Iyengar's difficulty rating: 4* out of 60*
For a brief period during and after college, I worked as a cook in a high-volume commercial kitchen. The most common task for a beginner like me was prepping mirepoix – a mixture of carrots, onions, and celery – of which we probably chopped a hundred pounds every day. Why so much? Because mirepoix is a solid foundation for EVERYTHING. It was the basis of almost every soup, stock, sauce, and mixto we made. Stock? Mirepoix, bones, bouquet garni. Spaghetti sauce? Mirepoix, garlic, tomatoes, herbs. Paella? Mirepoix, protein, vegetables, rice, herbs.
If asana had a mirepoix, it would probably be Utthita Parsvakonasana.
I’d feel comfortable teaching nothing but variations of Extended Side Angle Pose to prepare for 90% of challenging peak postures. It can prep you for Urdhva Dhanurasana and other deep backbends, Visvamitrasana and a slew of challenging arm balances, Padmasana and all its variations, tough twists and folds…
But Utthita Parsvakonasana is more than just a key ingredient in other things; it’s also one of my favorite postures to practice and teach on its own. It’s accessible enough to drop into quickly at any time, yet complex and challenging enough to bring practitioners towards total absorption and sensation.
Absorption has lately become a big part of my asana teaching strategy: how easily and fully will students access deep concentration and an unwavering mind through this pose? How can I arrange poses, not only to gradually deepen physical actions, but gradually deepen and refine focus and intention? It's an interesting sequencing strategy, that's for sure.
Anyhow, here are some concrete ways I’ve been playing with this pose recently…
Iyengar focuses on length in this pose, saying to "stretch every part of the body, concentrating on the back portion of the whole body, specially the spine. Stretch the spine until all the vertebrae and ribs move and there is a feeling that even the skin is being stretched and pulled." That's a lot of length! How can we make that level of reach more accessible?
For the past few weeks I’ve been practicing and teaching Extended Side Angle with the outer edge of the back foot pressed against a wall. This helps many practitioners get more length along the top of the pose, deepen the flexion of the front knee and hip, and create strength and stability beneath the pose even in a very long stance. My classes get all gaspy and moany whenever we do this, so I think it’s working.
And teachers, here’s a cool assist to try: when a student is in Utthita Parsvakonasana, move to the back of her mat, close to her back foot. Use your foot as a barrier into which she can lengthen her back leg and ground the outside edge of her foot. Then wrap your hands around the inner thigh of her back leg well above the knee. Lean back so that your weight is gently pulling her hips up and back. Have her resist that action by bending her front knee deeper. This creates length, structure and lift under the pose. It often releases the deep muscles of the hips and permits a truly magnificent stretch and sensation.
Have you tried these variations? Leave a comment below and share your favorite ways to access deeper experience in Utthita Parsvakonasana!
How to improve your Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose):
- Practice external hip rotation with postures like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2 Pose), and Siddhasana (Accomplished or Adept Pose)
- Deepen hip flexion with postures like Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch or Pyramid Pose) and Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold Pose)
- Strengthen the muscles around your legs with postures like Utkatasana (Formidable or Chair Pose) and Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1 Pose)
- Stabilize your core with postures like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog), Dandasana (Staff Pose), and Paripurna Navasana (Full Boat Pose)
- Stretch open your arms in the overhead plane with postures like Tadasana or Urdhva Hastasana (Mountain or Upward Hands Pose) and Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
- Twist open along the length your spine with postures like Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) prepares you for:
- Most other open-hip postures, including arm balances like Eka Pada Koundinyasana II (Hurdler Pose or Sage Koundinya Pose) and Vasisthasana (Side Plank or Sage Vasistha Pose)
- Postures requiring a strong back leg like Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1 Pose) and Visvamitrasana (Friend of the World Pose)
- Any posture emphasizing length in the torso and arms in the overhead plane, including Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3 Pose), Janu Sirsasana (Head to Knee Pose), and Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head to Knee Pose)
- Backbends like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose), Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), and Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-legged Inverted Staff Pose)