The Right Triangle


By Todd Jones  |  

If you’ve taken classes from more than one yoga teacher, you’ve already discovered that any yoga pose can be approached from an infinite number of angles. Different schools of yoga, different yoga teachers—even the same teacher on different days—will take different approaches to the same pose. Some of the instructions you hear probably sound straightforward and obvious to you, some inscrutable or mysterious—and some downright contradictory.

And nowhere is this more true than for Iyengar Yoga. In the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga, the flowing style taught by K. Pattabhi Jois, Trikonasana is the first in the long series of asymmetrical standing poses. It’s one of the 12 primary poses taught in Sivananda Yoga and one of the 26 poses in Bikram Choudhury’s basic series—though it turns out that both of these versions are very different from the Ashtanga and Iyengar versions, as well as from each other.

Let’s see: Should you separate your legs 4 to 5 feet apart—or one leg-length’s distance apart—or even less? Turn your back foot in 10 or 15 degrees, or keep it perpendicular to your front foot? Narrow your hip points, or broaden across your belly? Or, somehow, do both at the same time? Rotate your upper leg out, yet draw your inner groin back? Draw your front leg buttock toward your sacrum, or broaden across your sacrum? Just where is your pelvis supposed to be, and how in the world do you get it there? Help!

The variety of instruction is enough to bewilder anyone. But are there some consistent principles that run through all these details? Are all these different approaches just alternate paths to the same destination? Or are there lots of different agendas all masquerading under the name Trikonasana? And how does all this focus on physical detail relate to the deeper levels of benefit that asana practice can provide, like increased strength, flexibility, and ease in the muscles and skeleton, enhanced functioning of the internal organs, greater peace and calm, and the experience of unity and freedom that is yoga’s most profound promise?

To try to answer some of these questions, we approached experienced yoga teachers from five traditions—Iyengar; the vinyasa (flowing) Ashtanga of Pattabhi Jois; Kripalu Yoga; Sivananda Yoga; and the “Hot Yoga” method taught by Bikram Choudhury. We asked them how they teach Trikonasana—and why. What do they think are the keys to the pose? How does it benefit the body? And where does it fit into the whole enterprise of yoga?

Iyengar Yoga

“In Iyengar yoga, we start with the base of the pose,” says Leslie Peters, director of the Los Angeles Iyengar Yoga Institute. “The alignment of the feet is the first thing we focus on. Standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), you jump or walk the feet wide apart—and wide means as much as 4 to 5 feet apart—turning your right leg out and your left foot in slightly. If you draw a line from the center of your right heel straight back, it should bisect the center of your left arch.”

“Among the other first instructions we give are to press the outer edge of the back heel down into the floor and to press the base of the big toe mound on the front foot. From that alignment and that foundation, you begin to work upward.”

Iyengar Yoga is famous (some might say infamous) for its detailed attention to alignment and specific actions, building every pose through precise, step-by-step instruction. (Iyengar yogis are also noted for creatively modifying poses, using props like walls, ropes, blocks, and chairs so that every student, no matter how weak or inflexible, can start to grasp the actions of the pose.)

Continuing up through the body, Peters emphasizes “drawing the flesh of the outer right leg up and rotating the entire thigh outward while lifting the inner left leg from the inner knee up to the tailbone.”

A crucial idea in Iyengar Yoga, says longtime teacher John Schumacher of Unity Woods Yoga Center near Washington, D.C., is the difference between a movement and an action. “Raising or lowering your leg is a movement; in Iyengar Yoga ‘action’ implies the energy that’s generated by countervailing forces—like trying to plant the inner edge of your front foot while turning the thigh outward in Trikonasana.”

Both Peters and Schumacher point out that the correct hip actions are especially difficult in Trikonasana. “The back of the head, the ribs, and the buttocks, especially the front-leg buttock, should be in one plane,” Peters explains. “But there’s a tendency for that front leg buttock to drift back, so you have to take it strongly forward. Of course, as soon as you do, the left thigh tends to pop forward too, and you don’t want that to happen. You have to take that thighbone back.”

The correct actions in the legs and hips, Schumacher says, set up the rest of the pose: The torso extends parallel to the floor; the right hand moves down to the floor or the shin (depending on your flexibility), the left hand straight up in the air; the shoulder blades draw down the back to maintain freedom in the neck and shoulders; and the torso and head turn so you can gaze straight up at your left thumb.

The point of all this detail—not just in Trikonasana, but in virtually every pose—is to lengthen and articulate the spine. In addition to this overall goal, Trikonasana is used to communicate many of the most basic principles in Iyengar Yoga. “The form is simple,” Schumacher points out, “yet it’s so rich that it contains just about all the actions ever involved in any pose. It especially teaches grounding and proper actions in the legs. It also balances the nervous system, promotes circulation in the abdominal organs, tones the diaphragm, and opens the rib cage, which makes it a good long-term preparation for pranayama.”

According to Peters, “When Mr. Iyengar is asked about his focus on physical detail in poses, his response is to ask ‘When you sit in a chair, what sits? Your body, your mind, or your spirit?’” These questions draw a laugh—but, Peters notes, “That’s not to say that doing poses is inherently spiritual. Your intention determines the fruit of your practice. The point of yoga isn’t to tie your body in a knot; it’s to use the body to purify and study yourself, beginning with what you can see—your leg in Trikonasana—and progressing to what you can’t see—your breath and the movement of your mind.”

Ashtanga Yoga

The Trikonasana of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga-vinyasa Yoga is much like the Iyengar pose in its basic form and actions. At the same time, there are some dissimilarities between the two approaches that make each a unique experience and challenge.

“In the classic Ashtanga Trikonasana, you reach down and grab the big toe of your front foot,” says John Berlinsky, an Ashtanga teacher at The Yoga Studio in Mill Valley, California. “The feet are closer together than in the Iyengar pose, with the front ankle almost directly below the shoulders, and the back foot at 90 degrees to the front foot, rather than slightly turned in.”

“But I think of the ‘final’ form of the pose—the final form of any Ashtanga pose—as something to be evolved toward,” Berlinsky continues. “So the way to approach the pose is open to interpretation. You can talk to five Ashtanga teachers and get five different answers. Some Ashtanga teachers will say, ‘You always grab your toe and look up at the top thumb, and the pose will come from doing that.’ That’s a legitimate approach, and it works; the development of poses comes from practice, from trying to recognize and break patterns the body is trapped in, more than from having someone say, ‘In Trikonasana you rotate the head of the femur bone and blah, blah, blah.’”

But Berlinsky’s strategy is usually more gradual. With stiffer or more beginning students, he may suggest modifications that make the proper actions more accessible.

“It’s important to understand any pose in Ashtanga as a part of the whole system,” Berlinsky points out. “The classic Ashtanga narrow stance in Triangle doesn’t work the inner front leg or stretch the hamstring as much as a longer stance, but the standing poses that follow immediately after Trikonasana in the series do provide that work. And the short stance gives a stronger opening at the front of the back hip.” Berlinsky sees this hip rotation, necessary for seated meditation poses like Padmasana (Lotus Pose), as a theme that runs throughout Ashtanga’s Primary Series.

Berlinsky also stresses the importance of the other components of Ashtanga vinyasa practice, including drishti (specific focus points for the eyes), the use of the bandhas (energetic locks), and ujjayi pranayama. “The bandhas help ground the body, extend the spine upward, direct the breath upward, and allow the backbend to occur in the upper back and not the lower ribs,” he says, adding that he uses the ujjayi breath as a meter to gauge how well the body is opening. “If the breath is short and not circulating, you know your body is definitely not extending in the pose. And if you can really focus on the breath and move the breath, it will have a profound effect on the body. But,” Berlinsky acknowledges, “the breath is probably our biggest habitual pattern, the hardest to recognize, and the hardest to change.”

Well-known Ashtanga teacher Richard Freeman echoes Berlinsky’s emphasis on mula bandha and uddiyana bandha as crucial elements of Trikonasana. Freeman points out that, in Trikonasana, the bandhas require actions—”lengthening the coccyx into the pelvic floor, and keeping the pubic bone back in the pelvic floor”—that themselves demand the proper actions from the legs and the hips.

“Trikonasana teaches you how to use your legs in relation to your pelvis and spine,” says Freeman. “It teaches you exactly how to ground the body, how to differentiate between the heels and the toes, the inner foot and the outer foot, the inward spiral and the outward spiral of the legs; how to open the kidneys and the heart; how to manipulate the spine from its very base. It’s one of the most important standing poses. It prepares you to do practically anything.”

Bikram Yoga

The pose called Trikonasana in Bikram’s basic series of 26 poses is more like the pose called Parsvakonasana in Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga than it is like his Trikonasana. But despite the differences, Bikram’s Trikonasana demands many of the same actions and provides many of the same benefits.

To come into Bikram’s Trikonasana, says Tony Sanchez—who first studied with Bikram back in the mid ’70s, when his training program required four years of intensive tutelage—”You stand with your feet together, raise your arms overhead, bringing your palms together. Then take a big step to your right—about the length of one of your legs—and lower your arms halfway, to about shoulder height. Keeping your body facing forward, turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Maintaining a completely straight back leg, bend your front leg until the back of the leg is parallel to the floor. Then bend at the waistline, tilting your body down, until the fingertips of your right hand barely touch the floor in front of your right foot. With both arms in one line, turn your head and focus on your upper hand. Listen to your respiration and take deep, full breaths.”

Positioning the feet correctly is critical, says Sanchez, as is making sure the back of the bent leg is parallel to the floor, with the shin and thigh forming a right angle. He notes that “proper alignment, proper weight distribution, and proper breathing” are the keys not only to Trikonasana but to every pose in Bikram Yoga.

“To get the alignment in Trikonasana,” he continues, “imagine that you’re doing the exercise between two walls, one at your front and one at your back, that are closing in toward each other. If your hips are too far back, you tend to lean forward and get thrown off balance. If you push your hips too far forward, your upper body goes too far back and you backbend instead of extending the spine.”

“Since yoga is a discipline to generate energy and vitality,” says Sanchez, “the purpose of the exercises is to have the proper alignment and weight distribution so that your body will work the least. That way you get the most out of the exercise. In Trikonasana, about 25 to 35 percent of the weight should be on the back foot, 65 to 75 percent on the front foot.”

According to Sanchez, Bikram Yoga focuses attention on the breath, but he notes that the regulation of the breath needs to alter with every pose, depending on whether the lungs are free, or whether they’re being stretched backward or compressed forward. In Trikonasana, the opening of the arms and rib cage allow the breath to move quite freely.

Bikram’s basic series is designed as a kind of whole-body maintenance, preventive medicine, and rehabilitative program, with different asanas zeroing in on specific parts of the body. The ninth exercise in the series, Trikonasana is the first to focus so specifically on opening the outer hips.

“Trikonasana is also a wonderful exercise because it works all around the body,” Sanchez explains. “It strengthens the legs; it limbers up the hip joints. The rotation works on the lumbar area of the spine, making it more flexible, so Trikonasana can be very helpful for people with arthritis and other back problems.” Sanchez says that Bikram considers it one of the most important exercises, because the twisting of the abdomen and upper torso and the internal massage given by the breath in this position nourishes all the internal organs, especially the liver, the kidneys, the pancreas, the lungs, and the heart.

Sivananda Yoga

“We don’t isolate the asanas and practice them independent from the totality of yoga,” says Swami Sitaramananda, director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center of San Francisco and of the affiliated ashram in Grass Valley, California. “We practice hatha yoga as the practical part of raja yoga; the ultimate goal of practice is to be able to sit in meditation for a long time.”

Sivananda teachers don’t tend to dwell at great length on the mechanics of any pose, Trikonasana included. They tend to stick pretty closely to the simple instructions provided in the many hatha yoga texts published by both Sivananda and his disciple Swami Vishnu-devananda. “The different texts in the Sivananda tradition differ slightly in their instructions concerning Trikonasana,” says Vishnu, a teacher at the Los Angeles Sivananda Center, “and Sivananda teachers use all these variations. For example,” he continues, “most teachers have students turn the forward foot out, though not all the books show it that way.” In general, the Sivananda approach tends to work the buttocks and hips a bit less than the Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Bikram versions, but it also provides a more intense stretch to the side of the body facing the ceiling. Vishnu’s favorite Sivananda Trikonasana variation accentuates this stretch by bringing the top arm parallel to the floor.

Although Sivananda Yoga may be focused toward meditation, that doesn’t mean it pays no attention to physical alignment. “The most important thing is to keep the body in alignment so the spine can be stretched naturally,” says Sitaramananda. “You need to keep your body straight from the tips of your fingers through your shoulder bones, and keep your hip bones and knees and ankles all in the same line.” In Yoga Mind and Body, a book created by the London Sivananda Center, the student is cautioned to avoid misalignments like bending the upper arm or twisting the body too far forward or back. And other Sivananda-style books suggest adaptations, such as bending the front knee, for stiffer, weaker students.

Unlike many approaches to hatha yoga, in which Trikonasana is usually included early in practice to warm up the hips, it is the last of 12 asanas in the basic Sivananda sequence. Swami Vishnu-devananda saw Trikonasana as completing the bending and extending movements of the spine that are introduced in Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist), and believed that it toned the spinal nerves and abdominal organs, increased peristalsis and integrated digestion with other bodily functions, and helped open the shushumna nadi (the central and most important of the reputed 72,000 nerve channels, or nadis) for the movement of kundalini. “Although he stood out as a hatha yoga master among the disciples of Swami Sivananda, Swami Vishnu-devananda always related hatha yoga to raja yoga,” says Sitaramananda. Thus, although Trikonasana certainly is regarded as benefiting the health of the body in specific ways, Sivananda yoga sees it as even more valuable as a vehicle for developing breath, concentration, and a body capable of long periods of meditation.

Kripalu Yoga

“In Trikonasana—in fact, in all asana practice—Kripalu Yoga is more about context than content,” explains Jill Edwards Minyé, a Sebastopol, California, teacher who began studying Kripalu Yoga in 1990. “Kripalu teachers often study in different asana traditions, and at the Center itself [in Lenox, Massachusetts] they’ve brought in many different kinds of teachers.”

So while Kripalu teachers might differ on the details of Trikonasana, says Minyé, they will all tend to focus on mindfulness, on teaching through language that emphasizes surrender and willingness rather than willfulness (“allow your arms to float up,” as opposed to “bring up your arms”), and on “using formal practice to support the intention of awakening to the experience of yourself and others as divine—and expressing that in everyday life. The intention in Kripalu Yoga,” Minyé emphasizes, “is to use it as a path of transformation.”

Perhaps because Minyé has substantial Iyengar training, the instructions about alignment and actions she teaches sound fairly similar to those you might hear in an Iyengar class. But Minyé’s approach tends to be a bit softer, slower, and more introspective than many Iyengar teachers. Rather than immediately telling her students how to move, Minyé may draw their attention to various parts of the body, inviting them to notice sensations: warmth, cold, tingling, expansion, tightness, or whatever may be occurring. “One of the most important elements in Kripalu Yoga is deep concentration on breath and physical sensation,” she explains, “so we tend to move into and out of poses very slowly.”

Kripalu Yoga is conceptualized as a three-stage process, with the first stage using alignment instruction and breath awareness to root the student in the pose. “You do need to have guidance in alignment, especially as a beginner,” says Minyé, “to learn healthy biomechanics and avoid injury.” Once a student has turned attention from external sense stimuli to physical sensation and breath, the second stage of Kripalu Yoga can begin: “Holding the pose past the first point where the mind tells you to come out and exploring subtle, slow movements, the practitioner starts to develop ‘witness consciousness’ and awareness of unconscious patterns of tension in the body-mind.”

Kripalu teachers, says Minyé, encourage students to be aware of their emotions and use language that assists students in moving beyond emotional resistance. “Witness consciousness is absolutely key to Kripalu Yoga,” Minyé insists. “I think it’s important for people to get comfortable with our least favorite feelings, to know that we can survive them, just like we can survive stretching our tight hamstrings. Otherwise, we can spend our lives trying to run from discomfort and opportunities to grow.”

The third stage of Kripalu Yoga is allowing yourself to be moved by prana. “This stage of practice is not something you can make happen,” explains Minyé. “It arises through deep concentration and total surrender, often after you’ve held a pose for a long time. Something else takes over, and you’re moved by something beyond your mind. Triangle, like any asana, can be a doorway into this experience.”

In teaching Trikonasana, Minyé interweaves the first two stages of Kripalu Yoga, while leaving the door open for the spontaneous third stage. “I may ask students to press into the outer edge of the back foot and lift the arch. Then I may ask them to experiment with micro-movements and discover if there’s one place they feel invited to stay and explore, or where energy moves most freely. And then I’ll ask them to take a few moments to notice how that feels, physically and emotionally. Most of all, I’ll encourage them to listen to the body. The more we can exchange thinking for sensing and feeling, the more we tap into the body’s intuitive wisdom.”

The American Melting Pot

On the surface, these five approaches to Trikonasana certainly differ. But their underlying similarities far outweigh their differences, attesting to a shared core of perennial wisdom that emerges over and over through asana practice.

Teachers in each tradition may not provide the same instructions in Trikonasana, but all use the pose as a tool for discovering a sense of grounding, for exploring the connection between the work of the legs and the extension of the spine, and for twisting and stretching the trunk to flush and nourish the internal organs. And all these approaches also stress the reciprocity of breath and movement—though, in a way, Iyengar Yoga is the exception that proves this rule. (The breath is a subtle and difficult subject, Iyengar insists. For example, says Peters, he thinks that for beginners, trying to deepen and extend the breath in Trikonasana doesn’t enhance the pose, but instead throws first the back ribs and then the whole torso out of alignment. Rather than addressing pranayama in asana, Iyengar Yoga prefers to teach it as a separate practice.)

These days, some of the similarities you note between an Iyengar teacher’s Trikonasana instruction and that of an Ashtanga or Bikram teacher may not stem just from their similar experiences of the body’s innate wisdom. In the melting pot of American yoga, it’s almost impossible to find an experienced teacher of any hatha yoga style who hasn’t been touched by the best insights developed within other schools. You’ll hear Iyengar-style precision in some Kripalu and Sivananda classes; Ashtanga’s emphasis on the bandhas and ujjayi breath shows up in the classes of longtime Iyengarites; and the softer, more internal approach often taken by Kripalu and Sivananda teachers is echoed by even the fieriest Ashtanga, Bikram, and Iyengar instructors.

Hatha yogis, after all, are an experimental lot, committed not to dogma but to the experiential wisdom that arises from deep observation of the body as we stretch and test and probe ourselves with asana and pranayama. As Richard Freeman puts it, “In teaching Trikonasana, I try to show students all the different ways they can adjust the pose, so they don’t have a static model. I give them a variety of tools so they can tease out what works for them.” And what’s true for teachers is true for every yoga practitioner: In the end, no matter how much you’ve learned, you have to find Trikonasana anew—in this particular body, on this particular day—every time you step on the mat.