TO TRIANGLE OR NOT TO TRIANGLE - TRICKY TRIKONASANA!
COLLAPSE = FORCE MPaffard 2000-2017 in the writing!
A SCENARIO WORTH WORRYING ABOUT
Jane has been studying Yoga for over 30 years and if you look at her triangle pose it appears that it is an accomplished one - at least by the standards in currently available books and magazines. Many tight-hipped folk would die for those hamstrings and mobility. But they wouldn’t want the accompanying pain and discomfort that Jane has had to deal with for the last few years. If you look a little deeper, you may notice this discordance and hear the cries of a collapsed joint with little to support it. Jane is realizing that what was so desirable 20+ years ago - .pelvis moving freely over femur, hand to floor - is actually causing tremendous strain on over stretched ligaments, jamming the femur into a place it no longer wants to go.
This is not untypical of many practitioners who have by dint of genetics or by sheer perseverance opened the joints to a point where there is no internal support. Jane is experiencing sacro-iliac dysfunction and hot burning sensations right inside the joint but the most alarming issue is that the more yoga she does, the worse it gets. As a teacher who travels a fair amount, I am concerned how widespread type of problem is and the fact that it is not being addressed.
As we age, as we open, our yoga changes and evolves. Many of us have kept instructions our teachers gave us from years ago that may have been applicable then - and even that is sometimes questionable - but are totally inappropriate to our current body scenario. The basic underlying problem is in our intention to practice. Is our motivation to explore the body and be present to the realities as they present themselves? Are we studying to promote harmony, union, clarity in our lives? How much responsibility do we take for our evolution? Are we still waiting for the right system, the genius teacher, the perfect pose when we know none of the above exist? When I look at some of the triangle poses encountered in 21st century studio yoga, my main question is - Why are you doing Yoga? What on earth can you be getting out of putting your body in that position in that way? When I ask students what they are actually feeling in their hip, back, joints, they can be very descriptive of the ugly, yucky sensations they are reaping but there is a certain fatalism that appears when this deeper question arises. “Isn’t this the way its supposed to be..?” “If I did it more or if I was a better Yogi, I wouldn’t hurt so, would I?”. “No”, I usually respond, “ right now, at this moment, let’s use this triangle to investigate your relationship to your practice”. So let’s begin by looking at some of the commonest assumptions that hinder this deeper investigation.
SOME MUDDLED and DANGEROUS THINKING…..
TRIANGLE IS ABOUT GETTING THE HAND TO THE FLOOR We think, us “advanced” Yogis that we are way beyond this common delusion but even if we creep the hand up a little and the pose has more resonance, we have this lingering sense that DOWNWARD is HEAVENWARD! Most beginners if they don’t move from the pelvis will create strain in the spine by side bending, just to get that downward motion. Skilled teaching is required to indicate that triangle is about freedom in the pelvis, moving from a place of ease. A mature move might be to shift upward a little in triangle rather than constantly comparing oneself to those who have their hand on the ground.
TRIANGLE IS ABOUT KEEPING THE TORSO, THE PELVIC POINTS IN ONE PLANE I thought this one went out with the arc but a teacher recently told me that the image of the body between 2 plates of glass is still in common class verbiage. Or even worse, as if you were in a toaster!!! This is not kinesiologically possible and if you do see it, it’s because the body has been warped, forced into it. Most teachers these days allow the top pelvic point to drop down and forward a little which takes a lot of pressure off the knee and sacrum, but also encourages the belly to become more engaged. More later on the belly.
TRIANGLE POSE IS ABOUT WORKING THE MUSCLES OF THE LEGS TO THE MAX, LIFTING THE KNEECAPS AND GETTING MAXIMUM ROTATION IN THE JOINTS. Some of the above might be helpful to some individuals some of the time but as general rules for everyone, they are - to put it frankly - violent. By over working the legs and - what commonly occurs - hitting the knees into hyperextension, one often loses connection with the sub-structure, the bones and the energy from the earth which most of us are trying to reconnect to. This type of triangle is seen where yoga is really considered a workout practice. For some of our loose ligament folk, working the muscles to support the bones is advisable, but to what extent? Surely not to the point that one can’t hear the natural alignment of the bones? Lifting the kneecaps may have protected some knees and brought a little life to some dull thighs. However, I haven’t used that instruction as a class mantra since the evidence became overwhelming that this can create hardness at the top of the thigh, limit the openness of the breath in the lower abdomen, and deaden the groins. I’d rather deal with an occasional dull thigh than create a long-term restriction in the breath and the apana vayu.
TRIANGLE POSE IS ABOUT KICKING THE HIPS TO THE SIDE
I have been guilty of this instruction! Just getting any movement in the pelvis in a group of more beginning level students is challenging. Placing ones hands on the hips and moving them form side to side helps that sideways movement but the later instruction to “kick the hips over to the left” as you go down to right would probably never have been used by any of us if we’d realized the long term damage and jamming that can occur as the greater trochanter is wacked out to the ultimate edge of that left acetabulum. Many of you as teachers have had the student who has had a diagnosis or a recommendation from a doctor or a chiropractor that has got imbedded in their psyches and not been lost with the passage of time and changing realities in their bodies. It is often so hard for them to hear that their clinging to that statement 10 years ago is actually contributing to their current pain. But we are doing this as yoga teachers. This sweeping sideways movement needs to be explored in a variety of ways - a solid “kick” to the side can create a situation where the femur actually moves out of the hip joint, or to a lesser degree, it can create hardness and jamming on the outside of the joint. Unbelievably common. Even language that is gentler and suggests ‘easing or gliding’ but does not encourage respect for the integrity of the joint and the circularity of the movement of the pelvis over the femur, can cause damage in the longer term. This is generally far more common in women than men because of the muscular and ligament support around the male pelvis which creates more restriction but also more protection.
There are systems that believe that you can counter balance pretty much any instruction like this and the previous one, by simply working the gluts intensely. Beware of this blanket command especially if you have highly defined “bum dimples”. If that is the case you are probably tucking the tailbone under and unraveling the natural fluidity of the spine. Nothing wrong with strong bums, but lets be a little more discriminating in the way we overuse certain muscle groups and cause weakness in others. In this case forcing the external rotation and over use of gluts can undermine inner pelvis support and aliveness.
TRIANGLE IS ABOUT PUSHING BACK BODY INTO FRONT BODY – Well, none of us would teach it like that, but that’s what you see! Especially if there is avoidance of the hips and lower abdomen, there is frequently a hardness around the kidneys and a pushing forward in that middle back, the 3rd chakra area. This is particularly common among practitioners of yoga where there are constant repetitions of sun-salutes and rapid standing pose movements. Besides the violence that is caused in the body because one part is overworking very dramatically and there is collapse in other areas, this pattern jangles the whole energetic system. This middle back is the kidney and adrenal area and often when a student is encouraged to let go in this area, there is a deep sigh of release from many years of pushing through fatigue or forcing themselves into poses. In some sense this hardness and imbalance of activity is a lack of understanding of the energetic power of the practice. More on this later.
TRIANGLE IS ABOUT HAVING THE FRONT HEEL IN LINE WITH THE BACK ARCH -
Most traditions teach this and there is a containment factor in this instruction that can create great freedom in the pose. Can. We have to remember that the Yoga tradition has been written about and expounded upon until relatively recently by mainly male practitioners. After all it wasn’t until early in the 20th century that Krishnamacharya encouraged women to even participate in asana practice. Most of the practitioners in this country are women and yet most of the influential voices on the workshop circuit or in written material - correct me if I’m wrong here! - are still men. This creates a little problem - although we are of course genderless spirits, mens’ feet are usually larger and their pelvises tend to be smaller. Heel in line with heel or even wider apart allows many practitioners a sense of balance and connection through the base chakra, that heel in line with arch never permitted. In all of us it allows more opening through the perineum, our gateway to the earth and as long as the alignment of the knee and the neck are well considered gives to many a sense of the ground from which they might fly.
The angle of the back foot is rarely turned in sufficiently to prevent schizophrenia in the knee. Some traditions request the front foot to be turned out 90 degrees from parallel and the back foot turned in 45 degrees, pretty reasonable instructions..... but the back foot is often neglected and normally ends up being turned out too much and thus creates disharmony in the whole alignment of the back leg.
TRIANGLE IS ABOUT HAVING THE FEET A REGULATION X WIDTH APART - One morning I woke up to discover that the triangle I had been doing for years was now invalid. A 3 - 3 and a half foot stance was overnight replaced by a 4 - 4 and a half foot stance by general proclamation of those in the know in the tradition which I was part of. Very inadequate explanation was given at the time for the shift. This was one of the main encouragements to explore a yoga that was not at the mercy of dictums and to get clear about the balance between respecting tradition and one’s own unique and creative exploration of the practice. Clearly the wider stance allows more freedom in the hips but one often finds students clinging to their regulation length when their bodies and hip mobility would suggest something different. The Vanda Scaravelli school of Yoga believes in a very narrow stance which creates a strong sense of rootedness, but limited possibilities in the hips; they have a hieroglyphic sort of look! Some have been guided to use their extended arm length (Warrrior 2) to determine the distance to set their feet apart. What happens if the arms are either very long or short in relation to the rest of the body? Explanation of the significance of certain recommendations in leg length would help the student who is beyond the basic beginner stage. Encouragement to experiment with this space and claim more responsibility for the pose would be invaluable for the more advanced student.
SO WHY BOTHER? !! Having explored a few limiting and in some cases dangerous misconceptions about triangle, let us consider some of the joys of the pose and some suggestions for safe and inspiring practice.
TRIANGLE IS ABOUT CONNECTION - to the earth. As one of the key standing poses in modern asana practice, its triangle shape has a dynamic and a power that is unique in the panoply of standing poses. We like that shape - its heaven and earthbound grace, its expansiveness, its sense of celebration. A good teacher will convey the outward extension and grounding quality without becoming over preoccupied with the downward movement.or overworking repetitively the muscles.
TRIANGLE IS ABOUT DEALING WITH DIFFICULTY, WORKING SKILLFULLY...A CHALLENGE FOR TEACHER AND STUDENT:
- IN THE PELVIS and KNEE……Introducing this pose after a student has familiarity with most of the basic standing poses is helpful. This pose challenges the hamstrings, the rotators and pelvic mobility. It can irritate the knee more easily than some of our bent knee options. However using a bent but well aligned knee for the initial triangle is part of some traditions and has validity because the hamstrings will be less challenged. Taking pictures from an article in the Yoga journal where 5 different triangles were compared, I asked students to identify which triangle was more easeful on the hip joint. When people let go of the form of the pose, most found that the Bikram version with the knee bent, a variation on parsvokanasana, was inevitably more balanced in the hip joint. Exploring the preliminaries through poses like virabhadrasana 2 and parsvokanasana and vrksasana, helps create the ground for the challenges of trikonasana. I consider trikonasana an advanced standing pose and perhaps if we looked at it in its multilayer context instead of a preliminary position we would avoid the consequences of strained knees and compromised pelvis, hip and knee.
- IN THE UPPER BODY…..This pose can help us work with the upper body and allow the heart chest area to open and support the upward movement of the arm. It is visually obvious when a beginner is jamming the upper arm back and it is a relatively easy position in which to explain this dynamic and encourage more internal movement to support that upward arm extension .
- IN THE NECK Students either exit trikonasana because of the knees/hamstrings or neck. The position of the neck requires working with the whole of the spine to find the optimum position in which to turn the head, or if not turning the head, to support the head from below.
- IN THE BELLY Putting a hand on the top pelvis and feeling the support of the abdomen rolling in the opposite direction is a powerful way to mitigate injury or stress on the SI joint. By learning this in trikonasana, students can apply this principle to other areas of practice where there is a sense of forcing or even disengagement in the back and pelvis. \\Visually the cues for this are quite compelling in trikonasana and may be more obscure in other positions. It also can cultivate a sense of support of the back body and unravel the 3rd chakra pushing and jamming mentioned above. By coming into triangle from parsvottanasana, there is more potential to engage the underneath support that will enhance the whole pose.TRIANGLE IS PART OF A FAMILY OF POSES AND POSSIBILITIES Usually ardha chandrasana and parvritta trikonasana are taught after trikonasana. My preference is too emphasize these two poses in modified and exploratory ways before focusing too much on trikonasana. When the basics are established, moving between these three poses (and parvritta ardha chandrasana) can bring an aliveness to every part of the body in a balanced way. The delights of balancing on one leg, inform and bring lightness to the more stable two-legged positions. The turning and lengthening in the twisting poses enliven the belly and allow this type of internal movement to occur more freely in the less defined spirals of trikonasana and ardha chandrasana.
TRIANGLE CAN PROMOTE FREEDOM For all the reasons that I have shared that create problems, these same problems can become warnings that the internal intention is at odds with the external expression. A helpful body-mind monitor! If we do this pose in an automatic, repetitive manner we can deaden the nervous system and force the joints, but we can also use that awareness to open the space in the joints and get to know when we slump into a dullness of mind. We can find our own creative solutions by exploring this powerful shape without becoming a slave to the versions or instructions that lead us down a narrow and injury prone practice.
Over a decade ago I was inspired by Jane to begin this article. The italicized section above was written at least 12 years ago! when I was made aware of Jane’s situation in a teacher training program. We worked together to see if we could resolve the situation but it was too late. Jane’s trikonasana and her hip pains led her to 2 full hip replacements and a radically different relationship to her yoga practice, one that was much more integrated with her meditation practice and in tune with the needs of her body as she aged. The basic instruction that Jane had religiously adhered to “Imagine yourself between 2 panes of glass” and which ( I believe) originally caused her pain, is STILL being used in yoga class instruction. Recently in a workshop, a student who had hated triangle for all her 20 year yoga journey, was completely relieved to hear that this instruction was not helpful and OK to let go of. Honoring the space in the joints and a more realistic and compassionate approach to practice was a welcome alternative for 20 years of pushing into a form that never felt quite right. This kind of story is, sadly, quite common.
All these years later, with all the work from historians questioning the heritage of our standing poses (most are only 100 years old, if that) and the occasional rants from journalists about the safety of mainstream yoga, ah-ha moments in classes when some of the rules/images are questioned, …… I don’t really know why it’s taken so long to finish this article! Perhaps I thought the 100th monkey scenario was occurring and this issue would resolve itself. That is not the case. There are quite a few senior teachers who have also had to have relatively early hip replacements, a constant stream of SI issues in experienced practitioners, and I would hazard a guess that it’s not the seeming complexity of wild and wacky poses that has created this problem, but the constant grind of a daily/frequent addiction to a certain way of practicing trikonasana. We still have a very limited sense of what place a pose like this has in someone’s overall practice and well-being. It can be a step toward freedom and peace or it can be a slow and steady lurch into pelvic degeneration, and despair about a body never conforming to a strangely idealized fixed form, a sacred cow.