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:
· Shoulder Joints
· Lumbar Spine
· Hips and sacro-iliac joints
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.