Exploring side angle and revolved side angle pose
In this post, I continue my series on fundamental standing poses and break down side angle and revolved side angle pose. There are often more opportunities for exploration in fundamental postures than are quickly obvious. It is these simpler movements that combine to create the more complex and challenging postures that we encounter as we continue our yoga journey. What can we learn from side angle and revolved side angle pose? What movement patterns are we developing in side angle and revolved side angle pose that come up again in other postures?
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Building on triangle and revolved triangle
Side angle and revolved side angle pose build on the patterns we explored in triangle and revolved triangle. It starts with opening the hips and allowing the pelvis to move freely. This is important work for most of us to spend some time on for two big reasons. The first is for our own functional movement health. Everything is related in some way to the pelvis and our center of movement. The available movement in our hip joints impacts the movement and position of our legs and feet below us. It also dictates the position of the pelvis.
Opening the hips
Similarly, the available movement of our spine, including our head and neck, is related to the available movement at our hip joints and our pelvic position. As I’m sure you know, most of us and our students spend a lot of time sitting: sitting at a desk, sitting in a car, or sitting on the couch. This doesn’t generally support maintaining openness in the hips. It’s important that we see that all of these fundamental postures are ways to counteract these unhelpful patterns.
The second reason to spend some time on these fundamental postures that work on opening the hips is that so many yoga postures assume some level of openness of the hip joints. This is especially true with respect to external rotation. Remember, yoga came out of a culture in India where people regularly sat on the floor. They often moved in and out of a squat position for regular daily activities. In that sense, a certain level of openness in the hips is “assumed” even though that isn’t necessarily the case in a Western culture.
Patterns of the spine and feet
There are two other movement patterns that we can explore in side angle and revolved side angle pose. The first is increasing the mobility of the spine. The second is establishing a stable foot foundation. Let’s take a look at the anatomy and techniques involved in working with these intentions in side angle and revolved side angle pose.
Although there are some similarities between triangle and side angle, there is one major difference. In side angle and revolved side angle pose the front knee bends to ninety degrees. This one change has a huge impact on the dynamics in and around the hip joint.
At the hip joint itself, we still flex, abduct, and externally rotate the front leg. However, when we add flexing the knee, we need significantly more stabilization at the hip joint. Muscles basically do three things related to contraction on the gross level. They contract and move a joint, contract and stabilize a joint, and contract and resist movement in its opposite contraction. These are called, isotonic concentric, isometric, and isotonic eccentric contractions respectively. I wrote about them in the section titled, ‘Types of Contractions’ in my book, Functional Anatomy of Yoga.
Differences between triangle and side angle
I bring this up because, as we flex the knee more, we ask a number of muscles to work eccentrically (basically lengthen while contracting), and then stabilize in a very different way than in triangle. In triangle, the quadriceps might engage, but not against any obvious resistance, or at least less than we find in side angle. When we flex the knee, we put those quadriceps in a position of mechanical disadvantage. No problem, it just means that they work harder, just like they do in warrior positions.
The same is true for those gluteals. As we also deepen the amount of flexion, the extensors of the hip (generally calling them gluteals here) resist the flexion as we move into the posture. They are then required to stabilize the joint (along with others) while we’re in the posture itself. Because we are in a deeper flexion, and therefore putting them at a mechanical disadvantage, they work harder.
In the back leg, the leg is technically in a slightly abducted position, due to the flexion of the front hip and knee tilting the pelvis sideways. This is why, as you resist going too low in this posture, you may feel the adductors of the back leg turn on or engage to help pull you back out of sinking so low. The gluteals and quadriceps of the front leg are part of this as well.
Revolved side angle
Anatomically, a lot happens in revolved side angle pose. In an ideal world, the pelvis is neutral, that is, facing forward and down. Neither hip is hiked up and the pelvis doesn’t tilt too much from the twist in the spine. Again, this is true in an ideal world. If either of these two things happens, the world will not collapse. But it does give us a direction and an intention to work towards to stabilize the pelvis.
The front hip joint is flexed and typically adducted slightly as we move into the twist around it. The back hip joint has different demands placed on it as it becomes part of a much longer spiral that starts at the foot and potentially heads out of the hand at the other end. The hip itself externally rotates if you are doing the full expression of the posture with the foot flat. If the heel is up, the leg is more or less neutral in its rotation. In terms of flexion and extension at the hip joint, it is most commonly neutral in these directions. But that can vary depending on the variations of the pose that you do. For instance, if the back knee is down, the hip flexes.
The spine both laterally flexes and twists to bring the hand to the floor on the outside of the opposite foot. If you don’t go as low as putting your hand to the floor and you stay in a higher position with the hands in prayer, you may reduce the amount of lateral flexion.
Primary patterns and intentions
Grounding and lifting
One thematic intention that continues throughout the standing postures as I understand them, is the balance between grounding (mula) and (uddiyana) lifting. In side angle, we have both feet and one hand on the floor. Actively pressing through the feet and hand on the floor connects us solidly to the ground and supports a feeling of stability. That action of intentionally pressing the ground also begins the intention of lift through the legs, torso, and reaching hand. We are reaching away from the ground. Working with those two intentions simultaneously can create a feeling of space and stability at the same time.
The grounding and lifting actions also speak to the engagement of muscles in a particular way that strengthen and stabilize the pelvis through the hip joints. As already mentioned, the deepening of the front leg in both postures and the resulting resistance to dropping too low are what create the tension, and over time, the stability of the pelvis. It’s also what leads to the grounding and lifting quality.
Depending on how long you’ve been practicing, and the openness of your hips as you explore these postures, you may feel “sensations” in different places. One of the key places that we can lengthen tissues in side angle is the adductors of the front leg and the side of the body.
If you’ve ever wondered why you or your students have a front knee that likes to point inward slightly, the answer is tight adductors. This is exactly why one of the most common instructions for this pose is to avoid allowing the front knee to fall in towards the center line of the body. You could accomplish this by pressing the knee outward against the inside of the arm if the arm is outside of the leg. Or, if you are doing the variation with your arm inside the leg, you could use your arm to prevent the knee from falling inward. Letting the knee fall inward and stay there could potentially put forces through the knee at angles that are not healthy for the long term. Moving the knee outward also places pressure on the adductors so that they open over time.
This same tension coming from the adductors can also be expressed as the butt sticking out on the front leg. If the adductors are tight, they are either going to pull the knee in, or, if the knee is stabilized, the pelvis will get pulled toward the knee and end up adducting at the front hip joint. This makes it look like the butt is sticking out.
The side body
A second place we can work with the intention of opening in this pose is the side body. The posture is translated as side angle. The basic idea in terms of lengthening would be to create more space and length through the entire side. The part that has the most potential to change from this posture is the rib cage on the sides that are facing upward. Reaching that arm and pushing into the floor with the feet all help with this intention. In revolved side angle, the majority of opening is happening in the ribs/spine, and the front hip. Of course, this depends on the depth you go to in your version of this posture.
The twist itself is obvious enough. It’s an early place in the sequence to start placing pressure on the tissues between the ribs (intercostals) and the muscles that sit closely around the spine. The fullest expression of this posture, with the hand flat on the floor on the outside of the front foot is a fairly deep twist. I often refer to it as a bound twist with the arm on the outside of the leg and the hand “bound” to the floor.
Like all twists, we shouldn’t forget about the impact of breathing while in a twist. The intercostals do need to be “open” enough for us to get into the twist. But we can also use deep breathing to separate the ribs and add to the stretching of these tissues beyond just positioning in the pose. I know, twists are the hardest poses to breathe in! This is exactly why we should breathe more deeply in them. As we do that, the tissues open, and breathing in the same posture gets easier.
The outside of the front hip
Another, less obvious opening for beginners is the outside (lateral) part of the hip joint of the front leg. By reaching around the front leg, we are essentially abducting the front hip joint. This is not because the leg moves, but is mostly a result of the pelvis turning towards the midline slightly and creating an adduction of this hip. The resistors of that movement are the abductors. They are, essentially, the deeper gluteal muscles, gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. There are not too many opportunities to put pressure on these tissues in the way that we do when the leg becomes adducted. We shouldn’t overlook this opportunity.
As in the posts on triangle and revolved triangle and standing forward bend, I think it’s interesting to read the older, traditional suggestions of specific physiological effects of these postures. How accurate they are from a Western medical perspective is hard to say, because as far as I know, no one has done research yet to confirm or deny them. Here are some suggested effects of side angle and revolved side angle to consider:
“These asanas reduce fat around the waist. They strengthen the back, hips, and legs. Where deviations in postural alignment exist, they help to realign the skeletal system. The digestion is improved, constipation relieved, breathing difficulties and other respiratory problems are corrected. Problems in the throat are prevented and where existing, improved. The nervous system is toned and the spinal cord strengthened.”
– Pattabhi Jois in Lino Miele’s Astanga Yoga book.
Additional techniques and restrictions for revolved side angle
Grounding the feet and dropping the hips
I thought I would add some additional food for thought on technique for revolved side angle. It is a complicated posture anatomically and a difficult posture for beginners. To be honest, I would not consider it a beginner’s posture. I have broken the posture down in great detail in my book Functional Anatomy of Yoga. What we often see is a pelvis that is either too high (Losing the straight line from the back foot to the hand) or the pelvis is at some odd angle. These are mixed together from two main places.
First, how the feet are set up has an effect on what angle the pelvis will be at by the time you reach the end of this pose. When we let the heel drop in the back foot, it often crosses the line of the front foot. This is the most common reason that the hips are set at a less-than-ideal angle. Try creating a little more space between the line of the heel in the front foot and the inner edge of the heel in the back foot.
If the hips are constantly sitting too high, this is due to straightening the front knee too much. This is sometimes the result of the crossing of the feet mentioned above. The simple solution is to start to bend the front knee a little more and let that bring the pelvis down. The additional benefit is that this action also helps keep the binding in place if you’re trying to put your hand on the floor.
The shoulder-to-knee connection (or letting go of prayer hands!)
Finding sufficient twist to place the front hand on the floor next to the opposite foot can be a struggle for students. I often see them, as they come through my workshops, stuck in the “prayer hands” position, without any idea how to evolve this further. The shoulder-to-knee connection that we begin to develop in this posture is a component of many deeper and potentially more challenging postures, so it is worth spending some time working on that aspect of revolved side angle as you have the opportunity.
I suggest to students that they begin by putting the back knee on the floor. This helps with the balance aspect of the posture and relaxes the muscles around the hips somewhat, which allows for more range of motion as they start to reach. Next, I suggest that the students take the non-twisting hand and place it on the outside of the front knee and move it toward the midline, bringing it closer to the shoulder that they are trying to bind with. Then, I suggest that they take a few breaths to really look for the amount of reach that is available each time they work the pose.
As students continue to practice, they are often surprised by how close their hand is to the floor now! When they have enough of the hand on the floor that they can press into the floor and put some weight into it, then they can begin to pick up the back foot and add the balance aspect of the posture.
What aspect to emphasize first?
If we don’t have enough flexibility yet to place both the front hand and the back foot flat on the mat, which one should we emphasize first? There is no “right” answer to this question. It goes back to which intentions you are emphasizing in your practice at this particular moment in time. If we are working with the intention of building the posture from the ground up, then I would suggest working towards grounding the front hand first and allowing the back heel to drop as a secondary intention.