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Uttihita Trikonasana (Iyengar style triangle pose) - Issues and solutions

Some General Comments :- Different schools of yoga have different views about what Trikonasana is and the different versions of this pose vary quite a bit with respect to the body positioning and the effects (and potential problems) of the pose. Here we are looking at Uttihita Trikonasana as an Iyengar style of Trikonasana – that is with one foot rotated outwards to point sideways and other foot rotated inwards and the trunk bending sideways to same side as the outward pointing foot.

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Uttihita Trikonasana Pose Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Balance

            · Neck

            · Shoulder Joints

            · Chest/Breathing

            · Lumbar Spine

            · Hips and sacro-iliac joints

            · Knees

            · Feet

            Pregnancy



Balance

Uttihita Trikonasana can be tricky for those with balance issues and this is especially true if one practises the pose with turning head to look up at the top hand – in fact, even those who don’t have a particular or obvious balance problem can find they lose their balance on turning their head. Obviously, turning the head to look up at the top hand can be omitted – and without losing most of the benefits of the pose. Another thing that can help is practising with one’s back against the wall – in some ways this makes the pose more challenging as it removes “cheating” options and “forces” one to keep the backs of one’s arms, shoulders, and buttocks in the same plane – but it also make the balance aspect of the pose easier. The other option one can try is resting one’s lower hand on a support (like a table, chair or a couple of yoga blocks) – a potential problem with this approach is that there is a tendency to relax into the support and so lose one’s internal control and support which, in turn, can make lifting out of the pose much harder.

A useful alternative to consider is Trikonasana without the feet rotated to the side – this offers a more stable base for the side bending and is also much easier in some other regards. Again this can be practised with one’s back against a wall to aid balance. Then there are sitting and supine side bends that can be great for when balance is really poor.


Neck

If one’s neck is already feeling uncomfortable (with muscle strain such as one can get from lying badly when sleeping) – then tilting the head sideways can aggravate the neck. Obviously a practice should be discontinued if it causes discomfort (and even more so if it causes pain). However, taking care not to tilt the head sideways relative to the shoulders or turning the head (to look along a shoulder) can be helpful options. Another thing to consider is practising supine side bending instead of standing side-bending as the weight of the head is then supported by the floor and so there is less risk of strain to the neck.


Shoulder Joints

It is rare that lifting the arms sideways to the shoulder level poses problems (“frozen shoulder” type issues rarely limit the degree of shoulder movement to this extent). What is quite common is getting muscle ache from holding the arms out to the side for an extended period of time. The obvious solution to the latter problem is to hold the arms out to the side for less time – however, if one wishes to take due care of alignment, then one may find one has barely got into the pose before one needs to come out. The good news is that, with practice, one’s muscles will adapt to the static work and one will find one it possible to spend longer holding the arms out to the side – while one is waiting for that to happen, one can practise some of the time with the arms by one’s side. If practising with lowered arms, however, one should be aware that the openness of the upper trunk that is so distinctive of Uttihita Trikonasana is somewhat harder to achieve with the arms close to one’s side.


Chest/Breathing

In side bends in general, one side of the chest is held in a very open, expanded form while the other side is squeezed into a closed and contracted form. In addition, within Uttihita Trikonasana, the chest is put into a particularly open position before moving into the side bend. The net effect is that breathing via the expansion and contraction of the rib-cage is very restricted. This is not normally a problem, but those who are used to breathing primarily via the expansion and contraction of the rib-cage (rather than “abdominally”) may well find the experience uncomfortable or even distressing - although it is very unlikely to do any physical harm. If one does experience some discomfort with regard to breathing then one should simply go a little less far into the side-bend or move in and out of the side-bend with the breath. The degree of side bend with which one feels comfortable will increase with practice. If one finds controlling the degree one goes into a side bend when standing (to a degree that is sufficient to be comfortable) difficult a helpful alternative option is supine side bending.


Lumbar Spine

Side bends are often said to be a bad idea for those with lower back problems. The reason for this is that most of the side bending of the trunk occurs in the lumbar region, with one side of the spinal discs of this area being squeezed/compressed, potentially to a high degree – this is not usually a problem but it can be if the spinal alignment is poor or there is a high degree of damage to the spinal discs.

Those with significant degree of lower-back problems may well do better to practise supine side-bends rather than standing side-bends – or at the very least take special care over the spinal alignment and to avoid moving so far into the pose as to feel discomfort. Using a wall to give extra feedback over the shape of the spine and to help discourage a tendency to twist the spine can be very helpful.

Those who have a lot of lumbar lordosis (concave lower back) also should take extra care of the spinal alignment in the lumbar spine. When the legs are straight and wide and the leading leg is laterally rotated, the ilio-psoas muscles (which attach to both the front of the lumbar spine, the top front of the pelvic girdle and to the top of the femur) will tend to pull the lumbar spine forwards and thus put the back of the lumbar discs into compression before one moves into the side bend. A solution is to have the legs a little less wide apart or rotate the leading leg by lifting the heel rather than the toes (i.e. bringing heel inwards rather than moving toes outwards). Another solution is to practise simple Trikonasana (or other side bends) for the side-bending aspect of Trikonasana and then only practise the leg part of Uttihita Trikonasana to develop the appropriate hip flexibility (until one is sufficiently supple enough with regard to hip rotation to practise side bending aspect of Utthita Trikonasana with good spinal alignment).

The lumbar spine position is strongly affected by what one does with the feet and legs (before moving into the side-bend) – as this affects the positioning of the pelvic girdle and thus the base of the spine. Taking appropriate care over feet positioning and activating the legs thus is an important part of keeping the lumbar spine safe and protected – and this is important even for those with strong healthy backs.

Using “base support” ideas and mula bandha are also protective of the lumbar spine.


Hips and sacro-iliac joints

The advice with Uttihita Trikonasana used to be to place the feet, activate the legs and then bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards. And, with regard to the spine, the advice to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards is protective and good. However, if one lacks sufficient rotatory flexibility in the hips to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards (and this is the case for most people in the west) then the attempt to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards can cause problems – especially if one is very determined or disciplined about this. In particular, the sacro-iliac joints are affected – these are semi-moveable joints which tend to get their surfaces jammed into each other when one tries to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards too strongly against the resistance of the hip muscles. Practising Uttihita Trikonasana regularly in this way encourages deterioration of the sacro-iliac joints which, over time, cause them to dysfunction and experience pain.

One approach to this issue is to place the feet closer together &/or to have the legs/feet in a less rotated position as this reduces the degree of rotatory flexibility in the hips needed to bring the pelvic girdle to facing forwards.

However, the approach I favour is to allow the pelvic girdle to be “free floating” – although the term “free floating” is somewhat misleading. In this approach, one first places the feet and activates the legs by drawing up the knee caps and toning the thighs. Then one anchors the leading leg by engaging the hip rotators of that leg and, keeping the leading leg anchored, one engages the hip rotators of the other leg in a way that tends to draw the pelvic girdle towards facing forwards. After this the pelvic girdle is rarely actually facing forwards, but is as close to facing forwards as the hip muscles will allow, given the placement of the feet. I then further stabilize the position of the pelvic girdle by sinking the heels and drawing the feet against the resistance supplied by the floor (feet don’t actually move) – all the leg and hip muscle activity helps to ensure a very stable and unmoving pelvic girdle and so supplies the spine with a stable base from which to move. This approach has the merit of helping to improve the hip flexibility with regard to rotation and can be combined with the previous approach mentioned.


Knees

In Uttihita Trikonasana one might expect that to be vulnerable to knee problems occurring such as rotation of the knee joint, sideways bending at knee joint or, for some people, hyperextension of the knee joint. However, Mr. Iyengar gives the excellent advice of drawing up knee-caps and toning the thigh muscles as a key part of placing the legs. If one follows this advice, one turns the leg from something that can bend at the middle into a rigid rod – this protects the knee joints by preventing any unhealthy knee joint movements. Those who already have knee problems may find Uttihita Trikonasana difficult to practise without discomfort. In this case, simple side-bending (i.e. with feet facing forwards) may suit better or, failing that, supine side-bending (as there are then minimal forces acting across the knee joints).


Feet

If one practises Uttihita Triknoasana with poor attention to the feet, there is a strong tendency to allow the weight of the feet to be mostly on the inside edge of the feet (i.e. feet rolled inwards). This is bad news for the feet as it tends to crush the inner arches and exacerbate and encourage problems such as achy feet and plantar fasciitis. Such poor feet care also has implication higher up at the hips, pelvic girdle and spine within the pose.

If one practises with appropriate attention to the feet, then most of the weight will be moved to the outside edge of the feet whilst keeping the pad of the big toes joint pressing downwards into the floor. This activates and lifts the arches of the feet – which is generally good news but if one is not used to having one’s feet active in this way (or already has feet problems) then this can feel a little too strong. In the latter case, practising simple Trikonasana (with feet pointing forwards), but with the same attention to what the feet are doing is great preparation and a useful alternative.

Anyone already with significant feet problems will probably find supine side-bending more helpful than the standing side-bends simply because it takes the weight off their feet.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

In the later stages of pregnancy, one of the issues that needs to be borne in mind is that the womb starts to press against the inferior vena cava (main vein in the trunk) and the aorta (main artery). This has implications for blood circulation to and from the legs. It is thus unwise to hold the leg part of standing postures for any duration - with risks of discomfort, tiredness (in legs) and an increased likelihood, over the long term, of getting varicose veins or tissue fluid issues (oedema) in the legs. With regard to standing side bends this means that one should go for dynamic versions that involve leg movement. Similarly, static side-bending is unhelpful from a breathing point of view – with abdominal breathing restricted by the growing womb, one does not want to further restrict the breath by holding the upper trunk in a position that will restrict breathing in the chest. Both these factors suggest that Uttithita Trikonasana is probably not the most helpful form of side-bending to practise during pregnancy – simpler side-bends that require less attention to the legs and thus less time statically holding the leg position are probably more advisable.

Another issue to consider is that, as the womb becomes bigger, one’s ability to bend sideways in the lumbar area becomes restricted – thus one should start to aim for side-stretches or side-bends that focus more on opening the chest than on bending in the lumbar spine.

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