‘Parsva’ = Side / Flank ‘Ut’ = Intense ‘Tan’ = To stretch or extend
Opening the sides of the body offers us a doorway into a deeper expansion of – and connection to – the breath. From our physical asana practice, and the practice of pranayama, we know that whatever situation we find ourselves in – be it challenging or comfortable – a smooth and steady breath is the most important thing to maintain. There are a lot of reasons for this, the first – and possibly most important – being that the way we breathe has a direct effect on our physical, mental and emotional health.
Short and shallow breathing into the chest, when it’s done unconsciously (not while you’re unconscious, but just without awareness….) is closely linked to switching on our stress signals in the body. As mentioned before in previous posts, we can control the amount of stress in our body by working with the breath.
The muscles surrounding the ribs and lungs – the intercostal muscles – are essentially ones which either help to lift and open the ribcage on an inhalation, or compress it on an exhalation. When there’s a particular tightness or a habitual straining of the breath, this can mean our body becomes accustomed to one way of breathing – and considering our current state of society, busy minds and day-to-day schedules, it’s usually a way of breathing that doesn’t serve to keep us feeling our best.
At the back of the body, the Quadratus lumborum is a muscle group around the lower spine that is very susceptible to strain, and is often a place in which lots of people experience back pain. Postures like parsvottanasana, and utthita parvakonasana can all help to open out these muscles if they’ve been habitually contracted or ‘shortened’. As it’s habits that may generally cause this type of back strain though, it’s important to make practicing the remedy a habit too….
Ultimately, being able to open and feel the breath more allows us to become more aware of it – which is the real benefit of the posture. Amy Matthews – co-leader with Leslie Kaminoff of the Yoga Anatomy course I took a couple of years ago as part of my training with Eshter Ekhart, said something about the breath that will always stick in my mind;
“The body wants to hold on to the past, the mind wants to rush into the future. It is the breath that keeps us present”.
It’s now habit for us to multitask in day-to-day life…. as you’re reading this, there’s a chance that there are at least three other pages open on the computer screen, you’re eating or drinking something, or that there are about ten other things on your mind at the same time…. While getting lots of things done at once, and being extremely ‘busy’ is now seen as successful, it’s actually pretty detrimental to our wellbeing. Our brains aren’t evolved enough to cope with the modern world, let alone the crazy world we create inside our minds, and learning to juggle many things at once often leads to irritability and fatigue. Rather than multitasking, it’s unitasking that we would now benefit from practicing at least once a day. Taking time to simply focus on one task, or to just focus on your breath can give the mind a very welcome break, and is a good introduction to the practice of dharana or ‘concentration’, which leads to meditation.
Any Sanskrit name for a posture with an ‘ut’, ‘utt’ or ‘ot’ in it generally means it’s going to be a little bit intense; uttanasana really wakes up and lengthens into the hamstrings and muscles of the back – as does paschimottanasana, depending upon how you practice it, while utkatasana is pretty intense on the legs and is also known as ‘awkward pose’, ‘fierce pose’ or ‘fiery angle pose’. The prefix ‘utthita’ with postures such as ‘utthita hasta padangusthasana’, ‘utthita trikonasana’ or ‘utthita parsvakonasana’, means ‘extended’, so again there’s a sense of intensity, or going beyond what is usual.
To prepare the body for parsvottanasana
Begin lying on the floor in savasana, consciously relaxing any tension you may feel around the chest, ribs and back.
From here, practice a very gentle version of supta hasta padangusthasana (reclined hand to big toe pose), in order to create length in the back of the legs, but me mindful to take this position gently as there’s been no prior warming of the muscles.
From a seated position, move through some gentle side bends to begin lengthening the sides and back of the body, and then come into a forward fold to ease out the lower back.
From there, bring yourself onto hands and knees, and then bring the hips to rest on the heels in balasana (child’s pose). Keep reaching the fingertips forward to bring a little more length into the sides and back of the body, and direct each inhale into the back in order to open out the ribcage.
When you’re ready, make your way into adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and gently lengthen the hamstrings by pressing one heel then the other down towards the floor.
From downward facing dog, walk the feet towards the hands and practice uttanasana (standing forward fold), bend the knees enough so that the ribcage and thighs meet, in order to lengthen the muscles of the legs and back without straining or over-‘stretching’ the back or hamstrings.
When you’re ready, move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A and B, staying a little longer in utkatasana in order to bring heat and a boost of circulation to the legs.
After the body is warm and you’ve practiced a few rounds of each, arrive back in Tadasana (mountain pose) before moving on to parsvottanasana.
- Starting from Tadasana, take a big step back with the [left] foot.
- Keep the feet about hip-distance apart, which may not be traditional, but it’ll keep the knees and hips a lot healthier in the long run….
- Turn the toes of the back foot out very slightly, and keep the front foot facing forwards.
- Connect to the feet first – as with all postures, setting up the foundations first is likely to result in a more stable asana – ensure the whole sole of the foot is grounded, and cultivate pada bandha by pressing into the heel, base of the little toe and base of the big toe, feeling a lift through the inner arches of the feet.
- To bring the hips level, imagine dragging the feet towards each other on the mat.
- Maintain a slight – almost invisible – bend in the front knee so as not to lock out the joints, and draw the kneecap up into the thigh.
- This posture can be practiced with the hands in reverse namase (palms together behind the back), but for this version and for the purposes of lengthening the sides of the body, begin with the hands on the hips.
- As you inhale, reach up through the spine and think about lengthening the sides of the body.
- Keep the length in the upper body as you exhale and begin to fold forward over the front leg. If there’s a lot of tightness in the hamstrings and back, it may be more comfortable to bend the front knee and rest the ribcage on the thigh in order to lengthen the spine.
- Keep the back of the neck long, and continue to actively press into the feet.
- Stay here for a couple of breaths to refine and adjust any parts of the body that need to come into place to accommodate a steady rhythm of breath.
**Arm variation: To feel a further lengthening of the sides of the torso, release the hands either side of the front foot, and bring the palms together. Keep reaching forward through the palms as they rest on the foot or the floor.
- To transition out, bring the hands back on to the hips, bend the front knee slightly and slowly roll the spine upwards on an inhale.
- Step the feet back together and come into Tadasana, noticing the effects of the asana before practicing on the other side of the body.
In a stressed-out world ruled by busy-ness and multitasking, find a bit of inner peace and stillness each day by unitasking – focussing on one breath at a time….