Unless you’re a teapot, side bending probably isn’t the way you move to perform everyday tasks. That being said, side bending, or lateral flexion of the spine, is one way your body can move. It’s also one way your body is occasionally asked to move in your yoga practice. So it’s worth unpacking.
When we side bend, we first decompress one side of the body and then the other. Stretching the side body is my go-to action if I’ve been sitting or driving for a long period of time. Like the contracted bellows of an accordion that are then expanded, my torso lengthens and I can breathe easier.
In order to reap the benefits of side bending, however, one needs some education in engaging and releasing the muscles of this region. Learning to engage and release those muscles can help you too to stand taller and increase your capacity for breath.
The cannon of yoga poses is full of backbends, forward bends, and twists but entails relatively few side bends. Since this action gets somewhat shorter shrift than others, we tend to scrunch up on the side body. That can make side bends feel particularly intense, which makes it important to first warm up the muscles involved in lengthening.
It is generally accepted that the increased circulation from an active warm-up prepares the muscles for static (non-moving) stretching. You may have noticed that it feels better to stretch the hamstrings after a pose like virabhadrasana III (warrior III) that activates the hamstrings. Using the information we have as yoga teachers, we can design sequences that warm up the muscles that will be called upon to lengthen later in class.
Let’s take, for example, parivritta janu sirsasana (rotated head to knee pose), an intense pose that involves hamstring and side-body stretching with external hip rotation and spinal rotation. If you jump into parivritta janu sirsasana without preparing those parts of the body involved in the pose, it can feel overly intense. But if you prepare well, the experience becomes both more pleasant and more fruitful.
As you warm up the muscles specific to the pose, become aware of their engagement and the resulting spaciousness in your joints.
Begin with the following exercises, and then prepare for the peak pose by lengthening the side body and hamstrings with extended side angle pose (utthita parsvakonasana), triangle (trikonasana), standing side bends, and pyramid pose (parsvottanasana). To reinforce the actions of the exercises, work knee flexion and external hip rotation with cobbler’s pose (also known as bound angle pose or baddha konasana) and the seated twistmarichyasana III before going into parivritta janu sirsasana.
Come onto all fours. Keeping your right knee bent at a 90-degree angle, raise your right leg to hip height, externally rotate it, and bend your knee deeply. Keeping your right knee out to the side, scoop your right thigh forward toward your right arm, without being concerned about how full your range of motion is. Then return your right leg to the starting position. Keep your right knee deeply bent the entire time.
Do 10 repetitions on the right side, and then switch sides. This exercise works the external rotators of the thigh and the hamstrings.
Sit in preparation for parivritta janu sirsasana, with your right hip in external rotation, right knee bent, and right foot brushing your inner left thigh. Open your left leg slightly to the left, with the knee straight or slightly bent. If you have tight hamstrings or hips, sit on a folded blanket or bolster. Raise your right knee toward your torso, deepening your hip crease. Slowly lower it to the starting position.
Do a total of 30 repetitions before switching sides. This works your adductors, although you may not feel them at first. But keep going!
Come onto all fours. Straighten your right leg behind your right hip and spin your right heel down to your mat. Place your left hand on the floor about six inches in front of your left shoulder. Place your right palm against your chest. Turn your torso to the right, concentrating on rotating the spine on its axis. Then turn your chest to face the ground. Do 20 repetitions, and then switch sides.
If you’d like more of a challenge, hold a two- or five-pound hand weight in your top hand throughout the exercise. The aim is to work the muscles that rotate the torso—the rotatores muscles and obliques.
Sit in preparation for parivritta janu sirsasana, with your right leg bent and externally rotated, your right foot against your upper inner left thigh, and your torso facing forward. Raise your straight left leg, and then lower it. Now roll over your right shin to come onto all fours, with your left forearm on the ground and your left leg straight and reaching back from your left hip. Now raise your left leg to higher than hip height while keeping your low back broad. Lower your left foot to the ground and reverse-roll over the right leg to return to your starting position.
Do this 10 times total, and then switch sides. You’re working lots of muscles here—your entire core, the quads of your straight leg in the sitting leg lift, and the hamstrings in the all-fours leg lift. Not to mention your arms, which are working to stabilize you throughout the exercise.
When you come into parivritta janu sirsasana, the muscle memory you’ve laid down in these exercises will help you find a middle ground for each action. This will lead to a pose that is engaged and awake, with your muscles aiding you in the posture. Use your external rotators to rotate your bent-leg thigh. Contract the quads of your straight leg as if you were lifting that leg off the ground. At the same time, engage your hamstrings on that same leg by pushing the leg into the ground.
Find a middle space where the simultaneous activation of the quads and hamstrings stabilizes and enlivens your pose.
Use the muscles of your lower side torso to pull you down toward your straight leg while using the muscles of your upper side torso as if you were lifting out of the pose. Now use your core muscles to twist your spine and face to the side.
As with any other asana, this engaged approach to parivritta janu sirsasana will make for a purposeful experience. Without it, you could simply be pulled into the side bend by gravity, rather than being truly supported, with your legs remaining limp as you try to turn your spine.
By first warming your muscles and then learning from the process of engaging them, you’re gathering newfound knowledge. This will help you in creating a pose—and an experience—that’s bright, awake, and alive.
Photography: Andrea Killam