For quite a while I was so focused on lengthening and opening my upper body in triangle (trikonasana) that I forgot about my lower body entirely. It wasn’t until I practiced this pose one-on-one, with a good friend and fellow teacher, that I realized a serious blind spot. She pointed to my front knee and I looked down to see that it was hyperextended (my joint had gone “past straight,” beyond a healthy range of 180 degrees). But because nothing hurt and there was no sensation whatsoever in that knee, I thought all was well-aligned. Then she placed a block under my bottom hand and told me to bend my front knee ever so slightly, flex my toes, and then to engage my quad as I worked to lengthen my front leg. I quickly realized that this simple act of flexing my toes made it so I could lengthen my leg without going into hyperextension. Suddenly I also felt more stable; both of my legs were active and strong.
It wasn’t until I practiced this pose one-on-one, with a good friend and fellow teacher, that I realized a serious blind spot.
I had been unconsciously hanging out in my knee joint. But with this slight adjustment, I was able to more evenly distribute the energy I was extending along the length of my front leg and thus engage my body as a whole—from head to toe. This also enabled me to find more length and space in my upper body, which is what I had been after all along!
Hyperextension and RSI
Hyperextension can occur in either the back leg or the front leg in triangle pose (though we might think it occurs only in the front leg). It’s also common in many other postures and areas of the body—after all, we do have many other joints! (I recommend Correcting Hyperextension in Common Yoga Poses for more details.) For the purposes of this article, we will explore hyperextension in trikonasana specifically, and also the causes and consequences of hyperextension in general.
According to Yoga International teacher and founder of Yoga for All, Dianne Bondy, we often don’t realize how ubiquitous hyperextension is precisely because we often don’t feel the issue in the tissue. We can hyperextend for years without any pain or discomfort. It’s often not until the knee joint becomes inflamed or injured that we take a closer look. “Hyperextending may not feel like a bad thing,” Bondy says, “but think about a wire coat hanger and how long it takes to bend that coat hanger back and forth before it actually breaks in half. It could be five times, it could be 100 times, it could be 300 times, but at some point hyperextending will catch up with you.”
Bondy is of course referring to wear on the ligaments, which, over time, can result in a repetitive stress injury. Repetitive stress injuries (as the name implies) are caused by repeating the same misalignment over and over again. Triangle is an asana many of us do often, if not each time we practice. As such, it’s duly important to get our knees in check. But before we explore tips and tricks, let’s take a closer look at why we hyperextend.
Why We Hyperextend
According to YI alignment and anatomy writer Amber Burke, there are a number of reasons beyond hyperflexibility alone that lead us into hyperextension. To a certain extent we have normalized it. “We might look around class and notice that everyone seems to be doing triangle with hyperextended knees, and then extrapolate that it must be fine, or we’ve misunderstood somehow what hyperextension is or means,” she states. “Cues like ‘press the thighs back’—given in straight-leg poses with no stabilizing cues for the shins [example: Press your shins forward]—can take students right into hyperextension and make them think that’s what they should be doing.”
She also suggests that, as in my own case, hyperextension could be due to something as simple as not looking down. Another reason it is easy to hyperextend in standing postures “is that the drishti (gaze) is either forward (in the direction our chest is facing) or up toward our top hand, about as far away from our knees as we can get,” Burke says. “Even once a student brings her focus to her knees and mindfully moves them out of hyperextension, she can easily fall back into that position the moment she turns her gaze away from her knees.”
How to Avoid Hyperextending Your Knees in Triangle Pose
So how can we prevent hyperextension in triangle pose and hyperextending the knees in general? I snagged some ideas from Bondy and Burke about how to properly activate the legs, align the knees, and expand our awareness of the pose from the ground up.
Set your stance. Extend your arms out wide, shoulder level, and line your wrists up over your ankles. This will help you set a steady stance that isn’t too wide—when your feet are too wide, you're more likely to hyperextend. Often people step their legs too wide in triangle so that they can get their bottom hand to touch the floor. But remember, your hand doesn’t have to touch the ground; it can rest on your shin or a block. Not hyperextending is more important than touching the floor!
Root down. Spread your toes and root down through the big toe mound, the pinky toe mound, the inner heel, and the outer heel. These actions will help you keep your muscles engaged and your awareness in your legs, and you will therefore be more mindful about hyperextension.
Push the mat apart. Once you’ve set your stance, continue to root down evenly through the four corners of your feet and energetically push the mat apart with your feet. This action supports the muscles around the joints and, according to Bondy, makes it almost impossible to hyperextend your knees.
Burke says that hyperextension is easiest to spot and correct in poses in which the shins should be vertical because of the fact that when we hyperextend, the shins slant backward from ankle to shin, opening up the 90-degree bend in the ankles. When the shins move away from vertical and the ankle creases become harder to see in these poses, that's a sign of knee hyperextension. “‘Shins vertical’ applies to every standing pose in which the legs are in tadasana (mountain pose) alignment: for instance, to both legs in uttanasana (standing forward fold), and to the standing leg in poses like virabhadrasana III (warrior III), ardha chandrasana (half moon), and utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe pose)—all poses in which hyperextension happens frequently for those of us who have that extra mobility,” she says. But because the shins aren't vertical in triangle, their ideal angle is a little less obvious, and hyperextension can be harder to identify and correct. Still, the solution is the same. Burke explains: "in both vertical shin poses and in poses like triangle where the ideal line of the shins is less clear/definite, press your shins forward against imaginary resistance, and make sure there is weight in the balls of the feet as well as in the heels.”
Burke says that hyperextension is easiest to spot and correct in poses in which the shins should be vertical.
To find that slight resistance in triangle, she suggests that we refer to a common cue, resting the hand on the shin, but with a twist: “It is true that by pressing your hand into your shin, you might encourage hyperextension. But resting your hand on your shin in triangle, lightly, just below the knee, then pressing your shin up into your hand can take you out of hyperextension. Placing your hand on your shin gives you something real to push into. But that second part (pressing your shin into your hand) is critical: If you place your hand on your shin, then be sure to press your shin into your hand.”
Just in case you need one more reason to avoid this misalignment, according to Burke, correcting hyperextension in the knees also supports the joints above and below them. Hyperextension “tips weight in your heels to the detriment of your ankle joints, leads to a pelvis that is overly anteriorly (forward) tilted, a lower back that curves in too much, an upper back that rounds forward to counter this backbend in the lower back, and either forward-head posture or a shortening of the back of the neck,” Burke says. “One of my favorite ‘morals’ of yoga,” she emphasizes, “is that small things have large consequences. Removing what seems like a small blind spot can reveal an entire landscape that had been hidden from our view.”
If you’re a fellow hyperextender or suspect you might be one, I hope these insights help you on your way toward a more stable and easeful trikonasana, and a more enjoyable (and safe) practice overall.