I’ve been genetically blessed with super long legs for my 5’4” body. Of course, the downside to this is that my torso is “vertically challenged”.
Before I started a serious yoga practice, these body proportions, along with half a lifetime of slouching in front of a desk or on a couch, resulted in my having to sit on a rolled-up coat whenever I went to a theater to see over the person in front of me.
Whether or not you have these specific challenges, most people tend to slump in the upper body when seated, primarily because of desk sitting which can lead to weakened and shortened muscles in the side body. Who among us doesn’t want to sit taller? And, if you practice yoga, a long side body makes everything more easeful – twisting, backbends, forward folds, and even inversions.
It doesn’t require aggressive stretching to create more space in your side body. Rather, consistently adding some poses that open up and/or strengthen the muscles and fascia on the side of your body will go a long way toward lengthening your spine and torso.
For this 20-30 minute sequence that can be done in whole or in part, you’ll need your mat and a yoga block and yoga blanket. If you’re short on time, choose just 2 or 3 poses. If you don’t have either a block or a blanket, you can substitute with thick towels that you can roll or fold roughly into the shape of a block.
Supported Fish Pose with a Blanket Roll – Take your towel or blanket and roll it up into a short thick roll. The thickness is up to you, depending on how open you are on a given day, or how much of a stretch you want. Also, have your block within easy reach. Place the roll on the mat and lie on your back over the roll, with the roll hitting just under the bottom of your shoulder blades, knees bent with feet on the mat, crown of the head on the mat. Once you feel settled on the roll, straighten your legs out with feet hip-width apart and flexed. Take hold of your block with your palms on each of the short skinny sides of the block. Straighten your arms and take them as far back overhead as you can, while keeping your back ribs relaxed and sinking toward the mat. Your hands may touch the floor behind your head to but they don’t need to if you’re feeling enough of an opening. Extend your body long, as if you’re trying to reach toward opposite sides of the room with your whole body. Hold for 10 breaths. If you want more of an opening, drop the block, bend your arms and take hold of each elbow with the opposite hand. Allow your elbows to relax toward the floor behind you. Hold for 5 breaths and repeat with the opposite elbow cross. (You can also skip the bent elbow version and just repeat the straight arm version for another 10 breaths.)
Reclined Crescent Moon (or Banana-asana) – Remove the blanket roll and lie flat on your back. This time, hold the block with the largest sides between each palm so that your palms have more surface area to push against. Take the block back overhead with straight arms, pushing firmly into the block with your palms. Your hands may reach the ground behind you with your ribs relaxed, but if not, shimmy your hands up the block a little and let the block rest on the floor. The important thing is to keep your shoulders and ribs relaxed toward the mat. Begin to extend your body as with the first pose, and start to move your torso and arms toward the right corner of your mat. Once you’ve settled comfortably, take both legs together and move them toward the right lower corner of your mat, making a banana shape with your body. You may want to hook your left foot over your right ankle to get more lengthening on the left side. Keep both shoulders relaxed into the mat (your left shoulder will want to lift) and hold for 10 breaths. Release slowly and repeat on the other side.
Reclined Twist with Block – Stay on your back, but bend your knees so that your thighs are perpendicular to the ground, knees over hips, lower legs and feet lifted and parallel to the ground, as if you were sitting on an imaginary chair. Place the block between your midthighs and squeeze gently. Take your arms out straight in the shape of a T, and move your legs over to the right, keeping both shoulders relaxed toward the mat. Again, there’s no need to strain to get your legs down to the ground; just relax and allow them to descend gently as much as your body will allow. Push into the block with the upper (left) leg. Hold for 10 breaths and repeat on the other side. When done, take constructive rest for 3 breaths (knees bent, feet mat width apart on the mat, knees relaxing into each other).
Cat/Cow with Side Bend – Get onto all fours with hands under shoulders and knees hip-width apart. Start with cat pose. Start from your tailbone and lengthen it down, moving slowly up your spine to curl your spine into an “angry cat” position, head dropping down. Reverse into cow pose, again starting from the bottom of your spine, lifting the tailbone and moving slowly up the vertebrae into an extended spine, with the tailbone and head lifting upward. Repeat for a total of 5 repetitions. Return to a neutral spine and start to move your upper body to the right and at the same time, move your hips also to the right, creating the same banana type shape with your spine as you did earlier on your back. Do both sides for a total of 5 times.
Child’s Pose with Blanket Fold – Unroll your blanket and fold it into a thin fold (the thickness is up to you). Kneel and sit on your heels with feet together and knees about mat width apart or even wider. Place the blanket fold on your thighs as close to your hip creases as possible and fold over into child’s pose. Fold forward from the hip creases, extend your arms forward, and lengthen your torso to place your head on the mat or your block. Ground down in your hips and keep thinking about moving your torso forward and down, rather than just down. Hold for 10 breaths. Now, take hold of the sides of the mat with your hands and pull the mat away from you, trying to extend your torso further forward and down. Hold for 10 breaths.
Puppy Pose with Blanket Roll – Re-roll your blanket and get onto all fours again with the blanket roll under you about 6 inches behind your hands. Slowly extend your arms and torso forward, keeping your hips over your knees, placing your chest on the blanket roll. Keep extending your arms straight forward and allow your chest to sink into the blanket. Rest your head on the mat or your block and continue to stretch forward and down with your chest. Hold for 10 breaths. Then, take hold of the edges of your mat with each hand, still with arms long and start to pull the mat away from you to lengthen your torso even more. Hold for another 10 breaths.
Sphinx with Blanket Roll – Lie prone on your belly and place your blanket roll under your chest between your sternum and your ribs, legs long and comfortably apart. Place your forearms down, parallel with the sides of the mat, shoulder-width apart, with elbows directly under the shoulders. Adjust the placement and thickness of the roll to the level that’s most comfortable for you. Push into your forearms, and pull your hands isometrically toward you. The hands won’t move but keep the action of pulling them toward you while you extend your sternum forward with collarbones open. Ground down with your lower body, pushing down with your pelvis and legs. Hold for 10 breaths and release. Next, go back into sphinx pose, and this time, look over your right shoulder and twist your torso gently to the right, trying to see your right foot. Keep the chest moving forward and use the blanket roll to support you. Hold for 5 breaths and repeat on the other side.
Down-Dog – This pose will hopefully give you a sense of how much you’ve been able to lengthen your side body with this sequence. Get on all fours again, with the blanket roll under you about 6 inches behind your hands. Curl your toes under, lift your hips up and back with bent knees into a bent knee down-dog, with your chest moving toward your thighs. Slowly straighten your legs while extending your body long, trying to reach your head down and forward toward the blanket roll while keeping your chest open. If it touches, allow your torso to extend further using the blanket to support you. The action of reaching is what is important, not whether you can touch the blanket. But, if you want, you can place your block on top of the blanket at the height that works for you so that you can feel the support of something underneath your head. Now, take the edges of the mat into your hands and pull the mat away from you while making your body even longer while keeping your hips high and back, and chest open. Is your down-dog more easeful and open? Does your body feel longer? Finish with a quick child’s pose.
Crocodile with Blanket Roll – This pose will be your savasana. Lie on your stomach, placing the blanket roll under your pelvis at the hip crease area. Adjust the thickness of the roll to the height that suits you. Fold your arms to make a pillow under your head and either rest your forehead on your hands or rest on the side of your face. Take the right knee and move it up and out so that your leg is resting on the mat just behind the roll, with the thigh close to perpendicular to your body and the lower leg at a right angle to the thigh. Hold for 5 breaths and repeat on the other side. Then straighten both legs with your feet comfortably apart, maybe with toes turned in slightly, and rest in a prone savasana for at least 5 minutes.
Try all or some of this sequence and see if, over time, it helps to create more space, length, and strength in your side body and torso. I can’t swear to it, but I think the types of actions in this sequence have made me a little taller even as I’ve aged. Well, at least I feel taller, anyway!
May Louie first took yoga in college to fulfill a Phys-Ed requirement and immediately fell in love. She, unfortunately, did not continue with her practice but reconnected with it when she retired from her corporate job in 2002 and has since become a serious yoga enthusiast. After her second retirement in 2017, she completed her 200-hour RYT certification, studying with Dina Crosta, Ellen Mosko, and Jamie Segal Hanley, with a focus on alignment based flow.
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