Lateral yoga is all about the stretch. Side-stretching and side-twisting yoga poses counter the shoulders-forward, back-rounded, collapsed-spine posture that may be your default after hours in front of a computer or TV screen. The stretch is good for your lungs, your legs and your lats, so you breathe better, look better, move better and feel better. Focus on lateral poses to improve side-body flexibility, fitness and balance.
Take a Deep Breath
Prana is your life energy, and the source of life energy is the breath. Expanding your lungs is a lot easier when your entire breathing mechanism is fit and flexible -- that includes your diaphragm, abdominal muscles, throat, neck, chest, upper back and the intercostal muscles between your ribs. Lateral yoga poses target these muscles to increase your breathing capability, and they make your torso stronger and more supple. Tension restricts your breathing, so relieving stress with poses such as Triangle and Gate, a deep side bend, helps you to breathe deeper and slower. Side stretches and twists stimulate your lungs, expand and contract the muscles that encourage relaxed and powerful breathing, and keep your prana flowing.
Move Your Muscles
Side stretches rely on lateral flexion for bending and lengthening your torso. To perform them properly, you need flexible latissimus dorsi muscles -- the large muscles that wrap around most of your back and sides, permitting arm extensions and movement of your shoulder blades. Side stretches also require supple obliques and pliant intercostal muscles between your ribs. Half Moon pose and Revolved Head-to-Knee pose target your spine, sides and shoulders, but you can't maximize the lateral flexion unless your quadratus lumborum, hamstrings and inner thigh muscles are sufficiently limber. The quadratus lumborum muscle attaches your upper pelvis to your lower rib in the back of your waist. Sit too much, and it shortens and tightens just like your hamstrings and the adductors along your inner thigh. Reach high and wide in those beautiful side stretches with the help of poses like Triangle, Reclining Big Toe and Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe poses to create essential flexibility in your waist and thighs.
Build Better Balance
When you shift your torso parallel to the floor, you alter your center of gravity and throw your body off balance. Compensating for this imbalance provides a continual workout for large and small muscles as you focus on stabilizing in a pose. Virabhadrasana III, Warrior III pose, works the quads, hamstrings, calves, ankles and feet of your supporting leg. It requires a strongly engaged core to stabilize your extended leg and prevent your spine from sagging, and it relies on your awareness, arms, shoulders, chest and upper back muscles to hold both arms out in front of you, creating a horizontal line. Balancing in this lateral pose calls for constant minute adjustments as it tones your whole body and improves posture.
Let's Twist Again
Twisting poses that involve side bends capture the contrasts of stretching and contraction, gathering strength and expanding energy. Parshvakonasana, Side Angle pose, opens your hips, stretches and strengthens calves and thighs, and elongates each side of your body from outer foot to fingertips as you alternate right and left stretches. As your torso and extended arm reach nearly horizontal and you turn your head to look up, your chest, shoulders and rib cage open. The twist stimulates your abdominal organs and flexes your spine. Vishvamitrasana, Sage Vishvamitra pose for advanced students, takes Side Angle a significant level of challenge further. Stabilize your balance on the supporting palm and foot while maintaining the extreme stretch along the upper side of your body. Then raise and extend the bent-knee leg and grasp your flexed foot with the raised arm to increase the opening of your chest and ribs.
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 .