Why Vasisthasana looks so simple, yet ain’t…

VasisthasanaI love side plank, but I used to avoid doing it.  Such a simple looking pose with so much energy.  In WanderingYogi classes, many people struggle with it. Common complaints are ‘my wrists hurt’, ‘my arm wobbles’, ‘it hurts in the back’.  Holding the asana for one minute is a real challenge.

From a yoga perspective, this is one of two advanced arm balances – Vasisthasana and Visvamitrasana. (I consider the full expression of Vasisthasana to be advanced). They are often taught together in Master yoga classes.   Vasisthasana is frequently the precursor for the more difficult Visvamitrasana.

Here’s how to get into Side Plank:

  • Come from Danurasana (Plank Pose)
  • Make sure your wrists are in a straight line with your shoulders, apply pressure across all the hand from the fingers to the wrist.
  • Rather than press down, try and imagine the energy going up the arms. You may feel your shoulder blades drop away from your neck and even broaden. Good!
  • Keep your feet together – legs straight, hold your stomach muscles.
  • Move your left hand closer to your right hand, your balance will begin to shift, your left hip will begin to tip to the side.
  • Follow through until your right hip is in a straight line with your left hip.  At the same time, your right arm will need to gracefully move up until you are in starfish.

Try this first and see if you can hold (and breathe) for 30 seconds – about 4 breaths each side.  If you are experiencing back pressure, bring the top leg in front of the bottom leg, place your foot on the ground, facing away from you.  If your wrists are screaming at you, take yourself down on your elbow, lower arm at right angles to your body. If you are having a ball, go for the full version, extending the top leg in a straight line with the ground (then you really do look like a happy starfish).

Benefits of the Side Plank

Excellent for abdominal building, strengthening ankles and shoulders, not to mention the wrists.  Supergood for balance and coordination.

Anyone who does vasisthasana regularly, will say they feel free, full of energy. The energetic impact of this asana is described in yoga, as ‘sattvic’ – ‘pure’ or mind cleansing.

Why the name? Cos Vasisthasana is not sanskrit for side plank

The fable behind these two asanas explains a lot of why the Side Plank is more than an ab builder…

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Visvamitrasana

While Vasisthasana (Side Plank) is ‘sattvic’, or mind clearing—  Visvamitrasana is ‘rajasic’, driven or “fiery.”

Vasistha, referred to in this asana, (there are more than one in the Veddic tradition), was a sage who battled with another sage (the Vishvamitra guy) over a magical, wish-fulfilling cow named Nandini.

This long battle is a metaphor for the ongoing dynamic tension we experience as yogis between effortless grace and determined practice. Vasistha embodies the grace that comes with spiritual attainment and contentment: A divine son of the god Brahma and a member of the priestly caste at the top of the Indian social hierarchy, Vasistha seemed destined by birthright for high spiritual achievement—not to mention that magic cow.

Vishvamitra wasn’t quite so blessed. Even though he was a king, a member of the Kshatriya warrior caste that was second only to the priestly Brahmins, he didn’t have Vasistha’s earthly or spiritual advantages.

But Vishvamitra was strong-willed. As the conflict continued, both sages demonstrated the spiritual achievements for which they’re still renowned. Vasistha displayed his tolerance and mastery of the emotions; even though Vishvamitra and his warriors are said to have slain a hundred of Vasistha’s sons, the Brahmin remained calm and was never vengeful.  Vishvamitra learnt that he could focus his will and purpose to a higher purpose (although that took some time). And because he struggled so much with this, when he finally attained spiritual enlightenment, even Vasistha bowed down before him.

There is more to the story. Because where the story of Vasisthasana  and why the pose is so good for you leaves off, the story of Vishvamitra, and why that pose is even better for you, begins.

But that is a story for another time…

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