (Child’s Pose)

Sphinx Pose

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Anatomy

Vasishtasana has three main stories taking place: the arm that is supporting your body; the lower leg, and the pelvis. Each interacts with the other to create balance, explains Ron Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga instructor.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

An anatomy illustration of Side Plank Pose: Vasisthasana
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

1. The arm that is supporting the body
When you straighten your bottom arm, you contract the triceps. The long head of the triceps has its origin on the scapula, so when you engage that muscle, it brings stability to the shoulder.

2. The lower leg
As you press the bottom foot into the floor, dorsiflex the ankle so that the foot forms a right angle with the tibia. Press through your arches to evert the foot, which contracts the peroneus longus and brevis muscles.

An anatomy illustration shows the body in Side Plank Pose: Vasisthasana
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

3. The pelvis
The pelvis will sag at first. Lifting it by activating the abductor muscles on the sides of the hips and the lower-side abdominals. Also, press the side of the bottom foot into the floor to contract the gluteus medius and tensor fascia lata, which will lift the pelvis. Contract the gluteus maximus to extend the hips, or shift them slightly forward, and stabilize the pelvis.

The pose also activates the back extensors, including the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum. These muscles will engage relatively more forcefully on the lower side to lift the trunk and prevent sagging. Contracting the rectus abdominis  balances the work of the back muscles.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Arm Balances and Inversions by Ray Long.

Side Plank in Practice

Ready to integrate Side Plank into your practice? Here are a few flows to try:

7 Yoga Poses to Work Those Easily Overlooked Lower Abs

A Practice for Falling Apart (And Coming Back Together)

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About Our Contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.