How should we align our feet in poses like revolved triangle or warrior one?
In this post, I continue my series breaking down some of the common yoga alignment myths. I hope these articles help you understand new ways to approach individual postures. More importantly, I hope you take from this series an understanding that the “right” way to do a posture is whatever 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. With that in mind let’s consider whether or not we should have the heels lined up in revolved triangle.
Myth #2: You should always have the heels lined up in revolved triangle
So, let’s explore this idea that the heels should always be lined up (or heel to instep should be lined up) in poses like revolved triangle, warrior one, and parsvottanasana. Let’s start by taking a look at some ideas about the feet in poses like revolved triangle, warrior one, and parsvottanasana. In each of these postures, our base or foundation is our feet. Notice that we arrange the feet in these postures in a similar way. We have a front foot that points in the same direction that we face and a back foot that points 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 other ways to place the feet 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 affects 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 one, 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 have to be sufficiently open.
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. Because we plant our feet on the floor in these postures, the sides of our pelvis have to move around the heads of our 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.
Hips squared or heels lined up in revolved triangle?
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 you decide 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 turn your foot outward so that your toes point at the side of your mat, that indicates external rotation of the hip joint. When you try to square your pelvis with the femur fixed, you add 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 you bend your knee slightly bent, then the force of trying to square your hips may pass through the knee joint. Generally, I don’t think this is a problem. But, trying to get your pelvis perfectly square with your feet in the wrong place can definitely create torque in the knee.
Consider the impact on balance
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 you have trouble balancing generally, and you align heel to instep, and to fold and twist, your chances of falling over increase.
Potential effects on the low back
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 it is easiest to see warrior one. If you do warrior one with a really long (front to back) stance, the tension from the hip flexors and quadriceps of the back leg restricts 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 see the real cause, which is that the distance between the feet is too long and/or the hip flexors are too tight to set the feet up with a very long stance.
The relationship between the pelvis and the spine
Remember that where the pelvis sits affects the spine. 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 one, then the spine will 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 choose to do on purpose.
Another 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 places their hand on the outside of their front foot. You may be able to send a hip back or arch the spine slightly to correct for this. But, it’s more relevant to see how the amount of spinal compensation connects back through the pelvis and down to the feet. What happens if you change the position of the feet? Go find out!
Don’t forget this is 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 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?