It seems like no school of yoga teaches asanas equally for the entire circumference, front, back and side, of the body. There are asana categories like back bend and forward bend, but side bend has always been overlooked. When we talk about side bend you might not be able to raise many examples of asana, maybe only Gate Pose – Parighasana. However, if you take a look closely to some asana, you will find that many yoga poses contain some element of side bend; Triangle Pose, Side Angle Pose and Side Plank Pose, for example. Side bend promotes healthy spine and improves your breathing. Moreover, even some asanas that are not similar to any kind of side bend at all; side bend can still help you get into them easier.
Morning Side Bend
Everybody’s most common stretch in the morning after waking up is to reach both arms up over head and take a big breath. That is a natural side bend in everyday life. It goes instinctually, I do not think there are many people do forward bend after waking up (ok, some yoga people might do it). If you have cat or dog at home, sneak and observe what they do in the morning after they wake up. You will find that, though it looks a bit different from what we do, they also do side bend.
Morning side bend gives you a feeling of being awake. When you are stretching sides of your torso, you stretch the side of your ribcage and the muscle between each rib, the intercostal muscles. Intercostals are breathing support muscle. The full breath you take when you stretch after waking up is a real deep and big breath that satisfies and energizes every single cell of your body.
Have you ever feel sore around your side torso after doing a lot of back bend on twisting? That is the way your intercostals scream. Every yoga poses that have a function of chest or ribcage opening need flexible intercostals. Obviously back bend does. For twisting posture, though it is only one side of ribcage being opened, you still need healthy intercostals. Thus, we can say that practicing side bend regularly can help improving many other yoga poses.
When the intercostals have contracted, the ribcage shrinks and each rib moves closer toward each other. By the reverse logic, when the intercostals have stretched, the ribcage expands and each rib moves away from each other. The intercostals of each side of ribcage works independently. Thus, when you perform side bend, the intercostals of one side have contracted to shorten that side torso while the intercostals of the other side are stretched to lengthen their respective side.
Even though they are not a major breathing muscle, healthy intercostals improve the elasticity of your lungs. When you take an inhalation the diaphragm moves down and allows your lungs to expand. Normally lungs, which are contained inside ribcage, are like balloons, they can expand to all four directions; front and back, right and left. Thus, if your intercostals cannot stretch freely, then ribcage cannot expand to every directions and the expansion of your lungs will be limited. Tight intercostals then limit the volume of fresh oxygen you can take in when you inhale.
In contrast, exhalation is like you squeeze the wet sponge to get most water out of it. When you exhale with weak intercostals, you cannot get rid of all carbondioxide, including some other toxic your body trying to eliminate, out of your lungs.
Side bend does matter in so many ways. Give yourself some time to cultivate awareness while you hold any asana, and observe your breathing. Because your breathing connects your body, mind and spirit, then what supports your good breathing also supports your yoga practice. And if you find some problem with your breathing, maybe the practice of side bend can be your solution.
Model: Nooj and Pom in Parsvakonasana