In our world that allows unlimited access to yoga classes from anywhere and in any style, it’s interesting to observe how some cues are so universal. I literally cannot recall being in a yoga class where I haven’t heard the cue, “align your hips as if you’re between two narrow panes of glass.” Yet teachers rarely offer a detailed explanation of what that means, a modification if you can’t physically achieve it, or an explanation as to why it might not be possible for your particular body. And I’ve never experienced a teacher telling me to not worry if I can’t attain it.
But does this cue actually promote anatomy-informed alignment?
What does this cue mean?
I’m certain you’ve experienced aha moments in your practice when you could feel that your body was in alignment. Maybe you couldn’t see yourself in a mirror and you had no external way of perceiving this. The knowing came from the way your joints are stacked in just the right alignment to activate some muscles and stretch others. Extending and expanding your body in the pose will feel more natural.
Attaining that feeling is the intention behind this cue. Certain standing poses teach us how to extend and expand our bodies in multiple directions at once. Imagine a pose in which your hips are facing the long side of the mat, such as Uttitha Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). The visual of “aligning your pelvis between two narrow panes of glass” encourages your pelvis to tilt over your front thigh so you can elongate your side body over your front leg and fully extend your arms across the width of your chest. In this sense, the cue is intended to encourage the extension and expansion of your body in such a way to help align your body and stretch your body and to create optimal balance in the pose. The pose also helps counteract the common tendencies among students to sway their spine into a backbend or fling their top arm behind their shoulder.
But what doesn’t make anatomical sense is relying on this cue to inform the position of the pelvis and hips, as this can result in forcing the pelvis to move in a way it’s not intended.
Can this cue cause harm?
Aligning your pelvis “as if between two narrow panes of glass” in poses like Uttitha Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) or Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) is not inherently unsafe. In fact, there is a small subset of yoga practitioners who can perform this movement without issue because they have the hip and pelvic anatomy and mobility in which this cue makes perfect sense and does not cause strain or compensation elsewhere in the body.
But each of us have different external hip rotation mobility and strength. Not all of us can splay the pelvis freely in standing poses. The bowl-like structure of your pelvis can’t be pulled into opposite directions, no matter how many times your teacher tells you that it can. The alignment of the legs and feet in Triangle and similar poses like Uttitha Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) are at different angles, meaning the pelvis must stay in a position between the legs, and thus can not be aligned in a “glass hallway.” The consequences of contorting the pelvis into the “glass hallway” by pulling the back pelvis open can cause the front knee to collapse inwardly, straining the inner knee ligaments over time. This is especially true when you don’t have a lot of hip external rotation mobility.
Positioning the pelvis in this manner also destabilizes the head of the thigh bone in the hip socket. In the physical therapy and chiropractic world, the optimal position of joints to properly support your body is known as joint centration. Without this stability, it’s difficult to balance steadily and efficiently over your legs. In Triangle Pose, your torso instead gets pulled to the inside of your front leg rather than staying aligned over it, encouraging you to use your lower hand to support the inside of your front leg, rather than resting outside of the front leg. This altered positioning of the lower torso and arm further decreases your spine’s ability to rotate upward and expand through the chest. And the additional strain of forcing the pose usually causes you to compromise your natural breath pattern. So attempting to follow this one cue can cause a cascade of issues.
Not only is the actual alignment of the pose is compromised, but the long-term effect is potentially damaging. Frequently practicing standing poses, such as Triangle, in a way that places undo strain on the pelvic and knee ligaments will lead to imbalances in the hips and lower back, as well as force your hip and knee joints into suboptimal positions. In addition to disrupting the physical mechanics of the pose, these imbalanced forces can ultimately affect the energetic balance between effort and ease of the pose. If yoga is meant to help us preserve the optimal health and longevity of our bodies (and minds!), then it pays to make sure our asana practice is truly anatomy-informed, rather than simply an act of contorting our bodies into pretty or challenging shapes.
How to navigate this cue
When you hear this cue, you want to follow the intention behind the cue rather than the actual anatomy of it. Be mindful to shift yourself into position only so much as your hip mobility permits. This means respect your edge. As you widen your feet for a standing pose, keep your pelvis relaxed as you angle your feet. From there, slowly and gently turn your back hip towards your back foot until you feel a pull on your front inner knee. This is the limit of your hip rotation in your front leg.
You will notice that your pelvis is not “aligned” between the “narrow panes of glass,” but rather with your hips and legs. That’s fine. The goal here is to maintain the forward-facing alignment of the knee joint. This may take a few tries to feel these subtle movements if you have never noticed them before. It will come with practice.
Additionally, as you set up your feet, you can turn your front foot out slightly, about 10-15 degrees. This creates hip external rotation in the thigh bone which helps position the pelvis. Bonus: this modification helps you keep your quad muscles engaged and your knee aligned. As you continue to move into the pose, it will feel like less physical work or strain, which means effort better matches that ease, hopefully allowing your breathing to be steadier and easier. The magic of yoga asana is best expressed when we can merge the physical alignment with its energetic balance.
From theory to practice: Triangle Pose
Instead of focusing on where the pelvis should be pointing or be angled, place your intention on your thigh bones.
- Come into Triangle Pose. Widen your feet apart; rotate your right foot towards the front of your mat so that your knee also points forward. Let your back foot turn in slightly so your left heel is the point that’s furthest from your body.
- Allow your pelvis to turn with you towards the front thigh and extend your arms out to your sides.
- Keep your legs straight and your quads engaged as you tilt your pelvis to the left, letting the right pelvis rotate over the right thigh bone, allowing the head of the thigh bone to stabilize in the hip socket (joint centration!) and extend the torso over the front leg.
- Support your right hand with a block or rest it on your shin to accommodate the stretch on the right inner thigh. Stay for 3 – 5 breaths.
Notice how stable and balanced your legs and pelvis feel in this alignment. The rest of your body alignment may also feel more natural or intuitive to how your body inherently moves. Rotate your belly and chest upward, toward the ceiling, to encourage your spine to rotate and your shoulders to stack, rather than pull your back pelvis upward. Your torso should easily align over your front leg, and rotating the lower side body upwards should feel more accessible and open without compromising your breath.
About our contributor
Jennifer Chang, DPT, C-IAYT, E-RYT is a physical therapist and yoga therapist in San Diego, CA. Through her dually-informed therapeutic practices, Dr. Chang understands how yoga can enhance traditional physical therapeutics to help students improve their awareness in all aspects of movement and honor the needs of their bodies. Jenn enjoys helping students and clients build a sustainable asana practice, striving to help others find joy through movement to improve their quality of life.