Vasisthasana (Side Plank): The Myth, the Benefits, the Practice
Vasisthasana (also known as side plank) is a challenging pose that promotes both balance and strength. In the past couple of years it’s been in the news thanks to a 2014 study by Dr. Loren Fishman, which showed its potential benefits for scoliosis. This study found that, after an average of 6.8 months, 19 of the 25 participants who practiced side plank on their weaker convex side (the side toward which the spine curved) for an average of 1.5 minutes a day, an average of 6.1 days a week, experienced marked improvement. With regular practice, their spinal curvature lessened as their muscles grew stronger.
There are a number of variations of vasisthasana you may wish to try. In this article we will explore one of the most accessible versions that is particularly appropriate for anyone with difficulty balancing or bearing weight with the arms and wrists.
But first—who was Vasistha, for whom this pose is named?
Vasistha was the first of Lord Brahma's mind-born sons—one of the famous sapta rishis, the “seven sages” who form the constellation known in the West as the Pleiades. Brahma, as you may know, is the creative aspect of the Hindu trinity. He created Vasistha from his thought with the intention of providing a template for eliminating the sorrow of existence. At the moment of Vasistha's creation, Brahma cursed him with temporary ignorance of his true divine nature, in order that Vasistha would experience the suffering of embodiment and then ask Brahma for the remedy. When Vasistha inquired about how he had come to be trapped in a sorrowful and limited physical existence, Brahma taught him: “You are not the body and mind; you are infinite. You are not bound; your true nature is limitless. Thou art That.”
Thus, Vasistha became the first student of what we now call advaita vedanta, or jnana yoga.
Vasistha was also the first teacher of jnana yoga. One of his most famous students was Lord Rama. As an adolescent, Rama went on a tour of his father's kingdom and returned deeply depressed by what he saw of the world. Like the young Buddha in similar circumstances, he encountered people who were sick and suffering, and their misery made him question the meaning of life. He especially doubted his own worth as a future king when he felt powerless to change anyone's circumstances or improve their lot in life. Then, through a series of stories, Vasistha revealed this truth to Rama: The soul (Self) is real, but the world is false, like a dream. We suffer when we identify with the world's circumstances and feel that it is up to us to change them. In reality, we simply have to wake up to the infinite joy and contentment inherent in each present moment. Learning to control the mind leads to liberation and to the realization that we are the Self. All the pleasures that the world holds are nothing compared with the abiding bliss of Self-realization. Rama and Vasistha's conversations about the Self are preserved in a work we know as the Yoga Vasistha.
Such an attitude might seem harsh or unfeeling to us in our present time and circumstances—almost an excuse to abdicate responsibility for social or personal action. We should recall that Indian philosophy recognizes two levels of reality: an ultimate, transcendent level and the relative level that we experience from day to day. Vasistha wanted Rama to realize that, on the ultimate level, he was not in charge, even though on the relative level, he was the future king and thus very much responsible for others’ welfare. The idea of recognizing the joy inherent in each moment does not absolve us from recognizing suffering or from doing what we can to alleviate it. It is a matter of perspective, as in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna told Arjuna that he must fight the Mahabharata war despite Arjuna’s horror at the thought of killing people he loved; he must do his duty and leave the results to God, bearing in mind that on the ultimate level, no one is born, no one dies, there is neither slayer nor slain. This message was so difficult for Arjuna to comprehend that Krishna had to continue giving him illustrations and examples before, ultimately, manifesting his own transcendent form to Arjuna in a zen-like moment of revelation which silenced Arjuna’s mind. That revelation beyond words is what Vasistha taught Rama.
For this variation of vasisthasana begin on all fours with your wrists under your shoulders and your arms straight. Now, shift your right hand to the midline of your body. Extend your left leg behind you, toes tucked, and rest the ball of your left foot on the floor. You may find that it helps your balance to shift your right foot out to the right so that your right shin is at more of a diagonal. Place your left hand on your left hip.
Externally rotate your left leg until the inner edge of your left foot is on the floor. For more stability, you might also prefer to put the sole of the left foot on the floor. As you rotate, your left hip will want to follow—allow it to do so. Leading with the leg, rotate your whole torso until your left ribs face the ceiling and your right ribs face the floor. Draw your tailbone toward your left heel. Draw your lower front ribs toward your back ribs, preventing the lower ribs from jutting forward. Now lift your left hand off your hip and extend the left arm toward the ceiling as you press your right hand into the floor, as though you were pushing the floor away from you.
Now, lengthen the crown of your head away from your left heel. Lengthen the right side of your rib cage from the hip to the armpit. Observe any differences in the two sides of your spine. You can continue to look straight ahead, or your can turn your head to look up toward your top hand if that feels comfortable for your neck. Stay for thirty seconds, or longer if comfortable. Then return to all fours and repeat on the second side.
In Dr. Fishman's study, students with scoliosis practiced only with their convex side facing the floor so as not to do anything to reinforce their existing imbalance. If you have scoliosis, try working on only one side. Otherwise, practice on both sides, but do pay close attention to the sensations on either side. Does practicing on one side feel easier than it does on the other? The differences may not be entirely in your spine—for example, is one shoulder tighter, or is one hip more mobile than the other? What can your stronger side teach your weaker side?
Points for Practice
Do you experience any physical discomfort in this pose? Is there any pain in your wrist or shoulder? In your ribs or spinal muscles? What feels good, stable, liberating, or uplifting about this pose? Are you focused on getting past this modified version and on to the “real” thing, or do you enjoy the experience of being in your body in this pose right now? Pay attention to what feels good or fun, here and now.
Vasistha's teaching encourages us to remember that our true nature is infinite, and that our current situation should be viewed with a grander perspective. At the same time, it is not enough simply to assert “I am infinite” if you are experiencing the duhkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) of bondage. As a therapist friend of mine used to say, you can't make an end run around suffering. You need to understand the origin of your suffering before you can transcend or dismantle it. That origin is very often traceable to a desire for life to be something other than it is—for events to have had an outcome different than they had, and for unmet needs to have been met. Once you can see how your attachment to a desired outcome or state leads to suffering, it becomes easier to mourn your losses or disappointments, offer yourself compassion for your sadness about what happened or didn't happen, and move forward from there.
In Yoga Sutra 2.33-34, Patanjali advises, “Vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam”: when troublesome thoughts (vitarka) afflict (badhane) you, cultivate (bhavanam) opposite thoughts (pratipaksha), i.e., change your perspective. This is what Vasistha taught Rama to do: to shift his perspective away from suffering and limitation to the infinite bliss of the present moment.
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>