Recently I took part in a class where my friend taught us a brilliant sequence that incorporated layers and layers of Side Plank (Vasisthasana) variations. We went through knee down, staggered feet, stacked feet, top leg lifted, top leg in front, top leg behind, side Tree, big toe hold, and two of the fullest expressions that incorporated a back bend into the extended leg big toe hold and a backbend akin to Dancer’s pose.
What I enjoyed more than anything was not only the myriad of ways this pose could be practiced but the infinite transition possibilities encouraging such agility, power and grace. We spiraled, undulated and spilled our way from Downward Facing Dog, Lunge, Plank and even from standing poses - such a beautiful, intricate and challenging dance. I left my friend’s class so happy and light, feeling spacious, strong and free. And with such an appreciation for the strength of my two side bodies!
Safe step by ten step process for Side Plank
Since this class, I have been adding more Side Plank variations into my class sequences. Very quickly I remembered why I had allowed Side Planks to fade away from my asana teaching repertoire. Side Plank is hard! And if not practiced with a strong, stable and integrated foundation, this pose can put a lot of wear and tear on the connective tissues in the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints. A foundation must be set and a step-by-ten-step process (from lower center of gravity to higher) must be followed!
1. Shoulder and wrist warm-ups
Side Plank requires much needed shoulder, elbow and wrist strength, stability and integration to be practiced safely. Begin your practice with warming up these joints (and the muscles that cross these joints) with poses such as Arm-of-the-Clock in gentle Reclining Twist, dynamically moving in and out of Threading-the-Needle in Tabletop position, and dynamically moving in and out of Eagle and/or Gomukhasana arms in seated postures. Wrists rotations and stretches can also be introduced lying down, on all fours or seated.
2. Warm-up and wake up the core
If you think of your core as it is described in the Apple Core Theory (your axis from crown to tail) it makes sense that you need to warm up and wake up the muscles that will support your spine in the lateral-parallel position of Side Plank.
Dynamically moving in and out of Cat/Cow (adding long levers by extending one arm and opposite leg) and Threading-The-Needle in Tabletop or Gate pose will wake-up the extensors of your back and two of the three layers of your abdominal muscles: your back extensors that will prevent your from tipping forward, your rectus abdominis (your eight-pack abs) will prevent you from tipping back, and your obliques which will support the ribs and prevent them from collapsing in your Side Plank.
3. Wake-up the deep core
A big helper in keeping the side body from dipping and sagging in this pose is the intimate awareness and support of the deep frontal myofascial meridian that runs from the bottoms of the feet, up the heel and arches, inner and back of the calves, inner and back of the knee, inner and back of the thighs into the pelvic floor where it blossoms out like a flower to support the inner pelvis (pelvis, ilium and ischium configuration) and the inner organs. Without the awareness and support of this deep core fascia, it is quite easy and common to collapse into the lower leg, hip, ribs, shoulder, elbow and wrist in Side Plank.
My new favorite way to bring awareness into this deep core connective tissue is from a fun variation of a pose called Vishnu’s Couch (above). Lying on your side with your hand or arm as a pillow, bend your top knee and reach past the inner thigh for your big toe. Do a few dynamic movements to warm up the quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles (inhale extend and exhale flex at the knee joint). This will also warm your legs, inner thighs and groin for later Side Plank variations!
Once you have warmed up dynamically, at some point you will have your leg as straight as possible for you, roughly perpendicular to the ground (feel free to wrap a strap around the foot and hold strap with top hand). Finding your legs in a bit of a L-shape position, flex both your ankles and spread all your toes (very active feet...feel your arches!) Then, begin to lift your lower leg off the floor and hover it anywhere from a few millimeters all the way up to where you may touch lower leg to top leg (without tipping backwards if possible). This variation on Vishnu’s Couch will help to wake-up the inner leg lines from arches of feet all the way up into your pelvic floor. The deepest layer of the abdominals (transverse abdominis) is also awakened and strengthened in this exercise.
4. Shoulder Integration
With the knowledge that ligaments are not elastic and therefore once stretched will not return to their original state we cannot, especially in higher center of gravity, weight bearing/load bearing postures,"hang" on our ligaments. “Hanging out” in Side Plank is easy to do if one does not integrate (“plug in”) the humerus bone into the spacious, shallow joint created by the clavicle and the scapula. In order for this shoulder joint integration to be successful we need to use our Perfect Chaturanga muscles: infraspinatus, externally rotating the head of the humerus into the “ball” of the clavicular-scapula joint; serratus anterior, spreading (adducting/protracting) the shoulder blade to the outer ribs: latissimus dorsi, trying to draw (adduct) arm towards the side body creating armpit hollows and lower trapezius to keep shoulders away from the ears. Once all these steps are initiated and practiced, a strong and stable foundation is formed to support many different variations of Vasisthasana.
Learn more in class: Shoulder integration in Side Plank
- "Adduction? Protraction?" Check out A beginner's guide to anatomy terms
5. Hasta Bandha
“Little puffs of air in the middle of the palm” is usually how Hasta Bandha is described. Bandhas are internal “locks” that once shakti energy is drawn up into the body enable the energy to be “locked” in. The three most common bandhas are Mula Bandha (root lock located in the pelvic floor area of body), Uddiyana Bandha (upward fly lock in the navel/diaphragm area of the body) and Jalandhara Bandha found in the throat area (throat lock). Lesser known Bandhas exist; the two we hear about the most on the yoga mat are Hasta and Pada Bandhas (hand and foot locks). The purpose of drawing energy upwards into the body has many physiological, psychological and energetic benefits. For the purpose of practicing a safe and stable Plank, Hasta Bandha will both strengthen the muscles of the hands, wrists and forearms and will encourage lightness versus heaviness (remember...gravity is ALWAYS a factor) on the bones of the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders.
6. Offer knee down option first - not as an afterthought
Often a yoga teacher will give all the alignment cues for Side Plank pose and then, almost as an afterthought, say something like, “If you need to, lower your knee to the ground” or “If you're having a hard time in this pose choose the knee down (gate) variation”. What is always more empowering and supporting of proper alignment is to offer the knee down variation first. Students always feels more empowered when they can practice the lower center of gravity (easier) version first and then move (step-by-step) towards the higher center of gravity (harder) variation. The second important reason to offer easy-to-hard options, especially in Side Plank, is that lowering the knee from Side Plank will inevitably have the knee land at an odd angle - instead of directly under the hip socket (creating a L-shape at hip and knee) which is the shape we want to create in Gate pose. And unfortunately, most of the time, the student that needs to lower his or her knee is already doing something beyond their physical fitness/strength level and over-exerting themselves to the point where they usually “drop” their knee to the mat (for safety...there should be no “dropping” of body parts).
7. Shift Back Before You Stack and Roll
Although we want the shoulder to be stacked directly over the elbow, wrist and hand in both Plank and Side Plank, we cannot roll directly into Side Plank from Plank and have that perfect bone stacking alignment. What actually happens (for most of us) is that in the transition to Side Plank our shoulder shifts forward of Plank bone-stacking alignment. This leaves us very little room to perform the necessary shoulder integration we talked about above.
By shifting backwards toward our heels in our Plank pose we find ourselves behind our stacked arms, elbows, wrists and hands in Plank. Then we can initiate the Side Plank transition from the hand pressing down, the Hasta Bandha lifting up, the external rotation of the humerus bone and the abduction of the serratus anterior, the depression of the scapula with lower trapezius and the adduction of the latissimus will keep us from collapsing down. Once we perform all those actions we will be right back in our perfect bone-stacking alignment we were in during Plank.
8. Knife-edge or flat foot?
When we turn to enter into Side Plank there are a few options for the feet: stack, stagger, lower the bottom knee so only one foot is in Side Plank variation, step top foot in front of hip area (a turning lunge variation) or step the foot behind (an extended Side Plank variation of “Wild Thing”). The bottom foot in Side Plank variations can either be positioned in ankle flexion with the knife-edge (small toe side) of foot on the ground (arch of foot facing upwards) or in ankle eversion with the four corners of the bottom foot on the mat and the space between the distal end of the tibia (what we think of as the outer ankle bone) and the outer edge of the calcaneus (heel bone) decreases. This second variation supports fuller expressions of Side Plank pose where we lift the upper leg as we have a wider surface area as a foundation.
9. Look down before spiraling down
There is well known Drishti saying in certain systems of yoga: “Where the eyes go the body will follow.” In Side Plank it behooves us to look up if we can because the energy of the pose will then be of an upward lifting energy (less compression of the bones with that sort of upward energetic shift). As we practice all the other steps and offerings here in this article, a final inhalation in the pose is wonderful with the accompanying cue of “inhale to reach up and look up”. On the exhale, to support a safe and deliberate descent, we look down first and the top shoulder girdle and extremity of the arm will naturally follow the downward gaze. Also, the obliques will naturally initiate the downward rotation of the torso and hips to allow for a safe and supported return to Plank posture.
To safely practice Vasisthasana there is a lot of shoulder integration necessary. To effectively stretch that which has been strengthened and utilized for stabilization, useful counterposes include Gomukhasana arms (especially the lower arm), Purvottonasana (Upward Plank), and Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge pose). It is always important to stretch that which was strengthened throughout the practice in order to aid the body's quest for homeostasis (harmony and balance).