Perhaps it’s the year’s darkest days that inspire us to midwinter reflection. Or maybe it’s a few thousand years of tradition that prompt us to put the past year to rest as we embark on a new one. Either way, January is the time when we traditionally contemplate the past and set intentions for the future.
Around 450 BC, the Romans declared January to be the first month of a newly designated 12-month year, naming it after Janus, the god of the doorway. (Previously, each year consisted of 10 months—304 days—beginning in March. Winter was considered to be “monthless.”) Derived from ianus, the Latin word for “door,” January is the doorway to the new year.
This month’s pose is Parighasana (Gate Latch Pose). Parighasana is so named because it resembles the crossbar of a gate. Moving into Parighasana, we close the gate, opening one side of our bodies and condensing the other. When we come out of the pose, we open the gate, our thorax coursing with revitalizing blood, our lungs expanded and nourished. My students describe the aftereffect of Parighasana—the opening of the gate—as an “altered state.” Yoga-induced bliss is not a bad way to open the gateway to the coming year.
Perhaps the altered feeling comes from the fact that few everyday movements encourage side-body expansion. When any dormant area of the body suddenly awakens, it’s a happy occasion. Lateral stretching seems especially effective at creating the euphoria of body awakening.
Parighasana, unlike last month’s pose Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), is a true lateral stretch. In Parighasana, everything from your waist up moves independently of your pelvis, which feeds down into the base of your supporting leg. In other lateral-appearing poses such as Trikonasana, the pelvis moves with the spine, so that both sides of the body remain equal in length. In Parighasana, however, one side lengthens while the other contracts, creating true lateral extension.
Parighasana enlivens the side body by stretching the intercostal muscles that connect the ribs. When these muscles are tight, from collapsed posture or from frequent coughing or sneezing, the movement of the ribcage, and therefore the ability of the lungs to expand, is restricted. Parighasana supports full, deep breathing by creating space for lung expansion. It’s especially helpful in alleviating restricted breathing from asthma, colds or flu.
To begin practicing Parighasana, stand on your knees in the center of a nonskid mat. You may place an extra blanket under your knees for padding if you like. Extend your right leg out to the right so that your heel rests on the floor and the ball of your foot is extending down toward the floor. You may also flex your ankle if you like, so that your foot points upward. If your knee tends to hyperextend, I would suggest the former foot position, as it engages the calf muscles, which in turn support your knee. Make sure the center of your thigh, kneecap and center of your ankle are all pointing upward.
Allow your leg to angle slightly forward rather than trying to force it straight out to the side. This allows the ball of the femur bone to rest easily in its socket. The hollow socket of the hip joint sits at a slightly forward angle rather than pointing straight outward, so forcing the leg out to the side can irritate the cartilage that lines the socket as the head of the femur presses against the edge of it.
Now ground your left knee and shin as you raise your left arm up toward the sky, feeling the entire left side of the body elongate. Rotate your ribcage slightly to the left. Continuing to ground your left knee and shin while feeding the pelvis into the legs, extend from your waist to the right so that your body extends at an angle over your right leg. Reach up and out through your left arm and fingers.
There are several choices for your right hand. You may extend it out along your right leg, resting it gently—not leaning—on your shin or knee. In this variation, your legs and core muscles work to keep you from collapsing, building core strength. You may also place your right hand on the floor or on a block behind your right leg. If placing your hand on the floor restricts your breath, use a block instead. This allows you to reap the full benefits of Parighasana’s breath-supporting qualities. Rather than collapsing into your right hand, press your hand into the floor or block as if you are sending roots down. This variation allows for full extension. Feel free to spend a few breaths in the first variation, and then relax into the second.
Take five to ten deep breaths in the pose, allowing your inhalations to fill the expanded ribcage. As you exhale, let the left side body settle into its new length. When you are ready to come up, send the left pelvis, leg, knee and shin down into the floor and to help your torso lift. Lower your arm to your side and sit back on your heels, or on a block between your feet if your knees don’t want to bend that deeply. Breathe naturally and feel the sides of your body. How are they different? What’s the general character of your body’s energy at this time? Take your time here to allow your body to integrate the effects of Parighasana before repeating the pose on the other side.
Parighasana expands the topside your ribcage, making room for your lungs to expand as it massages the vital organs on the underside of the ribcage. As your lungs expand and drink in more vital oxygen, pranic life force moves more easily through the body. May Parighasana be your gateway to an abundance of life energy to embark on your new year.