In addition to yoga, vasisthasana, or side plank pose, is commonly found in other types of classes and fitness modalities, such as strength and conditioning, gymnastics, and CrossFit. This may lead yoga students who come from those disciplines to hew to the pose because of its familiarity.
Despite its challenging nature, vasisthasana is more accessible than other single-arm balances such as kapinjalasana (partridge pose) and visvamitrasana (Sage Visvamitra’s pose) and two-arm balances like bakasana (crane pose) and astavakrasana (eight angle pose). Adding props to the vasisthasana equation is an excellent way to feel physically supported, receive feedback, and make the pose even more accessible.
For these variations, you will need a wall and two to four blocks.
Vasisthasana at the Wall
Doing side plank at the wall teaches your body its optimal placement. The posture isn't just about supporting your body on one hand, but also about the integrity of the actions while doing so. If you practice vasisthasana in the middle of the room but sometimes find it challenging to assess where your body is in space and make appropriate adjustments, you may still benefit from this variation. By using the wall, you can gradually bear weight on the bottom hand and outer edge of your foot and get a sense of what it's like for your body to fully extend.
Stand a little more than arm’s distance from the wall with your left side parallel to it. Place your left hand on the wall with fingertips pointing up.
Step another foot away from the wall so that there’s moderate weight in your left hand. Lean into the outer edge of your left foot while hugging your legs together. You may not be able to lift your right foot away from the floor, but it should at least feel lighter on the floor than your left foot (specifically the outer edge of your left foot).
Open your right arm to the side at shoulder height and expand across your chest. Bring your tailbone and pubic bone slightly closer to each other until you feel some length in your lower back. Look straight ahead or turn your head either toward your right hand or your left hand. Stay here for three to five breaths before switching sides.
To exit the pose, step closer to the wall, and then turn to face the wall using the support of your hands. Switch sides.
If this goes well for you, you can increase the challenge by keeping your hand on the wall and walking your feet farther away from it. You can also try entering the pose in the following way:
Place your hands on the wall as if you were in plank pose, with your feet a few feet away from the wall. Your body is moving toward a diagonal position.
Roll onto the outer edge of your right foot, keeping your legs and feet together. Turn your chest to the left and open your left arm to the side at shoulder height. Keep reaching your arms away from each other at shoulder height. Continue to push your right hand into the wall to maintain the integrity of your shoulder girdle. Stay here for three to five breaths.
To come out of the pose, turn to face the wall, rolling back onto both feet; place your left hand on the wall, and walk your feet closer to the wall. Switch sides.
Notice how your body begins to shift in space as it moves from upright toward a diagonal. As you increase the diagonal shift, instead of placing your hand on the wall, place it on a chair and then a stack of blocks. Then one block. Eventually, you can progress all the way to the floor. In that way, you can maintain the integrity of the shape as you work your way closer to the floor with strength and awareness.
Blocks Under Hips
There may be times when there isn't enough wall space in a class, or when some students are not comfortable at the wall alone. This multi-purpose variation works splendidly in a group setting to address such needs.
It’s common in an unsupported vasisthasana for the hips to sag toward the ground or to move out from the midline to offset the weight of the hips being held up. Blocks under the bottom hip help to imprint on your body where it should ideally be in space.
Stack two or three blocks horizontally on their lowest setting in approximately the middle of your mat. (You may need to adjust the number of blocks to accommodate your proportions and/or to move the blocks closer to the top of your mat if your feet are extending off of it.) Stand to the right of the blocks facing the long edge of your mat.
Squat until you can rest your outer left hip on your blocks (the greater trochanter area up to the iliac crest).
If this doesn't feel stable and you need a wider surface area, grab another stack of blocks and place them next to the first stack. Place your left hand on the ground, with your fingertips pointing toward the top of your mat and the heel of your hand slightly in front of your shoulder and in line with your hips.
Then straighten your legs, keeping them together and in line with your hips, pressing the outer edge of your left foot into the floor, and your body facing forward. Once your hips feel firmly supported by the blocks, lift your right arm toward the ceiling. Direct your gaze to your left hand, straight ahead, or toward your right thumb.
From here, you can work on the tadasana (mountain pose) alignment of your body by bringing your feet, hips, shoulders, and head in line, pressing into your foundation for side plank (bottom hand and outer edge of foot) and activating your outer hip muscles as if you were lifting your hips away from the blocks (and you well might). Stay here for three to five breaths, coming out before you need to.
To exit the pose, you can roll forward off the blocks into a plank position or bend your knees and lift your torso upright while semi-seated on the blocks. Stand up and switch sides.
Blocks Between Feet and Thighs
Classifying vasisthasana as an arm balance is mildly deceiving as you are also balancing on the outer edge of your foot. The legwork is sometimes overlooked because of the focus on balancing on one hand. This version of vasisthasana brings awareness to the inner legs. It requires you to focus almost entirely on placing your weight on the outer edge of your foot as well as hugging your legs into the midline. Squeezing the blocks develops your awareness of the entirety of your legs, from feet to pelvic floor. If your feet don’t regularly touch when your legs come together for the pose, the block serves to ground the elevated foot.
Begin on all fours, placing one block between your feet and one between your thighs.
Play around with the different block settings. You may find that you need different ones for your feet and thighs. Once you've figured that out, come into plank squeezing the blocks. Place your wrists slightly in front of your shoulders, and feel your sternum inching away from your navel.
With both hands on the floor, roll onto the outer edge of your left foot. Push into your hands and keep your hips lifted.
Lift your right hand as you turn your body to the right. Focus on pressing your left leg up into the block. Stay here for three to five breaths, coming out of the pose sooner if it feels too intense.
To exit the pose, turn your body toward the floor as you place your right hand back on the floor and return to plank. Rest in a comfortable position (seated, child’s pose, or downward facing dog) for a few breaths before switching sides.
Because this version accentuates the action of firming your legs to the midline, it is incredibly strengthening. But it also prepares you for versions of side plank that require you to lift your top leg into different positions—such as tree, half lotus, straight leg (the toe-locking variation), or kapinjalasana.
These variations of vasisthasana organize your body, fortify your practice, and develop a wonderful sense of intrigue and play in your practice. As you prop and practice, you will notice your strength and endurance increasing in the pose—along with your ability to segue into the myriad and exciting manifestations of vasisthasana.
Photography: Andrea Killam