How often do you think about your side body? Probably not as often as you think about your front body, which tends to get fussed over, since it's what you see in your reflection. It's easy to overdevelop this area—especially the chest and abdomen—which can lead to muscle imbalances that create a rounded posture.
And while you can't see your back body, you can feel it. Back pain is one of the most common modern maladies, and healing it is one of the biggest motivators for starting a yoga practice. The back body stretches in forward bends, and the front body stretches in backbends. Typically, the side body doesn't get as much attention; it usually just goes along for the ride. In the intense lateral stretch of Parighasana (Gate Pose), however, the side body takes center stage.
Named for its shape, which resembles a bar used for shutting a gate (parigha in Sanskrit), this pose is a gateway to improved breathing because it opens the side ribs, allowing a full expansion of the lungs. A powerful stretch of the abdominal obliques on the sides of the torso, Parighasana also helps tone the waist. And it can help provide stability for your lower back because it stretches and strengthens the quadratus lumborum, a muscle deep in the back of your waist that connects the top of the pelvis to the lowest ribs and lumbar vertebrae and laterally flexes the spine. Tightness in this muscle can lead to lower back pain, so building a strong and supple quadratus lumborum can be extremely beneficial if you have a stiff back.
Parighasana not only creates length in your sides but also helps create openness in the hips—making it excellent preparation for more demanding poses, such as Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) and Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). And the strong action of elongating the spine, combined with a mild twist, means the posture is also perfect for learning how to begin this rotation deep in the belly and to twist evenly throughout the entire spine—an action essential in all twisting postures.
Open Your Breath
If your breath tends to be shallow, it may be a revelation to feel your breath in the side body. Gate Pose can transform your breathing patterns, because it helps you notice your lungs expand in three dimensions—not just from front to back, but also from side to side and top to bottom.
By elongating the area from the hip to the armpit, Parighasana provides a powerful stretch of the intercostal muscles (the ones between the ribs), which are often tight and underused. This makes Parighasana a wonderful antidote to the common "collapsed" posture that causes restriction in the side body. Stretching the intercostals expands the rib cage, creating more space for the lungs and enhancing respiration. In fact, practicing Parighasana can help relieve problems such as asthma, allergies, and colds.
The pose also stretches the hamstrings and groins, tones the abdominal muscles and organs—particularly the intestines—and can help stimulate digestion.
Prepare for Parighasana with this simple awareness exercise: Lie on the floor with your knees bent and place your hands on your rib cage as close to the sides of your body as possible. Close your eyes and bring your awareness to the flow of breath beneath your hands. On an inhalation, feel your ribs expand out—like an accordion stretching wide. On an exhalation, feel your ribs fall inward gently. Linger here for several breaths, tuning in to the sensations of expansion and release of the side ribs.
Place your sticky mat near a wall and have a blanket handy. Begin by warming up your spine with a few rounds of Cat and Cow: Exhale, arching your back up into Cat Pose, then inhale, reversing the curve to the Cow position. Next, gently heat up your body and stretch your limbs by moving from Child's Pose to Downward-Facing Dog a few times, synchronizing your movement with your breath. After a few rounds, rest in Child's Pose.
Since you have to support your weight on one knee during Gate Pose, start by kneeling on a folded blanket with your knees hip-width apart. Be sure your hips are directly over your knees with thighbones parallel to each other and perpendicular to the floor. Spread your toes and press the tops of your toes, feet, and shins into the blanket. Draw your lower belly in and up as you release your tailbone down to protect your lower back. On an exhalation, firm your foundation through your knees and lower legs. On an inhalation, lengthen up through your spine extending the crown of your head to the sky.
Open your side
Extend your right leg out to the right, keeping it in line with your torso, with your right knee and the top of your right thigh facing the ceiling. Bring your right foot as flat onto the floor as possible and press it down as you draw your right leg back toward your body, snuggling the head of the thigh bone deep into the hip socket. Keep your left thigh perpendicular to the floor, and root down through your left knee, shin, and the top of your left foot.
On an inhalation, extend your arms out to your sides, palms down. Stretch your hands away from each other to expand the front and back of the chest—but don't let your lower rib cage poke forward. Keep this sense of length in your spine as you bring your right hand to your right hip, pressing the webbed area between the thumb and index finger into the crease where your leg meets your torso. Gaze forward, with soft eyes, and keep your shoulders away from your ears. Draw your navel in toward your spine and lengthen your lower back, inviting your tailbone to release toward the floor.
On an exhalation, hinge at the hip as you bend your torso out over the right leg. Keep both sides of your body lengthening evenly. Extend your right hand out along the right leg, resting it on the thigh, knee, shin, foot, or block—wherever it lands comfortably. Extend your left arm up, palm in, bringing the upper arm alongside your ear. Take several slow, deep breaths, feeling the rib cage expand in all directions. If you're ready to go deeper, continue to extend your torso out over your right leg, allowing the upper side body to round slightly as the lower side body shortens. With each inhalation lengthen your spine and let gravity take you deeper into the side stretch.
When you've gone as far as you comfortably can to the side, press your right hand into your right leg to help you lengthen and rotate your spine as you gaze in front of your left arm, toward the sky. Start the rotation as close to the base of your spine as possible—without letting your pelvis tilt forward or back. Turn your belly first, then extend the twist gently and evenly all the way to the crown of your head. Breathe into your left rib cage, feeling the intercostal muscles expand.
When you're ready to come out, allow an inhalation to lift you up. Rest in Child's Pose before repeating on the other side. See if you can feel the difference between the right and left sides.
Vary the Pose
To increase the hamstring and groin stretch, flex the foot of the extended leg and press the heel into the floor, cushioning it with a blanket if necessary. If you're flexible enough to reach your toes, bring them toward you as you bend sideways. To make sure you're keeping your torso in one plane—as if between two panes of glass—try either variation with your front body against a wall.
In addition to being a powerful side stretch, Parighasana is excellent preparation for Trikonasana because it opens many of the same areas with less demand on the legs. Since the two poses have similar actions in the torso, try Parighasana as if you were doing Trikonasana on one knee. Be aware, too, that it's not uncommon for asymmetries, such as those caused by scoliosis, to make Parighasana feel very different on each side. (It may actually be helpful for people with mild scoliosis.) Therefore, be sure you don't do the pose any more intensely than you can while maintaining a deep, comfortable breath. The internal organs are not symmetrical, either, so this may also account for different sensations. Stretching to the right nourishes the liver, while stretching to the left stimulates the spleen. As with any other pose, the key to Parighasana is to challenge yourself without straining.
Carol Krucoff is a registered yoga teacher and a journalist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is the coauthor of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve, and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise. Visit www.healingmoves.com.