As yoga teachers we know that the way we move in and out of the pose is just as important as what we do while holding the pose. It couldn’t be more true for Utthita Trikonasana. The way you move into the pose will determine which parts of the body get engaged, which parts get stressed and what your entire experience in the pose will be.
The most common way of moving into Utthita Trikonasana is by hinging at the front hip. In fact, this is so widespread that oftentimes the teachers don’t even question whether or not it is the best idea. Is it?
Let’s analyze the following instructions from the Yoga Journal website and try to understand the reasoning behind them:
“Exhale and extend your torso to the right directly over the plane of the right leg, bending from the hip joint, not the waist… Rotate the torso to the left, keeping the two sides equally long. Let the left hip come slightly forward and lengthen the tailbone toward the back heel.”
1. Why should be bend from the hip joint and not the waist? What is wrong with flexing the spine? Here we are not talking about rounding the spine forward, but flexing it laterally, which is a legitimate movement of the spine. Your thoracic spine can bend sideways about 20 degrees and your lumbar spine can bend sideways about 20 degrees as well (on average). As we discussed in an earlier post, lateral bending is useful for the spine. We don’t do much of it in the daily life, and yoga practice is an excellent place to work with it, so why would we want to avoid it at all costs here? If you decide to “hinge from the hip”, you will be resting the weight of the entire upper body over your right hip and pulling very strongly on the hamstrings and inner thigh muscles. This also increases the risk of collapsing into the hip joint. If you flex your spine laterally, the weight of the body will be distributed more evenly between the spine, the hip and the front leg.
2. Why should we keep both sides equally long? I am not advocating collapsing on the bottom side, we would still want to lengthen the spine. But having the bottom side shorter then the top side is perfectly normal and simply means that the muscles on the top side of the torso (obliques, quadratus lumborum (QL), illiacus, tensor fasciae latae (TFL) and iliotibial band (IT band) are stretching, while the same muscles on the bottom side are contracting. By “keeping both sides equally long” you will shift the emphasis to the hips mostly and forgo all the benefits for the lateral structures of the torso.
In addition, in your effort to lengthen the bottom side of the torso and lengthen the tailbone toward the back heel you are likely to push the bottom hip deep into the socket which will encourage your pelvis to tip forward (rotating to the right). At the same time you are rotating your torso to the left (including your spine and sacrum) which is the opposite direction. This creates a pull on your sacroiliac joints. It wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t bearing weight in this position, but you are, in fact you are bearing most of your upper body weight on that right hip, which means that your right SI joint is loaded while you are tugging on it by encouraging the pelvis to go one way and the spine to go the other way. Do it enough times and you will destabilize the joint.
On the other hand, if you focus on lengthening the spine without pulling your bottom hip in and move only as far down as your body is willing to go, you will be placing much less stress on the SI joint. Even then, if somebody has acute SI joint issues, we usually recommend that you keep the feet parallel when bending sideways to take the external rotation of the hip out of the equation completely. The range of motion will be more limited, but your sacrum will be more stable.
So the viniyoga instructions for Utthita Trikonasana will look like this:
Keeping the shoulders in the same plane as the hips, bend sideways to your left and place your left hand on your left leg. On the inhalation lengthen the spine and lift the chest away from the navel, with the exhalation contract the abdomen creating stability. Continue to breathe like that.
I believe that this kind of description is much more user-friendly and involves much less subtle body manipulations that are not necessarily useful for most practitioners.
How do you teach Utthita Trikonasana and why?
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