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Explore New Territory in Side Bend Yoga Poses
For all too many of us in Western culture, close familiarity with the physical body doesn’t extend too far beyond the hands and fingers—always on keyboards or phone screens. Whatever other areas make themselves known often do so through pain and/or tension. Yogic practices can offer a laboratory wherein we can investigate, and then come to better know, various areas of our bodies. Such exploration and discovery can foster within us a spirit of curiosity and boldness, and an accompanying desire to reach out and experience the unknown.
A Short Yoga Sequence to Explore Side Bend Poses
In particular, side bends offer opportunities to delve more deeply into our side bodies, particularly the spaces between the hips and the shoulders on both sides of the body. Greater access to these areas can add expansiveness, strength, stability, and vitality to our overall yogic practices, and from there, into our lives. The following short sequence helps to set a foundation for, and then immerse you in, this side-body exploration.
To warm up the spine, come to Tabletop Pose and begin a Cat-Cow flow.
Gather Stability in Your Hands
To begin that investigation of yet-unknown spaces in your body, begin by dropping your tailbone (Cat) and sequencing the flexion movement up your spine so that your head responds last. Then beginning by raising the tailbone, sequence the extention up your spine so that your head lifts last. In addition, spread your fingers wide and press into every centimeter of your hands, as if you were trying to push open a very heavy door. That will keep your wrists safe as well as add stability to your position here. Though we know our hands with all the work they do for us on keyboards and screens all day, we don’t necessarily truly know how to access all of their strength.
When you have all of that established, begin a flow of Tabletop Sidebend. Look back at your feet on one side, and then the other, keeping your hips still and your head in line with your neck (also in line with your spine). On the other hand, it’s not just about looking back; as you bend sideways in your torso to look backwards, imagine making a wide and long rainbow arch. In this type of arch, take care not to collapse at your mid-ribs, a common tendency. Doing so will block you from accessing the areas that side-bends can allow you to experience. It also closes off space in which you can bring in more breath.
On that note, as you come into your side bend, imagine breathing into both sides of your body—even, and perhaps especially, the side to which you are bending. Inhale as you come to neutral, energizing your torso for that action, and exhale to let it release into the side bend. Do your best to keep your hips still, so that you keep the bend in the side-body; like in a geometry equation, space in one area means less space for another area. Keep moving back-and-forth until the flow feels complete, or perhaps five to ten times to each side (and therefore five to ten cycles of breath).
Rising up to Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Then roll your toes under, rising up to Tadasana, sequencing the movement up your spine (stacking each vertebra on top of the last) to Tadasana. In addition, pick up your toes and spread them apart. Place them back down, feeling the stability and strength that they can offer to your stance here. Our feet are amazing evolutionary designs, but we often forget their potential in an age when many of us simply stuff them into shoes and then don’t give them further thought or attention. In that way, that toe-spreading action can offer further discovery of unfamiliar spaces.
Preparing for Standing Sidebend with some Mudras
Prepare for Standing Sidebend by reaching your arms overhead. Allow your shoulders and shoulderblades to rise slightly, as they must in order for you to raise your arms, but release any muscular tension that you don’t need to perform that action. Then take a mudra that feels right to you today, such as Gyan Mudra (thumb-index finger hold around the wrist opposite to the side to which you will bend), or “Steeple” Mudra (the index fingers extended upwards with the rest of the fingers wrapped around each other). Inhale to lift up and out of the low back, and exhale to bend directly to the side. Avoid moving forward or backward. Think two-dimensional movement.
Explore Your Yoga Sidebend
Allow a micro-bend in your elbows, but challenge yourself to energize your hands and arms to reach up and out as much as possible. Feel a slight pulling backwards of your tricep area (back of the upper arms), so that you hide your ears. That will create greater openness in the chest, and therefore greater space for breath as well as greater stability in that area. Ground the foot you’re stretching away from. Look up toward your mudra if that is comfortable on your neck, and if you don’t experience conditions such as heart disease or hypertension.
Just as with the prior side bend, feel expansion through the mid-ribs, especially on the shorter underside, rather than collapsing into them. Also keep your hips as still as possible as mentioned, to keep space available for the side bend, but also to avoid pulling anything in the hip/upper thigh area in strange, unintended ways. As you breathe in, see if you can find more length upwards and outwards (including in that mid-rib area). As you breathe out, notice if you can release into a deeper side bend, as you maintain that “rainbow” arch shape. Cultivate that for five to ten breaths on each side, or whatever feels right for you today. As you complete the bend to each side, inhale to fill up your torso with the breath that can help it to rise back to vertical.
Stability in the hips, accessing all side-body areas (including the mid-ribs), energizing through the appendages (legs, arms, fingers, toes), cultivating a deeper and longer bend with breath—these are all fundamentals that apply to other side bends, such as Gate Posture (Parighasana) and Extended Side Angle (Utthita Parsvakonasana). These yoga postures offer opportunities to dig deeply into an area of the body, the spaces between our hip points and shoulders, which we don’t otherwise often acknowledge. This exploration of the unknown can inspire us to explore other new territories in our lives. In an age that desperately needs new ways of thinking and problem solving, that can be game-changing.
Another great yoga basics article from YogaUOnline and Kathryn Boland: Balance Poses for Focused Stability.
Kathryn Boland is a RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!