Why You Should Stretch Your Side Body + An Introduction to Connective Tissue
Chronic pain is at an all time high in the United States, higher, in fact, than the incidences of cancer, heart disease and diabetes combined. Back pain heads the list of complaints with migraines and headaches coming in at number two.
Connected: The Body as a System
If we look at the body as a whole system, we can see that these areas are actually connected, and the sides of the body play a key role in that link. Stretching them can free up the shoulders and the low back, while also making it easier to breathe deeply, which helps alleviate stress and diminish pain.
The fibrous system of the connective tissue (this link goes to an in-depth description of the system if you’d like to read more) weaves the whole body together. Imagine it like a full body wetsuit, complete with hood, gloves and booties. But it’s also layered between and around muscles, organs and bones, holding us together. Below, you can see a cross-section of a thigh, with the muscles removed, to get an idea of just how complex of a network this ‘glue’ is.
The fascia is a liquid system that is meant to glide smoothly, so when we move there isn’t restriction. The system is dynamic, which means it can bind up from injury, lack of movement, dehydration and poor posture, but can also become free again, through movement, bodywork and yoga practice.
In the western medical world, for some reason, the system is seen in bits and pieces rather than as the interconnected, holistic system that it is. “When we injure the Achilles tendon, we tend to treat just that part, instead of seeing the part that failed within the context of the whole system.” (Tom Myers, Anatomy Trains website).
Yoga: Even More Connected
From the yogic perspective, the interconnection of the human systems goes beyond the physical body to encompass the mind (including thoughts, beliefs and language), the inner wisdom (how we interpret and engage with ourselves and the world) and even the soul (our truth and purpose, or higher calling).
How we think and act, how we line up with our truth, and what we believe about ourselves affects how we move (or don’t move) in our physical body. The fibrous systems hold these patterns; if we are sad, we hunch; if we feel the need to prove ourselves we puff out the chest; if we’re fearful, we hold our breath.
Often, it isn’t until we have an injury or chronic pain that we begin to unpack the belief systems that hold us fixed or in imbalanced alignment.
Why the Side Body
Keeping functional range of motion, for example, raising your arms overhead or being able to squat down to the floor, ensures more freedom and independence as we age. While these actions seem to relate to the limbs, the connective tissue ties them to the torso, linking the whole chain from head to toe.
The fascial lines aren’t only in the sides of the body, but the sides of the body are generally not stretched in normal daily movements. We might bend forward or backwards throughout the day, but almost never do we lean to the side and open up the flanks of the body.
Stretching the side body alleviates downward pull on the shoulders, which can exacerbate neck pain and headaches, and it also increases the ability to reach up with your arms.
Opening the side ribs and the intercostal area makes more room for the diaphragm muscle — the key muscle involved in breath — to move without restriction. Breathing fully and establishing a rhythm between inhale and exhale has been linked to the ability to better cope with and recover from stressful events.
As the side body opens, the connective tissue that wraps from the sides, across the low back and down the legs has more ability to glide freely. This creates space that can help release the clenching and tightness in the low back.
How to Stretch the Side Body
For Beginners or Those With Pain
Simply standing up straight with your feet planted under you and bending your spine to the right, and then left, will open the sides of the body.
If you do have pain, make the movements small, but do them a few times each day —you can’t free up the patterns held in the connective tissue with just one stretch.
You can also add reaching overhead with one or both arms as you side bend. If your neck or shoulders hurt when you reach overhead, keep your hands on your hips or reach only so high that you don’t increase the pain.
For Those Ready to Go Deeper
For a more full-body experience, practice Side Angle Pose (pictured above).
- Stand with your feet 4 to 5 feet apart, then turn your right foot out 90º to your left foot.
- Bend your right leg so your thigh is parallel to the floor and your knee is stacked over your ankle.
- Lean to the right and rest your forearm on your right thigh —to go deeper, place your fingertips on the ground next to your right foot.
- Stretch your top arm overhead, alongside your ear — it could also be straight up towards the sky or with your hand on your hip.
- Press down into your left foot, like you’re growing you’re leg longer, then reach out through the crown of your head and your top arm.
- Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths, focusing on the stretch along the right side of your body.
- Come up out of the pose, slowly and pause for a moment to feel what has changed in your body or mind.
- Then repeat the pose on the left side.
Special thanks to Carolena Chang for taking these images in the hills above Santa Barbara.