Ah, triangle pose (tri-kon-asana - three-angle-pose). It's one of the foundational postures of modern yoga (ancient yoga didn't involve any standing postures) and you will probably find it in nearly every yoga class you go to. Because of that, you'll probably find that different yoga styles approach this pose differently, and you may have seen different teachers doing quite different variations of this pose. So all that might leave the yoga student wondering: "which one is right?" Which is totally understandable, but it's not the right question.
The real question is: "which one is right for me?" Now that question, we can work with!
When exploring a yoga pose, whether it's a new one or one you've done a hundred times, there are three simple steps that I have found really helpful over the years.
1) Start with the foundation, and work your way up and out.
2) Remember: function over form!
3) Try different variations
Triangle: The foundation
The foundation of triangle pose is, of course, the feet, which form the base of the pose. The classic alignment cue for the feet is to turn your front foot forward 90 degrees, turn your back toes forward between 30 and 45 degrees, and align the heel of the front foot with the inner arch of the back foot. This is picture b), above.
However, triangle pose requires a fair degree flexibility and range of motion in the hip joint (not to mention flexibility in the hamstrings and groin), so if you are just starting out, if your hips are stiff, if you have trouble balancing (for example because you're pregnant!) or if you're recovering from, say, hip replacement surgery, you can make the base of the pose more stable by having your feet hip-width apart, as shown in a), above. Some teachers cue this by asking people to imagine that their feet are on "railroad tracks," so if you stand with your feet hip width apart, you can move the feet forward or backwards but not wider apart or closer together than hip width. This (a) is the most stable, safest placement for the feet.
Finally, a note on what not to do: don't let the back heel stray backwards of the mid-line of your body! This really destabilises the pose and puts unnecessary strain on the hip joint.
[There is actually a third option which is to keep the feet parallel - we'll talk more about that in the Variations section, below.]
Function over form
Ok, let's be honest. We have ALL seen the photos in the yoga magazines with people doing triangle pose with one palm resting flat on the ground. And even though we are trying to be all "one with where we are," we just can't help it: we WANT that hand to touch the ground. So we creep a bit lower, and a bit lower, and a bit lower, and even though we have kind of lost the stretch a bit, we finally arrive, triumphant, with our palm flat on the mat. Victory! Or not?
Well, have a look at the first picture, above, for an idea of what this kind of thinking actually looks like on the mat. It's a pretty typical illustration of how the mind plays tricks on us and gets in our way (what Patanjali called "false perception," (1.30))! We are confusing the form of the pose, a form that we have seen in a picture, with the actual function of the pose. Our ego drives us to achieve the form, and suddenly we are out of our bodies and our breaths and catapulted into a mentality of hand-to-floor-OR-DIE!, when in fact the function of the pose has absolutely nothing to do with where your hands are.
The actual functions of triangle pose are to stretch the front hamstring and psoas, and the upper side and back muscles (with a secondary stretch in the back hamstring and groin muscles).
So keeping that in mind, if we look at the first picture above, in my desire to get my palm to the floor, I have lost the lengthening stretch in the upper side and back. The photo shows just how far off my alignment I have come, all because of that pesky fixation on the floor! In order to get the stretch that I am supposed to be getting, I want my hips and shoulders to be more or less in line with back foot, creating a big lengthening stretch in the upper side-body. Depending on the day, the temperature, the time, and of course, on my body, I may want to explore a number of different variations to get that wonderful, therapeutic stretch from this pose.
Triangle pose probably has the most variations of any pose I know! ALL of the poses shown below achieve the function of the form. Once you've understood what the function of the pose is, try them all to see how the different variations feel, and which one gives YOU the best stretch.
PS - the "ticks" and "xs" below are definitely not a comprehensive list of recommendations or contra-indications for these poses... Just suggestions. We are all different! If you are recovering from an injury or have a condition like osteoporosis, work with an experienced teacher to find out what's right for you!
- Hand-to-shin variation: This variation is definitely the most versatile and accessible (no props required!). Simply place your hand on your shin, below the knee, as you extend sideways. To get a deeper stretch, bring the hand lower on the shin, towards the ankle. I don't recommend this variation if: you tend to hyper-extend the knee backwards (because the weight of the hand can make this worse), or if you have weak joints or osteoporosis (same reason).
- With a block: This variation closely resembles the previous one, but using the block is safer for the knee joint because you can put weight on the block, instead of on your knee! For that reason, this variation is excellent if you are very heavy set or if you are pregnant. Depending on the person and the height of the block, this variation might be suitable if you have osteopenia or osteoporosis, but because yoga blocks are generally quite low to the ground it does still require a fair range of motion in the hips, which is not suited to everyone. I would not recommend this variation if: you have a lower back injury, or if you have severe osteoporosis. If you have had hip replacement surgery and have recovered your normal range of motion, this would be a good variation, but not during the recovery phase.
- With a chair: This variation is, in a word, awesome. Using the chair creates a safe support for the stretch that makes it accessible to almost anyone. For extra stability and support (helpful if you are heavily pregnant or for older people who are afraid of falling) you can also do this stretch with your back against a wall to make it safe, supported, and truly sweet.
- Viniyoga triangle: This is a fantastic variation if you have a more limited range of motion in your hips. This might apply if you are still recovering from a hip replacement, if you have osteoporosis, or for any other reason. In this variation, your feet remain parallel and you simply stretch to the side. You lose the hamstring stretch, but there are other ways to get that. The side stretch is spot-on!
- Open chain triangle: This is a good option if you have strong joints and are generally injury-free, and want to add a strengthening aspect to your triangle pose. Doing triangle pose "open-chain" (without the support of the hand) means that the side-stretch also becomes load-bearing, so you are strengthening and stretching at the same time. This also creates a greater risk of injury, so I would not recommend this variation if: you have lower back injuries, if you have weak/injured joints or osteoporosis, if you are still recovering from a joint replacement. If you have hypermobile hips, I would not recommend this posture until you have some yoga experience and have built up the strength in your lower back and core, because otherwise you are likely to "hang" into your hips and put extra pressure on the joints. However once you have built up your strength and know how to support your joints, this is an excellent variation for you.
- Fully extended triangle: These versions are the ones you are most likely to see in books and magazines, and they are wonderful if you have a strong, flexible and healthy body, and no injuries or issues with your lower back, knees or hips. Just make sure that you are retaining the function of the posture as you work towards the form! Note that if you have hypermobility, generally the most extended versions of postures aren't recommended.
Yoga is about self-inquiry - so be curious!
Don't forget that yoga, fundamentally, is about self-inquiry. Use the poses as a chance to express your curiosity ("what happens if....") and try as many variations as you can. With each variation ask yourself: "how does this feel?" "what feels different?" "what feels good or not good?" And when you find the one that feels best for you in that moment (because everything changes, always!), be bold, and express yourself, no matter what everyone else around you is doing. Because at the end of the day, it's YOUR yoga.