The Right Triangle
"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.
"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.
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