Finding continunity: Utthita Parsvakonasana.
—by Charlotte Bell
Name a very basic pose you’ve never seen described in this column. Extra points if you don’t look at the photo. I don’t actually expect anyone to remember, even though this month’s pose has been tugging at me for quite a long time. After five years of writing this column, I’m finally going to give a long-neglected staple of asana practice, Utthita Parsvakonasana (Intense Side Angle Pose), its due.
Utthita Parsvakonasana is a pillar among standing poses. It combines strong grounding with expansion and spinal rotation. It looks like a lateral stretch, and may even feel somewhat like one, but it’s not. In a true lateral stretch, your pelvis is not moving in the same direction as your spine (think Parighasana or Gate Latch Pose). In Side Angle Pose, your legs, pelvis, spine and head are all on a continuum. Finding that continuum is the art of the asana.
Utthita Parsvakonasana is one of the poses that felt good for me right up until my recent hip replacement surgery, and feels good to me post-surgery. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that I discarded a popular, but anatomically nonsensical, alignment cue about 15 years ago. If you’ve ever been told to square your hips in this or any other standing poses, please stop now.
Pulling the hip of the back leg back not only renders your back leg barely functional in standing poses, but it also puts your sacroiliac joint at risk of dislocation and presses the head of your back leg femur bone into the anterior wall of its socket. There’s a lot of potential for long-term damage on many fronts from heeding the instruction to square your hips.
Here’s the alternative:
Standing on a nonskid mat, separate your feet about a leg-length apart. Turn your entire right leg 90 degrees so that your foot points to the end of your mat. Turn your left foot, knee and leg in—facing the right leg—about 45 degrees. Allow your pelvis to turn with the leg until your left foot feels solidly grounded.
This alignment is what will create the most stable structure for your asana: Let the entire back leg—foot, shin, knee, femur and pelvis—all rotate in agreement with each other. This will look different for different people because we’re not all built the same. Your leg is in agreement with itself when your back leg feels very stable and grounded.
Extend your arms out at shoulder level. Slide your shoulder blades down so that you are not hunching your shoulders. Bend your right knee into a 90-degree angle so that your knee is over your heel.
If your knee extends out in front of your heel, widen your stance. Your shin should be vertical here. You may want to adjust the angle of your pelvis here to solidify your left leg.
Now extend your torso out over your right leg. Place your right forearm on your right thigh. Draw your left arm close to your head so that your arm can extend from your waist rather than just from the shoulder joint. Gently rotate your ribcage to the left so that your chest opens forward.
Even though you may have seen lots of photos of people rotating their head and neck to look upward, instead, let your head and neck follow the natural trajectory of your spine. Is your brain relaxed? That’s the signal of optimal alignment for your head.
Do you feel continuous elongation along from your left foot to your left fingertips? Can you breathe long and deep? If you answer “no” to either of these questions, you may need to lower or raise your pelvis to align with your legs and torso. You may even want to lift your entire torso a bit further from your thigh.
If you can lower your right hand to a yoga block behind your right foot or to the floor without sacrificing the depth or ease of your breathing, feel free to experiment with this. Even though it’s easy for me to place my hand on the floor and still look as if my pose is aligned properly, I feel that I sacrifice strength, continuity and ease when I lower my hand. These days, how an asana feels is much more important to me than how “advanced” it looks.
Stay in Parsvakonasana for five to 10 deep breaths. Ground your left foot to lift up out of the pose. Turn both feet and legs forward. Settle and rest for a few breaths before moving to your second side.
Parsvakonasana truly is a favorite pose of mine and of my students. Before I figured out that squaring my hips was not optimal, I didn’t like the pose nearly as much as I do now. Because my back leg always felt disconnected when I tried to square my hips, I had to lean on my front hand for support. This made the pose feel heavy. Now that I allow my pelvis to align with my leg and I’m no longer married to the idea that I have to place my front hand on the floor, the pose feels strong and expanded. My entire body participates equally. Then my breath flows freely and my mind stills. And that is the whole point.
Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher at Mindful Yoga Collective, an author of two books and plays oboe with the Salt Lake Symphony and Red Rock Rondo. She lives in Salt Lake City.