How should we align our feet in poses like revolved triangle or warrior 1?
In this post, I’ll continue my series breaking down some of the common yoga alignment myths. Beyond understanding new ways to approach individual postures, what I hope you take from this series is an understanding that each posture is being done “right” when it is right for the individual person doing the posture. Just as there is considerable variation among people, there are many ways to approach postures and how we align our bodies within them.
Myth #2: The heels should always be lined up (or heel to instep should be lined up) in poses like revolved triangle, warrior 1, and parsvottanasana
Let’s take a look at some ideas about the feet in poses like revolved triangle, warrior 1, and parsvottanasana. In each of these postures our base or foundation is our feet, and the feet in these postures are arranged in a similar way. We have a front foot that is pointing in the same direction that we are facing and a back foot that is pointing out at some angle. The mythology that I want to take apart and examine a little closer is the idea that there is one right way to place the feet with respect to the side to side distance (width) of the feet.
What you’ve probably heard is some version of the idea that you should line up the heel of the front foot to either the heel or the instep of the back foot. What I’d like to suggest is that either of these alignments might be fine AND that there other ways to place the feet that might also be appropriate. Whether or not the heels are lined up in revolved triangle and other postures all depends on who is doing the pose, what they’re working on, and the effect on the rest of the posture above it.
Let’s break this idea down further with some anatomy.
The relationship between the feet and the pelvis
An important piece to keep in mind as we decide how to align our feet in any standing pose (e.g. whether or not our heels are lined up in revolved triangle and other poses), is that our feet set up the base or foundation. How we arrange the feet will affect everything we place on top of that base, namely the pelvis, and then the spine. The feet are connected to the pelvis through a kinetic chain that includes the ankle joint and knee joint between them. One of the most common cues and primary intentions for revolved triangle, warrior 1, and parsvottanasana is to square the pelvis with the front of the mat. In order to do this, the muscles that move the hip joint will have to be sufficiently open to allow this.
I’m not sure the pelvis has to be perfectly square or straight in these postures. I see it more as an intention. As you create that intention, you naturally put pressure into the muscles that control the hip joint close to the pelvis. In the case of these postures, because the feet are planted on the floor, it is the sides of the pelvis that will have to move around the heads of the femurs in order to align the pelvis. Because the length (front to back of mat), width (side to side of mat), and angle (relative to side of mat) of the feet naturally change the hip joint above, where you put them matters.
The general rule is that the wider your stance is, the easier it is to square your hips. The more your foot angles forward to the front of the mat, the easier it is to square the hips. The more narrow the width of the feet and the more the foot points toward the outer edge of the mat, the more difficult it will be to square the hips. It follows then that, the tighter your hips are, the wider your feet will need to be. The more open your hips are, the more narrow your stance can be. But keep in mind, part of the pose is to put pressure on the muscles of the hip. In other words, you want to work toward square hips so that you essentially stretch the muscles of the hips as you do this posture.
Other factors to consider when setting up the feet
There are other factors to consider when deciding generally how to set up your feet, and specifically whether it makes sense to have the heels lined up in revolved triangle and other similar postures. One of those factors is the knee joint. If you were to turn your foot outward so that your toes were pointed at the side of your mat, that would indicate external rotation of the hip joint. When you try to square your pelvis with the femur fixed, you are adding to that external rotation by moving the pelvis instead of the femur.
If you don’t have a lot of openness in your hip joint, the body will look for movement elsewhere, and in the leg, it may find that movement in the knee. If the knee is slightly bent, the force of trying to square the hips may end up passing through the knee joint. Generally, I don’t think this is a problem. But, being attached to getting your pelvis perfectly square with your feet in the wrong place can definitely create torque in the knee.
The second factor is balance. Generally speaking, the wider the base, the easier it is to balance. You can imagine that if your heels are lined up in revolved triangle, for example, or your feet are aligned with the front heel lined up to the arch of the back foot, the pose is going to feel more like walking on a tightrope. The wider that base is, the easier it is to balance. This factor is one to keep in mind for people who have difficulty balancing in these types of postures. If a person who has trouble with balance is told to align heel to instep, and then asked to fold and twist, the chances of them falling over increases.
The third factor relates specifically to the length that you use to set up the feet. This is true of all of these postures, but is best pointed out in warrior 1. If you do warrior 1 with a really long (front to back) stance, the tension from the hip flexors and quadriceps of the back leg are going to restrict movement of the pelvis in a couple of ways. If these tissues are tight, they are going to create a stronger anterior tilt of the pelvis than we want. The downside of the strong anterior tilt is that it can be compressive to the lower back. Sure, you can give the old cue to tuck the tailbone or pelvis and this may alleviate the symptom. Just make sure you’re seeing the real cause, which is that the distance between the feet is too long and/or the hip flexors are too tight for setting the feet up with a very long stance.
The relationship between the pelvis and the spine
It’s also important to realize that the spine is affected by where the pelvis sits. The spine will naturally adapt in a variety of ways to the pelvis and, therefore, the feet below it.
For instance, if you can’t square your pelvis in warrior 1, then the spine is going to twist to compensate for the lack of movement at the hip joints. I’m not saying there is anything inherently wrong with this. It’s just something you should be aware of and make sure you’re choosing to do on purpose.
Another common place to see how the spine compensates is in revolved triangle. If you were suspended above a person doing revolved triangle, and their pelvis was not more or less squared to the front of the mat after they folded into the pose, then you would typically see a curve from the pelvis to the top of the spine. This is especially true if the practitioner is placing their hand on the outside of their front foot. Although you may be able to correct for this by sending a hip back, or arching the spine slightly, it’s more relevant to see how the amount of spinal compensation is connected back through the pelvis and down to the feet. What happens if you change the position of the feet? Go find out!
Getting lost in the details and forgetting about the yoga
The other thing to keep in mind as we deconstruct alignment details is that we’re doing a yoga practice. The postures are not the yoga; they are tools to challenge our ability to cultivate concentration, a steady breath, awareness, and equanimity. If you find yourself often getting buried in alignment details, consider moving your attention to focus on the overall intention of the pose. Maybe ask yourself from time to time: Are you adjusting little details because they make a real difference in how you experience the pose? Or, are you just looking for something to “do” in the pose because when you try to be still you feel restless?
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