Side plank (vasisthasana) can be a great pose for building physical strength and mental focus—as long as your wrists and shoulders are in good shape. Balancing on one hand is challenging enough as it is, and if you throw in an injured wrist or shoulder, it can really be the pits.
When looking for the perfect modification for a student (or myself), I like to reflect on the essence of the pose. Rather than focusing only on what the pose looks like, I feel it’s far more important to know what the pose feels like from the inside, and the energetics that result from the specific geometry of the pose.
Let’s start by exploring the classic version of vasisthasana:
Begin in plank, taking care to align the shoulders over the wrists. Bring the legs and feet together.
Rather than “locking” the elbow joints (hyperextension), aim to line up the upper arm bones vertically over the lower arm bones (creating a visually straight line). If your arms tend to hyperextend, aligning the upper arms directly over the lower arms will probably create the feeling of a slight bend in the elbows.
Shift your weight into the left hand and come onto the outer edge of the left foot, stacking the right foot on top. Make sure the left hand is aligned with the feet.
Keep both feet flexed, taking care to pull the pinky-toe edges of the feet back so that the feet are positioned as if you are standing on the floor. Squeeze the legs together and keep the pelvis squared to the wall you are facing.
Raise the right arm straight up, keeping a wrist-to-wrist alignment (left wrist directly in line with right wrist). The arms should make one long line; take care not to reach the top arm back behind your line of vision. Push the fingertip pads and knuckles of the left hand firmly into the floor, as if pushing it away. You’re creating a strong feeling of spaciousness in the shoulder (rather than sinking into it).
You can look at the floor or straight ahead of you, gradually gazing up toward the thumb of your right hand.
This pose is quite challenging, and it’s great for building balance and strength. The entire supporting side of the body is engaged—the muscles of the arms, chest, and upper back, as well as the abdominals and legs.
Hold for three to five breaths on the left side, and then repeat on the right side.
A Note About Hand Placement
Sometimes people move their left (bottom) hand to the center of the mat before rolling to the left to come into side plank. If you do this, when you shift your weight to the left, the body’s center of gravity will actually end up behind the supporting arm. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does mean that more muscle groups will have to work to counter the imbalance that’s being created. If from plank you keep the supporting hand under the shoulder and rotate over it, you work with the body’s own natural efficiency and balance in the pose, which may make vasisthasana feel more easeful.
Now that we’ve reviewed the classic form of vasisthasana, let’s look at a few ways you can adapt the pose to make it work for you or your students. The benefits of side plank can still be enjoyed in one of these marvelous side plank variations.
Side Plank Variations
If balance is a challenge, try…
Vasisthasana With One Foot on the Floor
As you come into side plank on the left side, bend the right knee, and place the right foot on the floor in front of the left leg. While this variation still strengthens the entire working side of the body, the foot on the ground acts as training wheels that allow you to focus on the alignment and the very tricky balancing aspect of the pose!
Vasisthasana With One Knee on the Floor
This variation also takes some of the pressure off the wrists. It focuses on opening the front of the body to face the side wall and on balance and poise.
From plank, bend the knees and place them on the floor. Move the left knee a few inches to the left, bringing it in line with your left wrist.
Then extend the right leg and shift your weight onto the left hand and left knee; the left shin will now be parallel or almost parallel to the short end of your mat, with the instep of the right foot touching the floor. Reach the right arm straight up to the ceiling, keeping the shoulders stacked, gazing up toward the right thumb, if you’d like.
You can keep the right foot on the floor or lift the right leg until it’s parallel to the floor, increasing the challenge of this side balance. With the right leg parallel to the floor, the right side of the abdominals and the right leg and hip muscles are working to maintain the lift while the left shoulder and arm are working to support your weight in the pose.
In this variation you can concentrate more on the balancing aspect of the pose with less pressure on the wrist and hand.
Vasisthasana in Front of a Wall
Place your yoga mat lengthwise against a wall. Come into plank pose so that the left side of your body is parallel to the wall and your left hand is a few inches away from the wall. Shift your weight onto the left hand and outer edge of the left foot.
Bring your right hand to your hip or reach it up to the sky. Parts of your back body will make contact with the wall, although not all parts of each person will touch the wall in the same way. Allowing areas of the arms, back, and buttocks to touch the wall increases the ability to balance, as it provides the nervous system with useful sensory information.
This is a great practice for feeling the alignment of the body in side plank. You may find this variation particularly helpful if you tend to throw your top arm way behind you, as the wall will give you helpful feedback.
If you have wrist issues, try...
Forearm Side Plank
Coming into side plank on the forearm will strengthen the working side of your body while taking the wrist and hand completely out of the picture. Starting in forearm plank, I like to pivot my left forearm about 45 degrees, maintaining elbow-under-shoulder alignment as I shift my weight onto the left side.
The left upper arm bone should be perpendicular to the floor. Fanning the fingers of the bottom hand slightly allows for a better connection and better balance.
If you need to avoid bearing weight through the arms, try…
Fish Out of Water!
Here’s a creative way to explore side plank even if you are unable to fully load the working arm (due to a shoulder injury, perhaps).
Begin by lying on your abdomen, with arms alongside your body. Roll onto your left side without pinning the left arm under or behind you. Bend the left elbow and reach the left hand across your chest toward the right shoulder. You can either cross the right arm over it (like vampire arms), or reach the right arm toward the ceiling.
Squeeze both legs together, flexing both feet, and raise your head, right shoulder, and legs away from the floor. This variation actually works the opposite side of the body (the top side), so the abdominals on your right side will be feeling the challenge. The balance is harder than you might think!
Side Plank and Scoliosis
One note about scoliosis and other body asymmetries: I’ve seen practitioners reap great results by working asymmetrically. In other words, it can be totally effective to practice side plank on one side only, or for a longer time on one side than the other.
You might think about balancing asymmetry in this way: You want to strengthen the side that’s naturally longer and stretch the side that’s shortened as a result of spinal curvature. So someone with scoliosis might practice for a longer duration on the side corresponding to the longer (convex) side. For more on this, see Yoga for Scoliosis: New Research Supports the Benefits of Side Plank.
There are, of course, many more side plank variations you can play with. But these should provide you with practice options and inspiration whenever the classic version of the pose seems other than optimal.
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