Exploring Triangle and Revolved Triangle Pose
In the Ashtanga vinyasa system triangle and revolved triangle pose follow one another in the fundamental standing sequence. They are common, foundational postures in other styles of yoga practice as well. What can we learn from triangle and revolved triangle? What general practice or movement patterns might we have the opportunity to develop in triangle and revolved triangle? How do these postures evolve as they are practiced over time?
Triangle and revolved triangle pose could be seen as beginning the work of allowing movement to happen at the hip joints and more generally the pelvis. The pelvis could be considered our center in several ways. Our center of gravity is within the pelvis, so the pelvis could be considered the center of balance, or even the place that we balance above our feet below. The pelvis is also the center that we direct movement from (center of gravity post). If our physical structure is balanced around the pelvis, we can direct movement from that place.
So why free up the hips and pelvis in general? Why might yoga, in particular the Ashtanga vinyasa primary series, have an intention of working around the pelvis? Because it’s our center for both stability and movement. I’ve covered more specifically in other posts the muscles that allow and restrict the movements of the pelvis, like the gluteals, the deep six rotators, tensor fascia latae and the Iliotibial band, the hip flexors (quadriceps, iliacus, and psoas major), the adductors, the hamstrings, and even muscles that come from above to attach to the pelvis like the abdominals on the front and the erector spinae muscles on the back. Energetically, the lower three chakras are within the area of the pelvis and the pelvis supports the spine.
For all of these reasons then, it might make sense to begin a yoga asana journey with the pelvis. With triangle and revolved triangle we are doing just that.
We could also see in triangle and revolved triangle pose, opportunities to begin increasing the mobility of our spine. Why work towards mobility in the spine? We could consider working with our nervous system to be one intention of yoga practice. The spine houses the spinal cord and is, physiologically, an important part of our central nervous system. The spine is also surrounded by all of the muscles we use to control our breathing. When we bend the spine, we lengthen or contract many of these muscles. Energetically, this area of the body contains the upper chakras which run along the spinal axis. Movement around the spine with controlled breathing is a tool we can use to explore our nervous system. We can start that exploration in triangle and revolved triangle.
Between the movements of the front and back hip of both triangle and revolved triangle pose, we cover a wide range of movement around the pelvis and with the spine.
When we step one leg forward and fold into triangle pose, the hip joint of the front leg abducts, externally rotates, and flexes, relative to anatomical position. (You can picture anatomical position as a standing position similar to samasthiti.) When we do this, we’re putting pressure into and lengthening the adductors of the same leg. You might also feel a stretch through the hamstrings. Since we are flexing at that hip joint, we are also putting pressure into and lengthening the hamstrings. In the back leg, we have adducted at the hip joint. In the back leg then, we’re putting pressure into and lengthening the abductors, In this case the abductors that we are lengthening are primarily gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. These are muscles that contribute to both stabilizing and allowing movement to happen from the pelvis.
Revolved Triangle Pose
In revolved triangle, our emphasis moves. I consider this pose to be less about the pelvis and more about the spinal movement. Of course, what we do with our pelvis affects where the spine ends up. When we fold forward at the hip joints to initiate our revolved triangle pose, we are lengthening the hamstrings. From here we can choose to move the hips off the horizontal plane to a greater or lesser degree. If we fix the pelvis in place horizontally and then twist through the spine, then the amount of twisting we feel is a result of just the twist that is available to us through the spine. If we allow the hips to twist too, then the amount of twisting we feel will be as a result of both a rotation through the pelvis and spine.
There are many possible intentions that you could choose to emphasize in these two postures depending on where you are in your practice and where your work is. Postures are not static or frozen in time. The intention or intentions that seem most relevant often change as you continue to practice. If you understand yoga postures as poses that are in relationship to one another and build on each other, then some intentions might seem more primary. One thematic intention that continues throughout the standing postures as I understand them, is the balance between grounding (mula) and (uddiyana) lifting. It’s a balance between effort and relaxation.
Both feet are creating a grounding or mula element in triangle and revolved triangle by pressing into the floor. If we bind the toe in triangle, we can use resistance between reaching down with the toes and reaching up with the fingers to create length. In revolved triangle, we also have one hand pressing into the ground. Any body part that is placed on the ground offers us an opportunity for grounding. If it’s there I think we should use it. By actively pressing into our hand, we add another grounding element. Lengthening is created when we reach away with the upper arm.
Allowing movement from the pelvis
Depending on our body and how long we have been practicing, we may “feel” sensation or stretch in different parts of the body in triangle pose. If we are newer to practice, or just generally have tighter hamstrings, we might feel considerable stretch in the hamstrings in triangle pose and we might not feel that much “stretch” in the muscles around the hips. If we continue to work with the posture over months and years, where we feel a “stretch” will likely change. In this way the posture itself, if we are consistent about doing it with attention, will begin to create length in the muscles around the pelvis, even without us trying too hard to be “doing” something in the posture.
Increasing mobility in the spine and rib cage
An intention that you might work with in revolved triangle is increasing range of motion in the spine and increasing space for the breath. Once we have our foot foundation established and our pelvis balanced over our feet, we can work with the intention of creating length through the spine. As we twist, if we keep the pelvis horizontal in space, then we are working all of our length from the spine. If there are no reasons that you or a student needs to let the pelvis rotate, then this is one intention to work on in revolved triangle pose. If, however, someone is experiencing pain or discomfort around the SI joint(s), then you may need to let some rotation happen through the pelvis to avoid irritating these joints.
Working with the breath
Have you ever noticed that it feels harder to breathe in a twist? Why? When we twist through the spine we change the tension on the ribcage and muscles between the ribs, making it feel harder to get air in. When we work on consciously breathing into our rib cage in a twist, we lengthen the muscles used for breathing (or that restrict it). Over time, this evolves into a twist that feels both easier to access physically and easier to breathe in.
As in the post on standing forward bend, we can find older, traditional suggestions of specific physiological effects of triangle and revolved triangle pose. How accurate they are from a western medical perspective is hard to say, because as far as I know, no one has done research yet to confirm or deny them. The suggested effects of triangle and revolved triangle are interesting to consider, however.
“These asanas reduce fat around the waist. They strengthen the hips, and legs. Where deviations in postural alignment exist, they help to realign the skeletal system. The digestion is improved, constipation relieved, breathing difficulties and other respiratory problems are corrected. Problems in the throat are prevented and where existing improved. The nervous system is toned and the spinal cord strengthened.” – Pattabhi Jois in Lino Miele’s Astanga Yoga book.
Techniques and Restrictions
So when you have established what your intention is, consider what common restrictions could prevent the actions in the pose that you’re aiming for. What techniques might we use to work with those restrictions and evolve them over time?
You might notice that, so far, I’ve made no mention of “lining up the heels”, or insteps, or “stacking the hips”, or any variation of often used verbal cues for triangle or revolved triangle pose. You don’t see them because I don’t think those of cues, “You should always align x with y” will best address each student’s individual practice or individual expression of a pose. Those cues can often be arbitrary and unhelpful for truly evolving the pose over time. When you have an idea that you are”supposed” to do something in a pose, an important question to ask is: Why? What is the intention you are working with?
The Foot Foundation
Let’s start with the intention of grounding or creating a stable foundation. Our foundation when we’re talking about standing postures is usually our feet. In the case of revolved triangle, we could also include the hand that is on the floor in our foundation. Our foundation needs to be stable if we are going to balance anything on top of it. In triangle and revolved triangle, where we place our foundation, our feet, impacts our ability to move the pelvis. In turn, where our hips are placed impacts our ability to move the spine. It makes sense to me then, that we start with the base, our feet, and work up.
How we place our feet should create a stable base for our pose and allow for movement above our base. If our hips are very open, then we might line up the feet heel of back foot to heel of front foot in triangle pose and that might feel stable and allow for movement at the hip joints. Similarly, if our hips are very open, in revolved triangle we might line up heel of front foot with instep of back foot. Often however, I find that students’ hips are not open enough for those common alignment suggestions to support stability and function.
For many students the narrow base that is created by lining up the heels in triangle pose, or lining up the front heel with back instep in revolved triangle pose, does not provide enough stability. When I see a student wobbling and struggling with balance the first two things I check on in the feet are:
- Have they crossed their feet too much? (front heel inline with middle of the back foot)
- Have they turned their foot forward to compensate for the tension in their hip and as a result, their toes aren’t able to help them balance?
If I find either of these two things, I adjust them to see if that makes the difference.
When students find themselves wobbling and compensate by tensing up already tight muscles, this gets in the way of these students working with the other intentions of lengthening the gluteals to begin accessing more movement around the pelvis. It prevents working with the intention of lengthening through the spine and torso as there is no stable foundation to reach away from. I encourage students instead, to step the feet a little bit wider apart and find the place where their pelvis is balanced over their foot foundation. From that stable base, they can reach up and lengthen through the top arm and fingers. As hamstrings, calves, and muscles around the pelvis all open over time, the optimal placement of the feet may change.
A number of students also ask me what the “right” length of their stance is. My general rule is that I look for the spine to be more or less parallel to the floor. If the feet are too close to one another, the spine will be angled down, more like a standing forward bend. If this is the case, I lengthen their stance to get the spine closer to parallel with the floor.
There are of course other factors here. If the hamstrings are really tight, that longer stance may be a problem because of that tension. If the arms are short relative to leg and torso, it’s hard to make the spine parallel with the floor and it will be angled down more. Keep these and other smaller things in mind if you’re trying to help students get into a comfortable place with this complicated posture.
What else might restrict our ability to access the muscles around the pelvis/hips? A common restriction is the hamstrings. In fact, if your hamstrings are on the tight side or you’re newer to yoga practice, you might not even feel anything lengthening in the gluteals, rotators, etc., because the hamstrings are in the way. You might be feeling lots of stretching in the hamstrings though!
So, how to work with the tension in the hamstrings?
- Move in and out of both triangle and revolved triangle pose with soft knees. Put a little bend in the knees as you are entering and exiting the postures. Once you’re in the posture, then work to engage the quadriceps to straighten the legs as you’re able.
- If the hamstrings don’t allow you to reach down with the hand or fingers and maintain a stable foundation, you can put a block down where your hand would go on the floor so you have something to press out of to create length. As the hamstrings open, you can move the block to the shorter side and eventually take it away.
- Practice and wait. With time and consistent practice, the hamstrings will open. Where you feel tissues stretching and lengthening will evolve and change over time.
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David explains why the key to lowering into chaturanga is doing two things at once: maintaining an active serratus anterior and relaxing the triceps and deltoids.