Most of us are creatures of habit: We take our morning coffee the same way, follow the same route to work, sleep on the same side of the bed. With all the decisions we need to make each day, and with decision fatigue a very real thing, it’s understandable that we repeat certain behaviors in order to think less.
Our yoga practice often follows this tendency too, with the same poses, variations, or transitions appearing repeatedly, whether we have our own home practice or are teachers leading others through sequences. There’s nothing inherently wrong with revisiting our favorites. It allows us to feel our strength, gauge our progress, or simply revel in the stretch. Yet when we focus exclusively on certain postures and parts of the body, we forego the chance to challenge other regions of the body. Our bodies and minds thrive on variety. And for each repeated pose, there is an equally beneficial one languishing in the shadows, underrated and unappreciated.
With that in mind, these four undervalued yoga poses are well worth including in your practice more often.
See also: 10 Yoga Poses You Should Do Every Day(Photo: Rachel Land)
Consider every Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation) that you’ve ever practiced. You’ve probably experienced Plank Pose hundreds, if not thousands, of times. Contrast that with Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank or Upward Plank Pose), which many of us may have practiced a handful of times. There’s nothing wrong with Plank Pose—it’s a terrific to increase strength in the chest and core, build heat, and cultivate resolve. But it’s equally important—perhaps more so—to strengthen the opposing muscles groups in the back body and stretch the front body. That’s where Reverse Plank delivers.
Reverse Plank builds upper body strength, especially in the triceps, while also recruiting key muscles on the back body that counteract hours of sitting and support proper posture. To lift our hips, we must engage the gluteus maximus and the hamstring muscles, key muscles that drive our walking and running gait. To draw our shoulder blades back toward each other (an action known as scapular retraction) and lift our sternum, we use the rhomboids, middle trapezius, and latissimus dorsi, which are “heart-opening” muscles that give the sense of broadening through the collarbones and create more space for deep breathing. To create the overall arch of the spine, we recruit the erector spinae or paraspinals, the muscles chiefly responsible for erect posture.
Given that it takes us in the opposite direction from our familiar forward slump, it can be a challenging position to hold. This might account for our relative avoidance of it. Here’s how to make this pose less of a challenge.
Why they happen: It’s not unusual for yoga students to have flexible, although not particularly strong, hamstrings. Forcing the hamstrings to work with the glutes to lift our hips in Reverse Plank is a good thing, but if our hamstrings aren’t ready to support our weight, they can cramp. The fix: To make the pose easier on the hamstrings and allow them to strengthen over time, practice Reverse Plank with your knees bent rather than straight, also called Reverse Tabletop.(Photo: Rachel Land)
Why it happens: Experiencing strain or pain in the wrists when bearing weight in certain yoga poses is a common challenge because they require us to be in 90 degrees of wrist extension, which could be greater than our bony structure allows. Reverse Plank can be especially challenging because our hands are behind our body rather than the more familiar position in front of us. The fix: Turn your fingers slightly out, toward the long sides of the mat, rather than pointing them toward your sacrum. You can instead come to Reverse Plank on your forearms or fists.
Why it happens: If we aren’t able to create or maintain the scapular retraction required by this pose, our shoulder joints tend to roll forward toward the chest, meaning that we may wind up carrying the load there. This could lead to pain or strain in the biceps tendon which crosses over the front of the shoulder. The fix: To help create and sustain optimal shoulder position, start while your hips are still on the mat. Squeeze your shoulder blades toward the spine to lift your sternum. Keep your gaze toward your chest and see if you can maintain that position as you lift your hips. If your chest starts to sink and your shoulders begin to roll forward, lower your hips and try again with bent knees, which reduces the load on your shoulders.(Photo: Rachel Land)
Why it happens: Some students love dropping their head back in Reverse Plank to lengthen their throat. Others find that this leads to pinching, or compression, at the back of the neck. The fix: Keep your chin ever so slightly tucked toward your sternum to retain length along the back of the neck.(Photo: Rachel Land)
There are several similarities between Reverse Plank and Side Plank, among them the ability to strengthen the upper body. But where Reverse Plank benefits the back body, Vasisthasana (Side Plank), unsurprisingly, benefits the side body. In particular, it strengthens the serratus anterior along the side ribs, the oblique abdominals and the quadratus lumborum on the side waist, and the gluteus medius on the lateral hip.
These relatively unfamiliar and unsung muscles are all important in their own right, but they also serve as key stabilizers: the serratus anterior for the shoulder blade, the quadratus lumborum for the lumbar spine, and the gluteus medius for the hip. Engaging the serratus anterior hugs the shoulder blade against the ribs in weight-bearing postures to stabilize it and prevent it from “winging” off the back. The gluteus medius is equally important to fine-tune the position of our pelvis in relation to our thigh bone, not just in Side Plank but in single-leg and split stance standing poses like Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and High Lunge, reducing load on the hip joint.
Side Plank possesses a tricky balance component. The fact that we have a smaller amount of surface area in contact with the mat forces us to engage the smaller, deeper, stabilizing muscles that are underdeveloped in many of us. (That can change with a little practice.) The unfamiliar balance pose also develops neuromuscular pathways that can contribute to our stability in other yoga poses as well as everyday activities.
Why it happens: The range of motion in your wrists can be a challenge in Side Plank because only one hand is on the floor, meaning more of your body weight is placed on that wrist. The fix: Turning your weight-bearing hand out slightly, toward the pinky finger-side of the hand, might help. A more certain way to improve your experience is to lower yourself to your forearm and elbow to take the pressure off the wrist.(Photo: Rachel Land)
Why it happens: It’s more difficult to find a stable position in Side Plank than in a position in which you have more contact with the floor. The key is to find the right level of challenge for you: difficult enough that your body is pushed to adapt yet sufficiently stable that you can remain in it and allow for the body to learn and adapt. The fix: There are plenty of options to reduce the level of balance required. You can bring the big toe side of your top foot to the floor just in front or behind your other foot in a scissors fashion. Or try lowering your elbow and forearm to the mat. You can also bring the knee and shin of the bottom leg to the mat.(Photo: Rachel Land)
Hip openers are ubiquitous—and iconic—in the physical practice of yoga. Think of Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose), and the like. “Hip closers” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. But if we can benefit from mobilizing the hips in one direction, then we can derive good from mobilizing them in the other direction, too.
Virasana (Hero Pose) might not top the list of glamorous yoga poses, but it does offer several benefits that make it worth including in your practice.
First, most yoga poses involve both external rotation of the hips, or thighs turning away from the midline, and hip abduction, or thighs moving away from the midline of the body. Think of Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), and Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana) for example. Our hips have that same tendency off the yoga mat as well; for most of us, a neutral stance involves feet apart and slightly turned out. Hero pose involves the opposite anatomical movements—hip internal rotation and adduction—to offer variety to the tissues that surround the hip joints.
Second, we work our quadriceps pretty heavily in the physical practice of yoga. Think Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and Virabhadrasana I and II (Warrior I and Warrior II)—and in many other physical activities including running, biking, and hiking. Hero Pose allows us the rare opportunity to balance that work by stretching the quads, as well as lesser-known but equally hard-working muscles at the fronts of our ankles (including the tibialis anterior, extensor hallucis longus, and extensor digitorum longus).
Finally, Hero Pose is a versatile springboard to other poses and practices. It’s a stable base for seated meditation and pranayama, an easy transition to or from Balasana (Child’s Pose), Plank Pose, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), and Ustrasana (Camel Pose).
The very fact that Hero Pose takes our hips, knees, and feet into less familiar positions can make it uncomfortable for some students. Also, each of us has a different range of motion in these joints that’s determined by our skeletal structure and which might hinder our ability to conform to the shape. Rather than giving up on Hero Pose entirely, it’s worth investigating ways to make it more accessible to still derive its benefit.
Why it happens: Given that Hero Pose brings the thigh bones closer to the pelvis, there’s potential for soft tissue to be compressed between the bones of the thighs and pelvis when we reach the end of our hip’s range of motion. This creates a pinch or compression at the inner thigh. The fix: Create more space in between the bones. You can achieve this by moving your knees further apart or sitting on top of the heels or a couple stacked blocks or a bolster or pillows rather than in between the feet.
Why it happens: When we reach the end of our hip range of motion yet continue to force ourselves into the shape, our knees tend to rotate to take up the slack, which can create pain or pinching inside the knee joints. Even if your knees don’t twist, if you have less range in knee flexion than the amount required by this pose, it can be uncomfortable. The fix: You might experience relief with the above suggestion to prop yourself up on blocks or other support or wedging an eye pillow, folded blanket, or pillow on the backside of the knee joint.(Photo: Rachel Land)
Why it happens: Most of us are unaccustomed to carrying weight on the tops of our feet and, for some, this is far from comfortable. The fix: A little cushioning can make all the difference. Double the back of your mat onto itself or slide a blanket underneath the feet. It can also help to roll a blanket or an extra mat and place it under the fronts of the ankles to help share the load.(Photo: Rachel Land)
Cow Face Pose is another “hip closer” that doesn’t look spectacular but does offer body-wide benefits that make it worthy of regular practice. Cow Face takes your hips into even deeper adduction than Hero Pose, so simply sitting in the pose lengthens muscles on the outer hips that are typically tight, including the gluteus medius. The pose is versatile, too: tilting the pelvis forward into deeper hip flexion stretches gluteus maximus and the external rotators, while tilting the pelvis backward lengthens the tensor fascia lata on the front corners of the hips.
If you add the upper body component, Cow Face Pose is a multitasking posture that accesses almost every major shoulder muscle. Your externally rotated overhead arm stretches along the latissimus dorsi, triceps, posterior deltoid, and pectoralis major. The internally rotated lower arm stretches the anterior deltoid, infraspinatus, and teres minor.
With all that going for Cow Face Pose, why isn’t it featured in more sequences? (One guess is the faces students make when asked to practice it.)
Why it happens: Because the pose externally rotates your thighs, rather than internally rotate them, it’s less common to experience inner hip joint compression in Cow Face than in Hero Pose. However, when we hinge forward at the hips, there’s still a chance we’ll run out of space between the bones. The fix: A folded blanket wedged into the hip crease can help. Also, widening your knees into Sukhasana (Easy Pose) provides the same posterior hip stretch with less chance of bone-on-bone compression.(Photo: Rachel Land)
Why it happens: Overhead arm movement is a great way to refresh the shoulder complex, but it isn’t problem-free. For some, this arm position decreases the space between the humerus (the upper arm bone) and the acromion (a bony shelf on the outer edge of the shoulder blade). This compresses the soft tissues between them. The fix: As with the hips, the solution is to create more space between the bones. Start by allowing your shoulder blade to rotate up with the overhead arm rather than trying to hold the shoulder blade back and down (as we are often cued). If you can’t grasp the fingertips, use a strap or towel to afford more space. If that doesn’t help, simply take your elbow out to the side and focus the stretch on the chest rather than the side ribs, which can often be more comfortable.
Why it happens: Similar to what can happen in Hero Pose, if we reach the end of our hip range of motion in Cow Face, our knees might rotate to take up the slack, which can create pain or pinching inside the knee joint. The fix: Minimize the hip range of motion required. You can reduce both hip flexion and hip external rotation by sitting on a block or two or the edge of a couple of stacked blankets.
See also: How to Modify Your Yoga Practice If You Have Tight Hamstrings