Master an Essential Pose: Extended Triangle

Learning the fundamentals of this key yoga pose sets a strong foundation for the rest of your practice.
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Learning the fundamentals of this key yoga pose sets a strong foundation for the rest of your practice.
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Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) looks like its name. You can see several triangles in the pose: Your hands and back foot are the points of one; your two feet are points of another; and your torso, arm, and front leg form the sides of yet another. And Triangle is one of the first poses yoga students learn. Ideally you feel firmness in your legs, a lengthening of your spine, fullness in your chest, and freedom in your neck and shoulders. Trikonasana also increases the flexibility and strength of your legs and lower joints (ankles, knees, and hips). If you have tight hamstrings, forward bends might aggravate lower-back pain, but Trikonasana provides a safe way to stretch the legs while extending the back sideways. It also teaches movements that will prepare you to practice inversions, twists, and backbends.

When I first attempted Triangle, I thought that if I could reach my hand to the floor, voila! I was done. I was not yet aware that in reaching to the floor, I had sacrificed the alignment of other body parts. My knees drooped, my hips flew backward, and my shoulder slumped forward. I had yet to learn to use my muscles to support me so that I had a strong foundation from which to extend.

Pose Benefits:

  • Increases flexibility and strength in the legs, ankles, knees, and hips
  • Stretches the hips, groins, hamstrings, and calves
  • Opens the shoulders and chest, extends the spine
  • Improves digestion
  • Relieves lower-back pain and stiff neck

Contraindications:

  • Knee pain
  • Neck problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Low blood pressure
  • Heart conditions

Build a Base

The main triangle that you can see in the pose is the one at the bottom, where the floor is the base and your legs are the sides. The feet and floor form the foundation of the structure. Beginners often immediately reach their hands to the floor, as I did, but sacrifice the stability of the foundation. Take time to create a firm, balanced, stable base.

Your bones form the frame of the pose, and your muscles help align the bones. B.K.S. Iyengar said that in Trikonasana you need to "entwine the muscles to the bone," which means that the quadriceps, calves, and gluteal muscles must be actively engaged. When your muscles are firm, they "hug" the bones and support the skeletal structure. Straightening the legs may not, at first, seem difficult, but the challenge lies in doing so without collapsing into the ankles, knees, or hips. You're collapsing if it feels as if most of your weight is on your front knee or shin.

Your upper body should feel as though it is lifting off your lower body. As you ground your back leg and heel, lift the front of your pelvis toward the ceiling. Your abdomen and sternum should extend toward your head. Your arms are straight and firm in this pose. Your bottom arm doesn't bear much weight, but it helps you extend. It should feel as though the arms are reaching apart from the center of the chest. Lengthen the bottom side of your rib cage to be as long as the upper side so that both are parallel with the floor.

When you roll your shoulders away from your ears and turn your chest toward the ceiling, you can turn your head to look at the uplifted hand. If your neck hurts, look forward instead and work on opening the chest by moving your back ribs and shoulder blades into the chest while rolling the shoulders back.

Wallflower

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It's challenging to incorporate all of these nuances into the pose. So, to begin, practice at a wall, which will help you stay balanced and grounded in the back leg. Stand on your mat and spread your legs wide apart, with your arms stretched out to the side at shoulder height. See that your right foot is directly under the right hand. Place the outer edge of your left heel against the wall. Turn the toes of the left foot slightly away from the wall so that only the outer edge of the heel touches the wall. Turn the right leg completely out so that the knee faces away from the wall.

Place your hands on your hips and lift the sides of the torso and chest up. Now raise the arms again, maintain the height of your torso, and stretch the arms out from the sides of the chest. From the feet, draw the thighs up toward the hip sockets. Balance the weight evenly between the inner and outer edges of the feet and align ankle, knee, and hip with the center of the foot so that as you engage your leg muscles, you feel as though one joint is lifted off the other in a single-file line.

Keeping your legs straight and firm, press the outer left heel into the wall and down into the floor while extendingyour torso over your right leg. When your trunk extends over your front leg in Triangle, you may find yourself putting too much weight on that leg. The weight should be distributed evenly on both legs. Press the heel into the wall to help maintain awareness of the back leg.

Clasp your ankle or shin with your right hand and place your left hand on your left hip. Now see if you can firm the entire left leg and put power into the left heel. Take your right hand only as low as you can without losing the weight on the left outer heel. To come out of the pose, press the left heel down and use the left leg to help pull you up.

Repeat the pose on the other side, with the right heel pressing against the wall.

Hand Yourself a Prop

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Once you feel stable on the back leg, try the pose away from the wall, but place a block on the floor to the outside of your front ankle (see figure 2). Separate the feet as you did before and turn the legs to the right. Look at your right kneecap to see that it is facing over the middle toe of the right foot. Pull the right leg up from the ankle to the hip. The muscles of the thigh and around the outer hips should feel as though they are gripping the bones and
turning the upper leg out, pulling the thigh up and into the hip socket. Keep the knee and hip in line with the heel.

See if you can maintain the firmness of the left leg and the pressure on the left outer heel as you exhale and extend to the right to take your right hand to the block. If your palm doesn't reach, place your fingertips on the block. Don't lean on the block, but push off it with the right hand to extend upward through the chest and left arm. Keep both legs firm, extend your arms, come up on the inhalation, and move your block to the left to repeat on the other side.

Stability comes with the evenness in both feet; the strength, straightness, and rotation of the front leg; a strong upward lifting action of both legs; and a firmness of the back leg and heel. The result is freedom in the pelvis, abdomen, and chest to lift and turn toward the ceiling. Lengthen both sides of your torso over the right leg so that the right side of your rib cage feels as long as the left. Firm the muscles of the upper right arm to draw upward and feel the lifting of the chest and extension of the left arm to the ceiling. Extend your arms away from each other and broaden your chest.

On Your Own

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Use what you have learned in the previous variations to determine how low to take your hand. If you can't reach the floor but feel you can go lower than the block, clasp your ankle with your hand. If your chest and abdomen turn toward the floor, raise your hand higher. The chest should remain broad and open in the pose.

First-timers tend to lean slightly forward and push the right hip back so that they don't fall back. Take your right outer hip forward, bring your torso in line with your legs and hips, roll both shoulders back as if you had a wall behind you, and revolve your chest toward the ceiling. The back body should feel firm and stable, like a wall that supports the front body.

In Trikonasana, as in all asanas, you will learn to balance the dualities of courage and caution. As you form various triangles with your body, perhaps you will glimpse the connections between firmness and extension and creation and freedom.

Marla Apt is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher.