We often see yoga poses in terms of their shape. What are we stretching? What are we stabilizing? Which muscles need to engage, and which muscles need to relax? But the shape of an asana is not all there is to it. How the body relates to gravity in each yoga pose is just as important.
One of the most obvious ways we can feel the different affects of gravity is by taking a look at poses that are the same shape, but have a different gravitational effect on the body. For example, Parsva Hasta Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) and Parsva Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big Toe Pose) are exactly the same shape. But the former contains the element of balancing, while the latter is pretty much pure stretch. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) also shares the same shape.
Gravity and the Shape of a Yoga Pose
In Parsva Hasta Padangusthasana, our bodies are upright with only our standing foot in contact with the ground. In this pose, balancing—the stability of our standing leg—is our first concern. Expansion is also an important aspect of this pose’s shape, but of course, staying upright is most crucial. The balancing aspect of the pose helps to concentrate the mind, while the expansive aspect can promote free breathing as well as a feeling of exhilaration.
Supta Padangusthasana takes out the balance challenge, and allows us to focus on expansion. For this reason, it might be a good yoga pose to practice before attempting Hasta Padanghustasana. In the supine version, we focus on expanding the body and the breath. Grounding the stationery leg (the leg that would be our standing leg in the previous pose) helps us maintain our Tadasana (Mountain Pose) alignment.
Ardha Chandrasana is yet another variation on the same shape. Balancing is also key in Half Moon Pose. But the orientation is entirely different, not our familiar upright posture. So in some ways, this pose can be even more challenging balance-wise. The hip of the standing leg is flexed rather than extended, and our heads are sideways. For these reasons, the pose is inherently disorienting. Challenging your balance in different orientations helps hone your balance overall. If you’re interested in improving balance, Ardha Chandrasana is an important pose to keep in your repertoire.
The Benefits of Challenging Your Vestibular System
This brings up another benefit of practicing yoga poses that are the same shape, but differently oriented to gravity. One of yoga practice’s unique benefits is its ability to stimulate the vestibular system. In a recent article, psychologist and yoga teacher Sharon Heller, Ph.D., writes how yoga interacts with this system. She writes that placing your head in different relationships to gravity produces vestibular input. According to the article, increasing vestibular input improves thinking, reduces the stress response, and contributes to “yoga bliss.”
In each of the above three poses, the head is in a different relationship to gravity. Each change in head orientation lubricates the vestibular system. So in addition to the various benefits of each individual yoga pose, practicing all three can help to stimulate this system.
Same Shape, Different Yoga Pose
It can be fun to organize a yoga practice or class around yoga poses that are the same shape, but different. Here are a few other examples of poses that fit into this category:
- Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and Halasana (Plow Pose)
- Eka Pada Utkatasana (Standing Figure 4 Stretch) and Supta Ardha Padmasana (Reclining Half Lotus)
- Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) and Upavista Konasana (Seated Angle Pose)
- Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Setu Bandasana (Bridge Pose)
- Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and Sirsasana (Headstand)
- Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Hands Pose) and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)
- Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) and Ardha Adho Mukha Svanasana (Half Downward Facing Dog Pose)