I have Shiva Rea on the brain. I took her workshop recently in New York and I’ve had the great good fortune of working on a feature story with her since then. There are so many remarkable things about this woman – she is always very present and always kind. She is an accomplished yogini and possesses deep knowledge of the Tantric tradition. She is the real deal; an embodiment of the teachings. But for today I’m going to focus on the quality in her that is inspiring me the most lately: Her grooviness. Shiva Rea is so groovalicious that I’m pretty sure she could, if she so desired, actually bring the word back in style (and not the same way that Austin Powers did).
One of the grooviest things about Shiva is that she gives people permission to move in a nonlinear way. I came to yoga after having studied dance for many years (as did she) and, on more than one occasion, I have felt so confined in yoga class that I wanted to scrunch my mat into a tiny little ball, chuck it out the window, and bust out with my best running man just to mix things up. (I’d love to see how the person next to me reacts to that someday…) I don’t feel that way in Shiva’s classes.
In her classes you circle your hips, sway your torso, and you’re pretty much always guaranteed to do my absolute favorite category of poses: Side bends. Compared to all of the forward and backward movement in yoga, there’s not a whole lot of side bending. Think about it: How often in yoga class do you hear your teacher say, “Step forward to X pose; step back to Downward Dog…Take your right foot forward, left foot back.” We bend forward and back. We move forward and back. We talk about the front body and the back body. Where is the side body in all of this? We already move forward with every step we take in our daily lives — what about gettin’ down and groovy with some more lateral movement?
In my experience side bending feels luscious, decadent, and delicious. I tend to be less achievement-oriented in my side bends than I am in my forward bends or backbends. Instead of trying to go deeper or bend further, I find myself tuning into my body—I feel the pulse of my breath; my brain seems to relax and settle; I sense the long sheaths of fascia running along the sides of my torso. And when I come out of a side bend? Even better! The afterglow is like the perfect “yoga high.” Ahhh, smooth, happy, balanced brain.
I’m sure there are many reasons I feel so good after side bends, but the two I can identify for certain are: I’ve just stretched my quadratus lomborum (QL), which is a muscle that originates on the back of the pelvis and attaches to the lowest rib. (When the QL contracts, the pelvis and the same side ribs move toward each other.) The QL gets tight when you sit all day and don’t give it the attentive stretching it needs. Second, I’ve stretched the intercostal muscles – the muscles between each rib – and when you stretch these muscles, you free up space to breathe more deeply.
One of my very favorite sidebends is a variation of Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana that I learned from Twee Merrigan, who happens to be a Prana Vinyasa teacher (the style that Shiva teaches). My outer hips are relatively tighter than my inner groins, so this variation is easier for me than the traditional pose. Instead of bending one knee and placing your heel against your inner groin like Parivrtta Janu, in this variation you place the sole of your foot on the floor. This requires less mobility from the outer hip (on the bent leg side) and more from the inner groin. Experiment with it in your own body and see how it feels.
There are a few important things I want to point out before going through the step by step: First, be sure to warm up before you do this pose – save it for the end of a practice. Don’t force yourself too far into the stretch before you are ready. In fact, if your side body is very tight, you can modify the pose. If push yourself too far, too quickly in a side bend you can really tweak the soft tissue around your sacrum and that is no fun at all!
Meet your body with a sense of curiosity and generosity; it will be easier to tune into your breath if you work from a place that feels genuinely appropriate for you. And then when you come out of the pose, you’ll be in the full glory of your yoga high—no illegal substances necessary.
Groovy Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana:
After you’ve fully warmed up (any 45-minute + YogaGlo sequence that includes Sun Salutations, Triangle Pose, and Parsvokanasana will do), sit on the floor with your legs wide in Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend). Bend your left leg and place your left foot flat on the floor, close to your left sitting bone, at a 45 angle. If this feels too challenging, play around with the placement of your foot, perhaps moving it forward or moving the heel away from your sitting bone.
The first time you do the pose, try it without the binding: Place your right hand on the floor behind you and extend energy through your right leg. As you inhale sweep your left arm overhead; exhale and fold sideways over the right leg. Extend a long line of energy from your left hip crease, all along the left side of your torso and out through your left fingertips. Stay for five deep breaths. Inhale to come back up to center and do the other side.
If you sense that you can go deeper, try the pose again with the binding. With your right leg extended along the floor and your left sole on the floor, place your right fingertips on the floor behind you. As you inhale, lift your left arm straight up toward the sky. As you exhale, bend over to the right, sweeping your left arm over your left ear. If you can, take hold of the outer edge of your right foot. If you feel balanced and all is well, then thread your right arm across the front of your body and catch hold of your left ankle. Notice how holding onto the ankle gives you leverage to spiral the torso open toward the ceiling. Pull on the ankle a little more. Then pull on it a little less. Notice the different sensations like a scientist observing a lab experiment. Feel the ebb and flow of your breath; observe the sensation of opening between each rib. After five deep breaths, come up. Pause and observe how you feel. (Groovy, right?!) Move to the other side.
An editor at Yoga Journal for nearly a decade, Andrea Ferretti has had the honor of writing about and learning from some of the best yoga teachers in the West. She has been greatly influenced by Sarah Powers, Sally Kempton, Cyndi Lee, and her husband, Jason Crandell. For more of her personal writing, visit her blog, Mindful Living.