I have written a lot about external hip rotation and its relationship to half lotus, lotus, and other poses. But I haven’t written much about internal hip rotation. In the Ashtanga practice, we have a couple of seated poses that require internal rotation. Triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana appears in the primary series of Ashtanga. And, krounchasana is found in the intermediate series of Ashtanga. Recently, a student wrote into our “your questions” forum and asked some good questions about those poses. These internal hip rotation poses can be just as challenging for many students as poses like half lotus or janu sirsasana where we are doing external hip rotation. So, in this article, I’ll unpack the anatomy of triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana and krounchasana and I’ll answer the questions posed by the student about these poses.
An Ashtanga student wrote in and asked these questions:
“My question is with regard to triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana and, in a more general sense, pertaining to the internal rotation it requires. I am relatively young and mobile—bhekasana being the most recent pose I have been given by my teacher. However, triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana (and indeed krounchasana) is still a pose with which I feel pretty uncomfortable. The tension I feel in the pose (hip, knee, leg area in general) seems to be changing at a rate MUCH slower than that of all other changes within my body.
For instance, I am able to fully fold forward but only if I veer very much off centre. Similarly, I often roll up my towel and prop myself up a little on the extended side in order to aid alignment. Should one, for instance, sacrifice the amount of forward fold for alignment’s sake? How should one judge both the amount of space needed between the legs and how deeply folded the calf must be in relation to the upper leg? I have had teachers tell me that as far as poses go this can often be a challenging one for many years. And although this does not worry me in the least, I would love to hear your opinion on the specific aspects of the pose and all it entails.”
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Why do internal hip rotation-type poses?
Those are great questions! But let’s start by talking about why we might want to do poses that internally rotate the hip generally. A full range of motion of our hip joints and mobility of our hips in all directions supports functional movement. Most styles of yoga asana include a number of variations of poses that require external rotation of the hips. Including at least a little bit of internal rotation helps lengthen tissues in a different way and works with a different range of motion.
Anatomy of triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana and krounchasana
One part of the anatomy of both of these poses is internal rotation of the femur at the hip joint on the bent leg side of the pose. The knee on the bent leg side is flexed. And we do a little internal rotation of the lower leg at the knee joint in order to place our leg and foot to the outside of our hip. If we didn’t do any rotation at the knee joint, we’d be sitting right on our foot with our leg underneath our thigh. From there the two postures differ a little bit.
In triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana, we fold forward at both hip joints into a forward bend. So we are flexing both hip joints. However, in krounchasana, we sit up and bring the straight leg to us. So, we are deeply flexed at the hip joint of the straight leg, but closer to neutral in the hip position in the sagittal plane on the bent leg side of the pose. Lastly, we add a little bit of spinal flexion in both poses as we approach our end of range of motion for hip flexion when we fold forward (in triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana) or bring the straight leg to us (krounchasana).
Like most seated poses with one leg straight and one leg in some other shape (often variations of external rotation), my perspective is that the primary intention in these poses is around what’s happening in the bent leg. Yes, we will still be stretching the hamstrings in the straight leg. But I consider that a secondary intention, especially in triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana. If we’ve evolved in our practice to the point that we’re working on krounchasana, lengthening our hamstrings might not even be a significant intention anymore for us. We might instead already have long flexible hamstrings and be more interested in grounding and stabilizing to support that more extreme flexibility.
Why are these two poses often challenging?
The hip, knee, and foot/ankle form a kinetic chain. Tension at the hip joints affects what happens at the leg and ultimately how much forward bending we can do. Our genetic tendency toward a more knee valgus pattern (knock-kneed) versus a more knee varus pattern (bow-legged) can influence how easy it is for us to take the folded leg shape. The tension in our tissues that support those patterns can affect how accessible this shape feels too. We have to be very open at the hip joints in the direction of internal rotation for both sit bones to go down in these two poses. That may take some time. Or, for some bodies, it may never happen.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the size of the calf muscles can matter here. Large calf muscles can restrict the depth of knee flexion. If the knee doesn’t flex as much, the sit bone on the flexed knee side is higher and tilts the person over toward the straight leg.
Start with the more foundational pose, triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana, before leaning too hard into krounchasana. Often (although not always) it does make anatomical sense that certain postures are found in the primary series and a more complex pose builds on that foundation in the intermediate or advanced sequences. This is one of those situations.
Grounding the pelvis in triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana
Often the first challenge is working with limitations in length in several groups of muscles, including those around the hip, your quadriceps, and your hamstrings. Students often feel like they’re tipping over to one side before they even start to fold forward due to the combination of required actions in this pose. The student who wrote in asking about these poses mentioned a great tool, which I often suggest, which is tucking a small towel or short block under the hip of the straight leg in this pose. That can help balance weight in the pelvis and it can feel like a more grounded place to start from. Then from there, you can fold forward.
Students often ask whether both sit bones need to be on the floor in triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana. While there is a general intention of reaching the sit bone of the bent knee side toward the floor, it may or may not get there. So, no, both sit bones may not be firmly planted on the floor. But, that said, if you’re listing so far to one side that you’ve lost all sense of the ground, you’re not really doing the pose. That’s when supporting the hip of the straight leg can help create that sense of connection with the ground so that you have something to build the forward-bending part of the pose on top of.
Additionally, if you are someone with large calf muscles, it can be helpful to move the calf out of the way. However, be careful not to overdo that. That can also create excess internal rotation and put pressure into the knee.
Advancing to work on krounchasana
Why is krounchasana harder? We’re asking more from the forward bend part of the pose. It’s a deeper forward bend and we’re working with gravity in a different way. Krounchasana adds another layer of challenge by orienting away from the floor. We’re not passively folding with gravity. Instead, we’re resisting gravity (a theme throughout the intermediate series of Ashtanga) by bringing our leg to us to forward bend in the air. It requires more length in the hip extensors (your hamstrings) of your straight leg to bring the leg to your torso. And it requires more length from the superficial hip flexors (rectus femoris primarily) and the knee extensors (all four quadriceps) of the bent leg in order to tuck one leg back and sit up.
Just like external rotation, any direction of rotation in the hip, external or internal, will get reflected into the knee in some way. It’s a kinetic chain. So, if you have knee issues, pain, pressure, meniscus tear, etc., then you will want to exercise some caution with triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana, krounchasana, or other poses that incorporate internal hip rotation, especially if the pose also includes deep flexion and rotation of the knee joint.
Move slowly when going into the pose and adjust your position if you feel pain or even pressure going into the knee joint of the bent leg. Sometimes folding the knee around a small towel or placing a small towel under the knee to lift it up slightly can eliminate pressure going into the knee. Allowing the knee to sit in a wider position can also sometimes reduce pressure in the knee. If you are someone who sometimes feels pressure in the knee in one or both of these poses, experiment to find out what works for you.