Trikonasana: To Sidebend or Not?
Trikonasana (triangle pose) and trikonasana with a lateral stretch (a sidebending triangle) are different poses with different benefits. They depend, however, on the same groundwork: well-rooted feet and well-aligned legs and pelvis. It is vital to maintain that groundwork as we deviate from the spinal alignment of trikonasana to create its sidebending variant.
Working toward a neutral-looking spine in triangle pose is a core-strengthening act. Though your spine appears to be neutral in the traditional form of trikonasana, there is actually a huge sidebending and rotational action in your trunk (felt most specifically in your oblique core muscles) as you work to turn your trunk forward and away from your front leg, and you flatten your topside ribs. Your leg-stabilizing muscles also must do considerable work in order to maintain support for your upper body.
Working toward a neutral-looking spine in triangle pose is a core-strengthening act.
In trikonasana with an obvious spinal sidebend (topside ribs shifting up toward the ceiling), the legs have to work even more to support the length in the spine, while the trunk muscles (no longer counter-rotating the spine or drawing the top ribs down) work less.
In this pose, as in all sidebends, the tissues and vital organs on the side that’s lifting are being decompressed, creating an inner spaciousness which facilitates cellular activity. The tissues on the lower side are being compressed, wrung out like a washcloth, facilitating the release of intercellular waste.
To extrapolate from ida and pingala nadis, or right and left energy channels of the body, lifting the right side is said to be energizing, whereas lifting left side is said to be more cooling and grounding.
To reap the greatest benefits from any form of triangle, we want to create the pose with great attention to its roots. As you increase your sidebend and multiple segments in the spine deviate from neutral, you might feel your weight shifting in your feet; it will be tempting, for example, to lighten the base of the front big toe and shift weight to the outer edge of the front foot. Since, in the sidebending form of triangle, you have less support from the trunk oblique muscles, the amount of space your intervertebral discs and internal organs will receive depends largely on your groundwork—on the ability of your feet and legs to feed length into the spine by stabilizing the pelvis—it is critical to bear weight well through the feet and carefully align the bones of the legs.
Follow these step-by-step actions to create a stable trikonasana from the ground up before moving into any variation.
Step your feet a leg’s length apart so that you are facing one of the long sides of your yoga mat. Before you create triangle on the right side, align your front (right) foot and knee. Turn your left foot in as much as you can, then turn your right foot out to 90 degrees, so that your right heel bisects your back arch and your right middle toes point forward toward the front (short side) of your mat. You want the centerline of your right foot (which runs from the center of the heel to the space between the second and third toe) to be parallel to the long sides of the mat. Making sure your weight is in both the ball and heel of your right foot, and giving particular attention to grounding the base of the right big toe, align your right knee so that it is pointing straight ahead (over the centerline of your right foot). You will know you have achieved proper alignment when your right thigh is parallel to the long side of the mat behind you, as opposed to veering in toward the front left corner of the mat.
Without changing anything in your right foot or leg, and without moving your left foot, externally rotate your back hip, and press the top of your left femur (thighbone) back. Do not try to “square” your hips to the long side of the mat too much in trikonasana; this can impinge upon joint spaciousness in your front knee, low back, or hips. If, in an attempt to square your hips, your right knee and thigh bone are dropping in (no longer tracking in line with your middle toes), you’ve gone too far.
When you’ve taken your left hip back as much as you can, root your left foot—its heel and its ball—and track your left knee over the center of your left foot.
Create as neutral a spine as possible, lengthening the back of your head and your tailbone away from each other and drawing them back toward an imaginary wall behind you. Exhale to draw your front ribs in.
Now reach over your right leg as though you are reaching over a tabletop. Place your right hand lightly on your right shin, or a block, or the seat of a chair—you want to be high enough to allow the movements of the breath and core muscle engagement to make their way through the entire pose. To support a neutral-looking spine in the traditional form of trikonasana, sidebend and rotate your spine to the left, away from your right thigh. Reach your left arm up toward the ceiling, and reaffirm actions 1 through 4.
Once you’ve carefully built the foundation of your triangle, see if you’re already getting the side stretch you were looking for. You might find that with foundational precision in the pose, you already feel a sense of release along the sides of the body.
Rather than stretching passively here, intend an elongated spine—reaching the crown of your head and your tailbone away from each other with every breath.
Proceed gradually into any further sidebend you may desire, moving with sensitivity. As you move degree by degree into the pose, return to the foundational actions that supported your traditional trikonasana. Are you still grounded through your front foot, or have you lost the rootedness of the base of the front big toe? Is your front knee still on track toward the centerline of the front foot? Double check your back foot and your back knee. Although your spine will be folding on one side and lengthening on the other to create an arc, can you still feel a sense of length from your legs to your crown? Rather than stretching passively here, intend an elongated spine—reaching the crown of your head and your tailbone away from each other with every breath.
Go into your sidebend only as far as you can go without interfering with your rooted legs and aligned pelvic bones, your intention to elongate your spine, or your ability to breathe into your abdomen.
Such attention to foundational alignment empowers us to vary any pose, at any time and for any reason, without losing what sustains us. It allows us to bloom, while keeping our roots.
Amber Burke lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga privately (and occasionally at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs), as well as various writing classes at UNM Taos. With her anatomically-focused articles, she aims to broaden the interface between yoga and physical therapy. She and Bill Reif, MPT, are hard at work on a book for yoga practitioners with injuries and pre-existing conditions. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA... Read more>>
Jonina Turzi is a doctor of physical therapy and functional manual therapist trained in craniosacral and visceral manipulation. She obtained her primary yoga instruction through the Himalayan Institute in 2006 and with Elena Brower in 2013-14. In her work as a yoga instructor and movement educator, Jonina is passionate about integrating modern health care and traditional wisdom techniques. Her classes are playful and precise, with a focus on balancing physical and subtle movement in practical... Read more>>