Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana) seems, at first glance, to be pretty easy. Legs straight, check, bend to the side, check, one arm up, check, other arm down to the ground, right, good to go!… Not so fast, yoga stud. Let’s look at it more closely.
There are many ways to do Triangle (at least as many as there are yoga styles!) and in some schools, it’s important that you be able to get your hand to the floor, or to your foot. But if you do that, you may be missing out on some of the other actions of the pose. For today, let go of that “goal,” and think about some other actions instead.
1. Come into Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2) with the right leg forward. Point your right toes straight ahead, toward the front of the mat. Point your back toes toward the left front corner of the mat. If your mat were a clock, the right foot is pointing to 12:00, and the left foot is pointing to 10:00 or 11:00. Once in the pose, check your alignment. Your shoulders are more-or-less square to the long side of your mat. Your hips are also more-or-less square to the long side of your mat. It’s possible they are less, rather than more. That’s okay- over time this may shift, but keep working in that direction.
2. Slowly begin to straighten the right leg. Feel your left hip reaching out directly behind you (pointing toward 6:00 on the mat-clock!). Let your shoulders be as square as you can to the long side of the mat.
3. Now, reach forward with your right arm, leaning out over the straight right leg. Let your shoulders be as square as you can to the long side of the mat. Feel both sides of your torso stretched and long. When you can’t reach any further forward, drop the right hand down to your right leg, and float the left hand up to the sky.
4. Let go of the ego’s need to touch the floor, or your toes, with that right hand. If you have a block, you can place it to the inside of the right leg and rest the hand there. Alternately, you can simply let the hand rest on the leg, but do your best not to let it be a kickstand. If you are tempted, rest the back of your hand against the leg, rather than the palm. As you grow stronger, your core, rather than your arm or your leg, will hold you in place here.
5. Refine the pose. For those with pain in the SI joint, it is important to move the pelvis as one unit, so be careful with this next cue- roll the left hip open so that you can begin to re-square the hips toward the long side of the mat. This is challenging. It will probably feel like nothing much is happening. Over time, as your practice develops, you will begin to notice a shift in this area. Check your ego, though. Don’t get so hung up on this particular point that you lose sight of the others. It’s possible to injure yourself by muscling through this action. Invite a soft suggestion of rolling the hip open, and then move on.
6. Time to check in with the extended leg. For safety, you want a subtle, almost-invisible micro-bend here. Press down through the right big toe, and lift up on the right kneecap (flexing the quad muscles). This will keep you from hyper-extending through the right leg. For some folks, tightness in the hamstring may require that they have more than a micro-bend in the front knee- that’s fine. Let go of a mental image of what the pose “should” look like. You’re not moving toward a destination here, but experiencing the pose as it is for you today.
6. Resist the urge to drop your hand any lower. Check in with both sides of your torso. You should feel a stretch, intense through the left side body, but also length, rather than compression, through the right side body. Firm your belly just a bit- almost as though you were about to do a crunch. Now, it’s hard to tell, but your butt is probably sticking out a bit here. BKS Iyengar teaches this pose as though you were pressing your back against a pane of glass- and you can actually practice it against a wall to get a sense of how “flat” you are. As a beginner, as long as you are feeling length through both sides of the body, and you’re not letting your ego talk you into putting your hand lower than it needs to be- then be compassionate with yourself and feel the actions of the pose rather than worrying about the end results.
7. It’s natural that your torso will probably be facing down and to the right leg. As your hips become more open, you will find yourself more naturally able to “square” the hips to the long side of the matt. Until that day, there will be some rotation through your spine. Feel that now: Inhale to lengthen the spine, and as you exhale, open the left ribcage and rotate it up to the sky. As you stay and breathe, cultivate a sense of spacious expansiveness through your entire torso.
8. Check in with the left hand. You may find that it will want to wing back, away from you, as though it can help leverage the opening. Give it a break- there’s no need for it to work so hard. Let it point directly up to the sky. Feel both arms pulling away from you, like extended wings.
9. Free the neck. Pull your shoulder blades down your back with a gentle shrug or two. Your gaze can be up toward your left fingertips, or if that makes your neck cranky, gaze down at your right fingers. Soften the face. Turn up the corners of your lips.
10. Listen to your body. A stretching sensation in the belly of the muscle is a good thing- sharp pain, or any sensation in the knees or low back in this posture, is NOT a good thing. Stop what you’re doing and take one of the modifications discussed above. Keep your breathing smooth and even. If the breath becomes ragged, or if you find yourself leaning on your leg to stay up, straighten a bit and come up a little higher, or take a break and exit the pose. As one of my favorite teachers says- you are not trying out for the cover of Yoga Journal. The asana is an experience to feel- not a statue to admire.