When was the last time you were in a class in which gate pose (parighasana) was the focal point? That’s what I thought. It’s generally not one of the poses used to advertise yoga’s benefits, and it certainly isn’t one of the most recognizable. Maybe that’s because it’s not “sexy”—it doesn’t require seemingly superhuman feats of strength or flexibility.
But this unsung hero has a lot going for it. It stretches the adductors and strengthens and lengthens the lateral flexors of the spine (including the internal and external obliques), muscles that are integral to functional core strength. Side bending is also a great way to help you breathe more deeply. (Shallowly breathing high up into the upper chest, and thus scrunching our shoulders up to our ears, is unfortunately an unconscious habit for many of us.)
This 15- to 20-minute sequence focuses on gate pose as well as other movements that share its components. It’s a great warm-up for sun salutations or it can serve as a stand-alone practice. You may want to have one or two blocks and a folded blanket on hand. Do the entire sequence on the right side before switching sides.
Begin in child’s pose (if you like, for comfort, you can place a folded blanket under your knees and keep it there for the poses that follow). Focus on breathing deeply into your belly and allowing your back ribs to expand with your inhales and softly settle with your exhales. Then rise up into a high kneeling position.
Interlace your fingers with your palms facing down in front of you. Inhale and lift your arms straight out and up, until they’re overhead and palms are facing the sky. On your exhale flip your palms over as you bend your elbows to lower your arms back to your starting position. Do this for a total of five breaths.
Lift your arms straight overhead alongside your ears. Bring your palms together, press your index fingers together and point them up to the ceiling, and interlace the rest of your fingers. (Another option is to keep your arms shoulder width apart and parallel.) Inhale to lengthen your spine and then allow your hips to move to the left as you bend to the right on your exhale, reaching through your index fingers, keeping your shoulders away from your ears. Inhale to come upright, and exhale to side bend to the right again. Do this a total of five times, then release your arms by your sides.
Extend your right leg to the right with the sole of your right foot on the ground and your toes pointed forward. Activate your glutes to perform a slight posterior (backward) tilt of your pelvis. Lift your left arm away from your body and up and overhead, so that your fingers are reaching to the right and you feel a lengthening rippling down the left side of your rib cage. Slide your right hand down your right leg as if it were a skier going down a slope as you side bend to the right—this is just pure lateral spine flexion, no rotation down or up. Notice how your belly rises and your ribs lift out to the left side and up with your inhales. Stay for five breaths.
Lift your arms and torso back up to center and place your left hand on the mat or on one or more blocks one to two feet to the left of your left knee, side bending to the left. Lift your right arm up and bend your right elbow so you can cup the back of your head with your hand, and rest some of the weight of your head in that hand to take the work away from your neck muscles. Twist to the right, initiating the twist from your thoracic spine to turn your heart and gaze up to the ceiling. Stay for five breaths and then bring your torso back to center with your chest and hips facing forward.
Stretch your right arm alongside your right ear, and lift your right leg off the ground to no more than hip height. Inhale. On your exhale, bend your right elbow and right knee as you try to bring them to touch. Inhale to lengthen and extend both your right arm and right leg again. Exhale to bend and try to connect. Do this a total of five times and then release your right foot back to the floor and bring your torso upright.
Hinge at your hips and fold forward, walking your hands out in front of you as far as you can, until your shoulders are stacked over your wrists at a 90-degree angle and your left hip is directly above your left knee. Lengthen your spine and lift your sitting bones to the ceiling as you stay for five breaths.
Keep your left hand on the ground and lift your right arm straight up to the ceiling, with the twist originating from your thoracic, or mid-back, region. Gaze up at your right hand, out to the side, or at the ground, depending on what’s comfortable for your neck. Take five breaths here. On your fifth exhale, start to lower your right hand.
As you continue to exhale and lower your right hand, thread your right arm under your left, reaching your right fingertips out to the left. Come to rest on the side of your head and on the outside of your right shoulder, and walk your left hand forward overhead slightly, but still keep it resting on the ground. Keep lifting your sitting bones to the ceiling as you stay for five breaths, noticing the sensation of lengthening in your inner right thigh. Withdraw your right arm, walk your hands back toward your body, and bring your torso upright.
Repeat this sequence on the other side, starting with high kneeling breath.
Spend five minutes in savasana. Notice if your adductors feel as if they have been stretched. Focus on directing your breath into your belly and thoracic spine and minimizing any shoulder breathing. Notice how the general area of your rib cage feels. Pay attention to whether the breath seems to flow more freely in these regions. Heightened awareness, and even increased flexibility, in all of these regions are just some of the reasons why I love the highly underrated gate pose!
Photography: Andrea Killam