Standing side bend is one of my favorite standing yoga poses because it stretches the whole side of the body. Well, it doesn't stretch the side of the neck, but you can use it to stretch your lats, side of the ribcage, side of the waist, side gluteals and side of the thigh.
This yoga posture is also a good one for learning to understand one basic aspect of balance.
In order to stay balanced, if you reach one part of your body to one side of your foundation you need to reach another part in the opposite direction.
By placing your awareness in the right place you can do this with not a lot of effort.
(The right places in this case are your feet and your pelvis.)
This exercise can also help to drill into you the awareness that your legs control your hips when your feet are on the floor.
You can use it to learn how to use your legs to control your pelvis. This is important since your pelvis is both the foundation of your spine and the home of your center of gravity.
It also gives you the opportunity to practice creating length in your upper body by moving your ribs (and arms) away from your pelvis.
These skills can all be practiced prior to doing a standing side bend or between side bend sets if you do them more than once.
To focus on creating length in your upper body, practice lifting your ribs up away from your pelvis while standing.
Separate and distinguish this action from lifting your shoulders.
With your arms by your side, practice slowly and smoothly lifting your ribs up. Expand your ribcage front, back and sides. Then slowly lower.
Because this action expands your thorax you may find that an inhale naturally occurs as you lift your ribs. Let it.
Once you can feel your ribs with respect to your pelvis, then learn to feel your neck
Pull the back of your head back and up and your chin in. To relax let your head move forwards. Repeat both movements slowly and smoothly.
You may notice the activation of this phase action causes your upper chest to expand and lift. This is a good thing. You can use this action to help you expand your ribcage. Your ribcage can then naturally sink down as you move your head forwards to relax.
If you have trouble with these actions the exercises in posture practice may help.
With your arms down, after you expand your ribcage and straighten your neck move your shoulders up towards you ears.
Then relax in the reverse order.
Repeat slowly and smoothly.
You can think of this action as mobilizing your shoulders, exercising your traps and levator scapulae (both muscles which can be used to lift the shoulders) and stretching your lats.
This last action (stretching your lats) occurs more so when you lift your arms and even more so if you move your palms towards each other while your arms are lifted.
Once you can lift and lower your shoulders smoothly with your arms down, practice with your arms up.
Start with your arms up but elbows and fingers relaxed and slightly bent.
Expand your ribcage, lengthen your neck, lift your shoulders so that your arms move up. Then relax these actions in the reverse order. (In the pictures below I'm kneeling, but you can do these exercises while standing.)
Sequence each action so that one follows smoothly after the other from the bottom up.
One final action you can add on after lifting the shoulders is to straighten the elbows and then the fingers.
Relax from the top downwards.
The idea of practicing this while standing straight is so that you can do it easily while in a standing side bend.
This standing side bend is designed to stretch hips, lumbar spine and thoracic spine (and the side of the ribcage.) Initially you can focus on these body elements individually.
While standing, practice pushing your hips to one side. Use your feet and legs. Press your feet into the floor, and to push your pelvis to the right. Notice the feeling in your feet as you push your pelvis. Make your feet feel as if you are pushing them in the opposite direction to your hips. Then relax.
Obviously your feet won't move because they are on the floor. However, because you are pushing them, for example, to the left your hips will move to the right. If you have trouble, you can experiment with having your knees bent to begin with. Imagine doing a hip bump. Or stand a foot away from a wall and push your hips towards the wall and then move them away from the wall.
Repeat slowly and smoothly on both sides.
If you started with knees bent, repeat the movement with knees straight.
You don't have to keep your spine straight for this movement. However do focus on feeling your hips and moving them.
When side bending the lumbar spine and waist, one side of the waist will shorten and the other will lengthen. Bending to the right the left side of your waist will lengthen. You can increase this lengthening by contracting the short side of the waist.
When side bending the thoracic spine and ribcage one side of the ribcage and spine will open. Spaces will open up between the ribs and the sides of the vertebrae. On the other side those spaces will get smaller.
It's exactly the same as what happens to the waist but instead of space increasing between the side of the ribcage and the side of the pelvis, now the space increases between adjacent ribs.
As with the waist you can emphasis opening up one side of the ribcage by focusing on contracting the other side.
While standing, bend your waist to the right.
Contract the right side of your waist. Then carry the feeling of contraction up the side of the ribcage. Once you get the feel of this action move your focus to the "long" side. As you contract the short side focus on lengthening the long side.
Activate and then relax. Repeat slowly and smoothly until you are comfortable with the action.
To combine the actions push the hips to the right and then bend your spine to the left. As with the spine you can accentuate the side bend of the hips by contracting the short side of the hips.
Bending to the right contract the outside of the right thigh and outer hip to push the pelvis further to the left. Then carry the feeling of contraction up to the waist and ribcage.
Then relax the contraction and let your ribcage sink down. Slowly activate the muscles on the short side of the pose and then slowly and smoothly relax. Once you get used to the action, expand your awareness so that you also focus on feeling the long side of the pose lengthening.
Repeat on the other side.
For the next exercise focus on lengthening and relaxing. With hips pushed to the right, and spine bend to he left, lengthen your spine and then relax. Repeat. For extra lengthening, accentuate the push of your hips to the right and then move ribs and head away from your pelvis. Then relax.
Try the same thing with the arms reaching up and over to the left. Lengthen and relax exactly as you did while standing straight.
Then try lengthening first, and then contracting the short side. Then relax. Slowly and smoothly repeat.
One finally step to increase body awareness and to practice "balance awareness" focus on feeling your feet. To begin with keep the weight even on both feet as you lengthen and relax. Then shift your weight to the outside foot. Keep the other foot on the floor. Lengthen and relax slowly and smoothly. You could also try standing with your weight on the inside foot.
The idea of the standing side bend is to push your hips to one side and reach your upper body to the opposite side.
You can reach the arms up and over the head in the direction you are bending towards. If this is difficult start with the hands wider apart and gradually bring them closer.
Another option is to can grab a wrist.
You can grab the top wrist and focus on straightening (and lengthening) the top arm. Or you can grab the bottom wrist. In this case use the bottom arm to stretch the shoulder of the upper arm by straightening the elbow and pulling the bottom arm downwards.
You could also focus on touching the palms together with elbows straight.
Failing this, try clapping your hands over your head. Make the arms and neck feel long as you do so.
Other options include standing with your feet together. Balance can be trickier in this position. Stay aware of both feet so that you can keep your weight pressing evenly through both of them.
So that you exercise the muscles that you have just been stretching in this yoga pose, come up slowly and with control and while keeping your arms reaching up over your head.
The slower you do it the less likely you are to injure yourself and the more you exercise your abs.
If you are too tired to do this or you haven't yet got the strength to come up in this way, lower your arms first and then come up. You can also bend your knees to come up if your need to.