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Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle Stretch) - Issues and Solutions

n.b. In this pose the legs are in the leg part of Warrior 2 pose (albeit with a wider stance than is typical for warrior 2), while the trunk is in a side bend. This means that it makes a lot of sense to practise Warrior 2 legs as a long term preparation for this pose.

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Parsvakonasana Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Balance and Neck

            · Shoulder Joints

            · Chest and Lumbar Spine

            · Hips and Sacro-Iliac Joints

            · Knees

            · Feet

            Pregnancy



Balance and Neck

The leg part alone of this pose can be tricky for those with balance issues. One thing that can help is practising with one’s back against a wall – in some ways this makes the pose more challenging, as it removes “cheating” options and “forces” one to keep the backs of one’s arms, shoulders, and buttocks in the same plane – but it also make the balance aspect of the pose easier.

Feet position can make a difference to the balance aspect of the pose – having the feet very far apart can make the balance aspect feel harder, just due to its making the pose itself more difficult. More relevant is whether the leading foot is pivoted around the heel or the balls of the feet. With the foot rotated about the ball of the foot, the leading foot is more forwards than the following foot and this gives a greater feeling of stability (in the forwards-backwards direction) and so aids balance.

In the full version of the pose, the head is turned to face up and is slightly tilted backwards to allow one to look at the hand that is overhead. This makes the balance aspect of the pose much harder – so, where balance is problematic, this part is best omitted.

For an upright position, the rotation in the neck is not extreme – but here the head and neck are held at an angle so lateral neck muscles are already engaged. Those with neck problems would be sensible to test how their neck feels with rotation in this position by first turning the head to look downwards (easier from a balance point of view) – if this feels comfortable, then try turning the head to look upwards.


Shoulder Joints

It is unlikely that the lower arm position will be problematic. The upper arm (in the full version of the pose), however, is in a fairly extreme position, where tightness in pectoralis major or latissimus dorsi is likely to be limiting. “Frozen shoulder” type issues are also likely to limit the arm moving in the full version. However, having the top arm lifted to overhead is not essential for practising a version of the pose – the arm can be left resting by one’s side, or lifted to in-line with the shoulders instead. More important than the arm position is the sense of openness of the chest and broadness across the shoulders.


Chest and Lumbar Spine

The full version of the pose is a fairly strong side bend for the trunk – and unless the shoulders and pelvic girdle face the same direction (rare when a wide stance is used) there is also a spinal twist.

In side bends in general, one side of the chest is held in a very open, expanded form while the other side is squeezed into a closed and contracted form. This effect is greater in this pose if the top arm is lifted to an overhead position. The net effect is that breathing via the expansion and contraction of the rib-cage is restricted. This is not normally a problem but those who are used to primarily breathing via expansion and contraction of the rib-cage (rather than “abdominally”) may well find the experience uncomfortable or even distressing - although it is very unlikely to do any physical harm. If one does experience some discomfort with regard to breathing, then one should simply go a little less far into the side-bend or move in and out of the side-bend with the breath. The degree of side bend with which one feels comfortable will increase with practice. Excellent long term preparation for this aspect of the pose is Uttihita Trikonasana, Trikonasana and supine side bends.

Side bends are often said to be a bad idea for those with lower back problems. The reason for this is that most of the side bending of the trunk occurs in the lumbar region, with one side of the spinal discs of this area being squeezed/compressed, potentially to a high degree – this is not usually a problem, but it can be if the spinal alignment is poor or there is a high degree of damage to the spinal discs.

Those with significant degree of lower-back problems may well do better to practise supine side-bends rather than standing side-bends – or, at the very least, take special care over the spinal alignment and avoid moving so far into the side-bending aspect of the pose as to feel discomfort. Using a wall to give extra feedback over the shape of the spine and to help discourage a tendency to twist the spine can be very helpful.

Another approach is to have the legs a little less wide apart or to rotate the leading leg by lifting the heel rather than the toes (i.e. bringing heel inwards rather than moving toes outwards) – this both makes it more likely the pelvic girdle will face the same direction as the shoulders (i.e. less spinal rotation) and reduces the likelihood of the pelvic girdle being tilted forwards. And another approach is to practise simple Trikonasana (or other side bends) for the side-bending aspect of Trikonasana and then practise the leg part of Warrior 2 to develop the appropriate hip flexibility.

The lumbar spine position is strongly affected by what one does with the feet and legs (before moving into the side-bend), since this affects the positioning of the pelvic girdle and thus the base of the spine. Taking appropriate care over feet positioning and activating the legs is thus an important part of keeping the lumbar spine safe and protected – and this is important even for those with strong healthy backs.

Using “base support” ideas and mula bandha are also protective of the lumbar spine.


Hips and Sacro-Iliac Joints

With this pose, if one lacks sufficient rotatory flexibility in the hips to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards (and this is the case for most people in the west), then the attempt to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards can cause problems – especially if one is very determined or disciplined about bringing the pelvic girdle to facing forwards. One area that is affected is that of the sacro-iliac joints – these are semi-moveable joints which tend to get their surfaces jammed into each other when one tries to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards too strongly against the resistance of the hip muscles. Practising this pose regularly in this way encourages deterioration of the sacro-iliac joint which, over time, can cause it to dysfunction with experience of pain – a problem that has occurred for several yoga teachers.

One approach to this issue is to place the feet closer together & / or to have the legs / feet in a less rotated position as this reduces the degree of rotatory flexibility needed in the hips to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards.

However, the approach I favour is too allow the pelvic girdle to be “free floating” – although the term “free floating” is somewhat misleading. In this approach, one places the feet and then anchors the leading leg by engaging the hip rotators of that leg. Keeping the leading leg anchored then engages the hip rotators of the other leg in a way that tends to draw the pelvic girdle towards facing forwards. After this, the pelvic girdle is rarely actually facing forwards, but is as close to facing forwards as the hip muscles will allow, given the placement of the feet. I then further stabilize the position of the pelvic girdle by sinking the heels and drawing the feet against the resistance supplied by the floor (feet don’t actually move). All the leg and hip muscle activity helps to ensure a very stable and unmoving pelvic girdle and so supplies the spine with a stable base to elongate upwards from. This approach has the merit of helping to improve the hip flexibility with regard to rotation and can be combined with the previous approach mentioned.


Knees

So long as the leading knee points in the same direction as the leading foot it is not vulnerable. It is common for the leading knee to tend to lean inwards a little – pressing the outside edge of the leading foot downwards tends to counter this. Where the leading knee still tends to lean inwards then perhaps try having the leading foot turn a little less to the side.

The back knee potentially has significant sideways bending forces working on it – the further the feet are apart and the less the stretch-ability of the hip adductor muscles, the greater this is likely to be. The knee is protected by drawing the kneecap upwards and taking care to keep the outside edge of the foot pressing downwards. Obviously, those with already vulnerable knees should consider how their knees will feel when choosing the distance between their feet. However, most people do not find this pose problematic for their knees.


Feet

If one practises this with poor attention to the feet, there is a strong tendency to allow the weight of the feet to be mostly on the inside edge of the feet (i.e. feet rolled inwards). This is bad news for the feet is it tends to crush the inner arches and exacerbate and encourage problems such as achy feet and plantar fasciitis. Such poor feet care within this pose also has implications higher up at the knees, hips, pelvic girdle and spine.

If one practises with appropriate attention to the feet, then one has most of the weight moved to the outside edge of the feet, whilst keeping the pads of the big toe joints pressing downwards into the floor. This activates and lifts the arches of the feet – which is generally good news, but if one is not used to having one’s feet active in this way (or already has feet problems), then this can feel a little too strong. In this case, practising simple “feet wide” (with feet pointing forwards) but with the same attention to what the feet are doing is great preparation.

Anyone already with significant feet problems will probably find supine side-bends more helpful than this pose - simply because it take the weight off their feet.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

In the later stages of pregnancy, one of the issues that needs to be borne in mind is that the womb starts to press against the inferior vena cava (main vein in the trunk) and the aorta (main artery). This has implications for blood circulation to and from the legs. It is thus unwise to hold the leg part of standing postures - with risks of discomfort, tiredness (in legs) and an increased likelihood, over the long term, of getting varicose veins or tissue fluid issues (oedema) in the legs. Similarly, a static side-bend is unhelpful from a breathing point of view – with abdominal breathing restricted by the growing womb, one does not want to further restrict the breath by holding the upper trunk in a position that will restrict breathing in the chest. Hence this is not generally a pose one would think of practising during pregnancy – practising gentle side bends from lying on one side is likely to feel more comfortable and helpful. Another issue to consider is that, as the womb becomes bigger, one’s ability to bend sideways in the lumbar area becomes restricted – thus one should start to aim for side-stretches or side-bends that focus more on opening the chest than on bending in the lumbar spine.

If one wishes to experience the leg part of this pose – this can be done dynamically with the breath. If doing so, then taking care to do so in a way that emphasizes strengthening hip muscles rather than stretching them is sensible (to avoid over-stretching an area that is naturally loosening in preparation for childbirth).

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