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One Pose—Three Ways

Influenced by her background in dance, body work, Iyengar and Anusara yoga, Ellen Saltonstall shares tips from her home-based studio in Union Square. Her speciality is in anatomy and therapeutics, which includes a body awareness and release technique called Bodymind Ballwork. Here she shows us the beauty of side plank:

YogaCity NYC: What pose did you chose and why do you like it?

Ellen Saltonstall: I chose side plank (vasisthasana). I like poses that can be adapted for different levels of strength and balance skills, with each variation having many benefits to offer. This pose is named after the sage-author-priest Vasishta who lived in Vedic times. Yogis usually think of vasishtasana as a “core strengthener," and for me the term “core” includes the abdominals, the pelvic floor, the iliopsoas, the inner thighs, and the deep spinal muscles. In addition to building core and shoulder strength, vasishtasana helps counter scoliosis by strengthening the muscles on the convex side of the spine. If your spine curves to the right, only practice the pose on the right arm and leg.

Vasisthasana has a playful quality in that we never orient the body in this way in daily life. Balancing in this pose often evokes laughter, since the fear of falling is minimal when we are so close to the floor. Those with osteopenia or osteoporosis will benefit from the stimulus to the bones of the spine and pelvis, as well as the balancing practice that this pose provides. As you practice this pose, you develop the ability to center and integrate yourself, while at the same time expand out fully and expressively. Three variations (of the ten variations that I teach) are offered here.

YCNYC: Describe the anatomy of the first pose and body parts engaged.

ES: This supported pose helps you expand the side body as the spine and ribs move to the side. For those with scoliosis, practicing with the convex side down will build awareness of how to counteract the habitual curve. You also have the opportunity to playfully create a continuous elongation of the whole body, from head to feet and from shoulders through the fingers, while being fully supported. Your breathing can open up, and specific stretches in the shoulders, waist, and hips are evident. Muscles that are stretched include the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, triceps brachii, abdominal obliques, iliopsoas, quadratus lumborum, gluteus medius, and fibularis. Experiment with slight backbending or forward bending (one arm or leg reaching forward or back) to vary the myofascial benefits.

YCNYC: What body parts are engaged in the second pose?

ES: This variation adds the stimulus of weight bearing to the arm and shoulder without wrist pressure. You can practice outer rotation of the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket (hence the palm facing up), which is a crucial alignment in this pose. Your torso lifts using the serratus anterior, triceps, rotator cuff, paraspinals, and obliques, encouraging a coordination of arm and torso strength. The lateral lift of the hips (challenging for beginners, due to weakness in the gluteus medius and pelvic floor) is aided by the leverage of the top leg pushing down. The bottom leg is in the full pose, building strength in the fibularis muscles at the side of the lower leg and ankle. The feet are important as a foundation—one pressing straight down, the other one pressing the outer edge down strongly while spreading the toes.

YCNYC: What is the overall effect of the third pose on the body, and what does this one add to the understanding of the pose [and mind]?

ES: In this variation you are balancing on one fully extended arm, with both legs straight, and your two feet in line, one in front of the other. Your upper hand reaches for the wall as a minimal support and balance aid. The wall support encourages you to extend the spine, rather than doing a slight forward bend at the hips or neck—a common response to instability or fear in the pose. This variation builds arm, shoulder, torso, hip, and leg strength, preparing you even more for the full classic pose, in which you stack the feet and reach the upper arm up. In fact, if you feel stable in this variation, you can transition quite easily into the full pose. The coordination acquired from practicing this pose will give you confidence and inner strength to meet the challenges in your life.

YCNYC: Do you have any new workshops we can attend?

ES: My upcoming workshops include Yoga Anatomy and Therapy at Be Shri Yoga, in

Greenwich, Connecticut, on January 9-10. Then at my studio, Yoga for Osteoporosis on February 13 (no yoga experience necessary and teachers welcome as ongoing education), Anatomy and Therapy for the Shoulders and Neck on February 20, and Bodymind Ballwork, March 4-5. Please visit for links to these events and other information about my work.


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