Establish or master a well-rounded yoga practice by paying attention to side moves. Forward bends and backbends often compete with upside-down inversions like Headstand, basic standing poses like Mountain and relaxing poses like Corpse for space in a yoga routine. But side-bending poses activate muscles that are easy to overlook; they also improve your flexibility and range of motion, and open the free flow of energy that leaves you feeling destressed and invigorated.
Flowing through poses that shift your balance off-center requires attention in order to move smoothly, keep your energy steady and avoid injury. Incorporating side bends into a routine loosens a stiff spine and frees your prana, or life force, to surge throughout your whole body without blocks. Well-known power yoga teacher Baron Baptiste says this creates a detox that clears out old, stale energy and makes room for new energy and vitality. He adds poses like Flip Dog to a power yoga sequence in which you flip from Downward-Facing Dog to a partial backbend that stretches alternate sides of your torso before flipping back to Down Dog. A shift from Plank to Side Plank lightly bends the torso, stretching the top while compressing the bottom, and is also performed on both sides.
Angles Activate Muscles
Side bends work by lengthening the intercostal muscles between your ribs, which allows your lungs to expand for better breathing. They strengthen your quadratus lumborum muscles that attach your pelvis to your rib cage along the back of your waist and they work your lats, the largest muscles in your back. Stretching and contracting all of these muscles makes you bendier and stronger and helps to compensate for too many hours sitting in front of a computer or driving. Gate pose is a simple side bend in which you kneel on one knee, extending the other leg to the side with your foot flexed. Bending to the side of the extended leg and curving the opposite arm overhead opens the kneeling side from knee through the torso to the tips of the overhead fingers.
Vision and Focus
Perfecting a side stretch and directing the energy flow depend on vision -- where you look, not how far you can see into the future. Your gaze is important in stabilizing and deepening a side-bending or twisting pose. For poses like Triangle, Revolving Lunge and Side Angle Lunge, you typically focus on your upper hand. If your balance is shaky, you can look front and down to ground yourself. If you're solid in the pose, challenge yourself by looking up at the sky or ceiling -- you'll have to work harder to remain steady. A side bend puts you off-balance, but focusing your gaze helps to center your energy. Controlling visual focus organizes the various muscles working to hold you in the pose as you stretch and strengthen them.
Twists and Stretches
Compress and stretch your side torso with side-bending poses or variations of standard poses that place more emphasis on side bending. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, Revolved Side Angle pose, is a twisting and stretching standing side bend that grounds you through your legs and feet, unkinks your tense spine and shoulders, and lengthens and creates strong energy through your arms and torso. Side-Bending Mountain pose stretches alternate sides of your body from your feet through your clasped hands overhead as you curve to one side and then the other. Revolved Head-to-Knee pose is a seated twist with a side bend that works your spine, your lats and your delts while adding a hamstring stretch for improved mobility.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .