SIDE TO SIDE
by Julie Gudmestad
Published in Yoga Journal, September 2007
By keeping both sides of your body long and even in Triangle Pose, you’ll strengthen your core and feel the freedom of a deep twist.
OF ALL THE STANDING poses, Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) is the one I’ve spent the most time working on over the years, both in my own home practice and in the classes I teach. I think of it as a foundational pose—Triangle teaches you many things that you can apply to other poses. By keeping your legs, torso, and head in one plane, you improve your body’s awareness of how it moves through space. And you learn how to use the legs and feet to establish a strong foundation, which is imperative in all the standing poses. Triangle also helps strengthen your legs, hips, and core muscles—specifically the quadratus lumborum, transversus abdominis, and obliques—which support the spine and pelvis. When your core muscles are strong and supple, they help protect against back strain and more serious back injuries. No wonder, then, that Triangle is such a great staple, even if you’ve been practicing yoga for many years.
This column will focus on one of Triangle’s unique lessons: keeping the two sides of your torso long and even, which will heighten your awareness of the sides of your body and strengthen the muscles there. You should keep the sides of your body long and even in all standing poses, but especially in the sideways standing poses like Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), and the revolved versions of each. When you work this way, the muscles of your abdomen and side body will have to engage and lift against the pull of gravity. Some styles of yoga allow sidebending in these poses, in which the top ribs and waist become long and bow upward in an arc while the bottom side shortens, but it’s best to practice the “even length” style if you want to gain strength.
To feel how Triangle works your core, try practicing it next to a shelf or ledge about three feet high. Stand with your right foot about two feet from the ledge and pointing toward it. Reach both arms out into a T shape. As you begin to move into the pose, reach your right arm out fully toward the ledge, lengthening the right side of your ribs and waist away from your right hip. Rest your hand on the ledge for a few breaths while you absorb the feeling of a long right waist. From there, move your right hand down to your shin, ankle, a block, or a chair seat. Be sure that your hand isn’t too low, or your right waist will sidebend. Work with a mirror (or helper) to confirm that your right waist is long, and you’ll see that the left ribs and waist also form a flat line from hip to armpit, instead of bowing upward.
To really work your side-body muscles in Triangle, don’t put any weight on the bottom hand. Just point down toward the floor with your right arm, hand, and fingers. As you lengthen your right ribs away from the hip, the left side muscles will have to work hard. You’ll also avoid scrunching your right shoulder up into your neck, which happens when you lean on your hand. Eventually, the right hand should be lightly supported by your leg, a block, or the floor, with a sense that you’re reaching down through the right arm as much as you’re reaching up through the left arm.
WHICH MUSCLES WORK TO make all of this happen? The core muscles that keep your left side flat and your right side long are the muscles that lie between the pelvis and rib cage on the left side. One of them is the quadratus lumborum (QL), which originates along the back rim of the pelvis and inserts into the bottom rib directly above its origin and into the adjacent transverse processes (the bony projections that stick out of the sides of each lumbar vertebra). When it contracts, the QL pulls the left ribs and pelvis toward each other. So, if you’re in Trikonasana on the right side and you contract the left QL, it will pull your left ribs toward the left side of your pelvis, making your left waist and ribs flatten instead of rounding up. When the top side of your torso flattens, the bottom side will have space to lengthen. The left QL will then contract isometrically (meaning that the muscle works but doesn’t change length) to hold the position.
The internal and external obliques, which form a girdle-like cross on the front of the abdomen, assist the QL in keeping the side body long in Trikonasana. The external obliques originate on the front lower ribs and insert at several points, including into heavy connective tissue in the center of the abdomen. However, the muscle fibers run diagonally toward the opposite front pelvis. The internal obliques originate on the front pelvis and nearby ligaments, then run diagonally up toward the opposite lower ribs. Each of the four oblique muscles is fan-shaped, and some of the fibers on each side of the abdomen run nearly vertically between the ribs and pelvis. These vertical fibers of the obliques assist the QL in pulling the ribs and pelvis toward each other.
The obliques serve another important role in Trikonasana and other sideways standing poses. When you tip sideways, the combination of gravity and tight hips can turn your front body toward the floor. But because the obliques form the diagonal cross on the abdomen, they have good leverage to rotate the torso against the pull of gravity. For example, when you do Trikonasana to the right, you’ll need to contract the right external and left internal obliques. Together they’ll turn your torso to the left, which is what you need to keep your navel and breastbone facing the wall in front of you instead of toward the floor. If you tend to hyperextend your lower back, use the obliques to provide one more important action for you: When engaged, they help support your internal organs and move them toward your lumbar spine with the help of the transversus abdominis (the deepest layer of abdominal muscles). This action in turn helps lengthen the lower back so that it won’t hyperextend, or overarch.
Lengthen to Twist
TRIKONASANA ALSO TEACHES AN important kinesthetic lesson that applies to any twisting pose: The spine will twist much more freely when it’s uncompressed and in its normal curves. For example, if you’re in a seated twist, your spine will rotate much more freely if you sit tall than if you slump, which compresses the front body. Likewise, if one hip is higher than the other, the spine will bend sideways, compressing one side. In Trikonasana, you’ll learn how freeing it feels to coordinate twisting the spine and torso while keeping your side waists long and even.
Put it Together
TO PUT ALL THE pieces together, stand on your mat with your feet wide, at least three and a half to four feet apart. Placing your feet too close will limit the pelvis’s capacity to tip to the right, and you’ll end up sidebending. Turn your right foot out and your left foot in. Keep your legs strong and knees straight as you tip the pelvis to the right and lengthen the right ribs away from the right thigh and place your right hand down. If you start to shorten your right side, stop and place your hand on a block. Remember, when your spine is long on both sides, with no sidebending, it can twist more deeply. Your obliques will be working as you turn your waist, lower ribs, and chest away from the floor. Once your torso is turned, rotate your neck and turn your head toward the ceiling. When your torso faces the wall in front of you instead of the floor, you’ll be able to look up at your hand with less strain on your neck.
Trikonasana is excellent for working the QL and the obliques, because it asks them to stabilize the torso and support the internal organs and lower back. As a result, you’ll deeply rotate the torso and spine. The strengthened muscles will help support and stabilize your spine and pelvis, including your sacroiliac joints; otherwise, the bending, reaching, and lifting you do in your day-to-day activities could cause strain in these areas. When your torso is long and strong, you’ll be able to go about your daily business with less risk of injury to your back.