Yoga pose side bends can be used to stretch the side of the lumbar spine, thoracic spine and cervical spine, by bending them to the side.
They can also work on the hips and the sides of the thighs.
And they can also be used to work on the shoulders, though defining a side bend for the shoulders is a little bit difficult.
Standing side bend
A very basic side bend in which you can work on all of the above regions of the body (thighs, hips, spine, shoulders) is standing side bend.
In this pose it is very easy to isolate each of the above areas when working towards the full version of this pose. As an added bonus you can also practice balancing while doing this standing yoga pose.
Standing with feet about hip width apart and parallel, first lengthen your spine. Then push your hips to one side. Then bend your lumbar spine and thoracic spine to the other side. Then reach your arms past your head.
Note, if you have difficulty with the idea of pushing your hips to the side, then push your hips to the side first, then lengthen your spine, then reach your arms.
Read more about standing side bend here: standing side bend
Seated Forward Bend and Side Bend Combination Pose
A side bending yoga pose in which it is easier to focus on bending the spine is to sit cross legged, bend forward and then reach the arms and torso to one side.
Since the pelvis is on the floor the pelvis is held in place making it easier to move the ribcage relative to the pelvis. You can then focus on lengthening one side of the waist and the ribcage.
Side Bending the Lumbar Spine, Two Methods
When side bending the waist or lumbar spine, you can tilt (and bend) the ribcage relative to the pelvis. You could also tilt the pelvis relative to the ribcage to bend the lumbar spine.
While standing, it's relatively easy to tilt your ribcage to the side relative to your pelvis to bend your lumbar spine to the side.
To tilt the pelvis while standing, you may find it easier if you shift to one leg. To bend your lumbar spine to the side, you can then tilt your pelvis to one side while keeping your torso upright .
Standing Forward Bend with a Side Bend
In a standing forward bend, you can lengthen your right waist by pulling your right hip back. You can also pull the right ribs away from the pelvis. Then you can do switch and stretch the left side. Try to make both sides feel the same.
If you can't touch your hands to the floor in a standing forward bend then rest your hands on the seat of a chair or even rest your elbows on the surface of a counter or table top.
If you have some muscular imbalances in the muscles of the hips and waist this yoga pose side bend may help in correcting them.
Read more about standing forward bend here: standing forward bend.
Focus On Lengthening or Focus on Contracting
When doing a side bend one side of the waist is lengthened and the other is shorted.
And so there are two ways to focus on a side bend for the waist.
- One is to focus on lengthening the side you are bending away from. Bending to the right, focus on lengthening the left waist.
- The other is to focus on shortening or contracting the side you are bending towards. Bending to the right, focus on contracting the muscles at the right side of the waist.
While doing a standing side bend to the left, you can focus on contracting the left side of the waist. You could instead focus on lengthening the right side of the waist. Or you can do both.
- While inhaling focus on lengthening the long side.
- While exhaling focus on contracting the short side.
Combining Side Bends with Back Bending Yoga Poses
Side bends for the spine can become more interesting when done in combination with other actions. If nothing else they can improve awareness. But they can also help the pose that you are doing.
With my pelvis lifted I'll move one side of the forwards (away from the ribcage) then I'll move the ther side forwards.
One of the reasons that I do this is because I've got some imbalance in my spine, waist and hips, and this is one way to help correct the imbalance.
I sometimes try to do the same in wheel pose.
While doing the side bend in bridge or wheel I shift my weight from one leg while I am side bending. It can happen naturally as a result of the side bend. Shifting from side to side gets each leg working so that when weight is even on both feet it's easier to get the legs working equally in these back bending yoga poses.
Another opportunity for a side bend is while doing a standing spider man chest stretch equivalent.
This pose can also be done while kneeling or lying. However, to make it easier to add a side stretch, it can be done while standing and facing a wall with the hands on the wall while bent forwards at the hips .
If you find your hands want to move apart, you can use a corner to prevent that as shown in the picture above.
The main focus of this pose is sinking the ribcage while also pulling it back (as if trying to pull away from the shoulders) but you can practice turning the pelvis from side to side to lengthen one side of the waist and then the other.
Side Bending the Thoracic Spine
It's relatively easy to side bend the lumbar spine. Because of the ribs, side bending the thoracic spine is a little bit more difficult.
In a side bend for the thoracic spine the intercostal muscles located between the ribs can be used. So that you actually have room to bend the ribcage to the side you may find that it helps to expand the ribcage and create space between the ribs.
This space may give you more room to bend the ribcage to the side.
Side Bending High Lunge
To balance the forward bend I'll do a high lunge yoga pose as a back bend for the hips.
And in this yoga pose I'll also occassionaly side bend the waist, first to one side and then the other. I may also side bend the ribcage.
Side Bend for the Shoulders?
When in a side bending yoga pose the ribs on one side move away from the pelvis while on the other side they move closer. When side bending the ribcage, the ribs on one side move away from each other while those on the other side move closer together. If you also side bend the neck in this standing yoga pose, then one side of each inter-vertebral joint opens and the other side closes.
One option for side bending the shoulders is to reach the upper arm into the stretch. Doing a side bend to the right, reach your left arm over your head to the right. Elbow straight. Grab the wrist with the right hand and use the right hand to pull the left arm to the right. Optionally you can also pull the arm down.
Personally I like to resist the stretch on occasion. The easiest way to do this is to bend the left arm. Pull down with the right, and then while continuing to pull down, slowly straighten the left elbow.
Another option is to start with the arm straight. Pull down with the right arm and at the same time pull up with the left arm.
To balance this stretch for the shoulder you can pull the arm down and to the opposite side behind the back. A similiar stretch is to sit in a chair and grab the edge of the seat with your left hand and reach your torso and head to the right.
This may help to stretch the upper fibers of the trapezius muscle. Meanwhile, reaching the hand up and over the head may stretch the latissimus dorsai muscle.
Seated Side Bends
Seated side bends include having the legs in an easy version of the baradhvajasana position with one leg in hero and the other in tree pose position. Bend to the hero leg side.
In this case the side bend can be used to add weight to the hero leg and help to stretch the single joint fibers of the quadriceps.
You can do a seated side bend with the legs wide.
You can also do a side bend with one leg in janu sirsasana or tree pose position. Or you can do it with one leg in hero position.
In either case you can focus on lengthening the long side while inhaling. While exhaling you can contract the muscles of the short side. And to make it easier to move your torso towards your leg, imagine lifting the leg so that the leg muscles activate.
To focus on the spine relax the arms. Then add the arm and if you like grab the foot.
Note that if shoulder flexibility is limited in this position you may want to read up on using the trapezius muscle in lifted arm positions.
Active Side Bends
Side Bends and Twists Combined
Generally thought of as a twisting pose, twisting triangle (or revolved triangle) can include a side bend of the spine to get the back leg shoulder over the foot before entering the twist.
Side bending the spine (so hand it outside foot) then twisting.
With the spine bent to the side, and with the hand on the floor, it can then be easier to subsequently twist the spine to the front leg side.
You can read more about twisting triangle here: revolved triangle.