Many years ago I was in a workshop with Rodney Yee, and one of the students asked,
"Rodney, can you tell me the right way to do trikonasana? It seems that in every class I take the teacher says something different, and I'm no longer sure of the correct way to practice."
I was expecting him to lead us into an exploration of the most skillful way to practice, but instead he asked her to show him one way to practice trikonasana and then to tell him the benefits of practicing it that way. And then he asked for another example, and again asked about the benefits of practicing that way. The point he was making was that there isn't a right or wrong way to practice trikonasana or any other pose for that matter... but different choices within each posture would have pros and cons. This was eye opening for me at the time, because I, like most new yoga students, assumed that yoga postures were handed down from the Yoga Gods and that there was a right way to practice them in order to derive the most benefit on a physical and energetic level. However, what he said made total sense and I loved learning a point of view on the subject that seemed so non-dogmatic. In this post, we'll look at the Iyengar and Satchidananda versions of trikonasana and explore the benefits, challenges and considerations of each.
Let's first look at BKS Iyengar' expression of trikonasana, as presented in Light on Yoga. Of course, the way that this posture is currently practiced in the Iyengar tradition might vary somewhat, but in the image of Mr. Iyengar to the right we can make some observations and discuss the benefits and challenges of the alignment choices as they are being expressed.
There is a long stride with strong lines of energy through the arms, legs and spine
The posture as a whole seems energetic and expansive
The Back Leg & Foot
The back foot is inverted and angled inward slightly,
The anterior aspect of the back thigh and knee seem to be facing the side-wall, and the knee is straight
The back thigh is relatively neutral at the hip joint (i.e., not extended or flexed, not laterally or medially rotated, not abducted or adducted)
Note: while the back thigh appears to be abducted at the hip joint, relative to the position of the pelvis, which has laterally tilted to the left, it is actually neutral in the frontal plane
The Front Leg & Foot
The front foot is pointing straight forward and is significantly plantar flexed
The front thigh and knee are facing straight forward, and the knee is straight (or perhaps ever so slightly flexed)
The front thigh is laterally rotated and deeply flexed at the hip joint
The Axial Body
The pelvis has laterally tilted to the left at the front hip joint, and appears to be turned slightly toward the floor (adding depth to the left groin)
The trunk seems mostly aligned with the pelvis, with length in both the right and left side waist
The spine appears to be slightly extended (i.e., in a mild back bend), and is rotating to the right
The neck and head are also rotating to the right, and the cervical spine is in line with the thoracic spine
The Upper Body
Both arms are abducted 90 degrees at the shoulder joints
The top arm is reaching upward strongly
The bottom hand is on the floor, and the bottom arm is bearing weight
Based on the all of the above joint actions, I would say that the main musculoskeletal and energetic benefits of Iyengar's trikonasana include:
increases the flexibility of inner thigh and hamstrings of the front leg (specifically, adductor magnus, semimembranosis and semitendonosis)
strengthens the muscles along the top side-waist (quadratus lumborum, the erector spinae, and the external and internal abdominal obliques)
strengthens the muscles that rotate the trunk and neck (oblique abdominals, erector spinae, multifidus, rotatores, SCM, splenius capitis and a few others)
the long stride, spinal extension and expansion across the chest through the arms makes this a very energetic expression of trikonasana, likely to stimulate the nervous system, alleviate lethargy and elevate the mood
With such a long stride, there is a significant amount of plantar flexion required in the front foot, so if the ankle dorsiflexors are tight then it will be difficult to press the ball of the foot down.
In addition, because adductor magnus and the medial hamstrings of the front leg are significantly more lengthened it could be difficult for some students to laterally tilt the pelvis over the front leg.
And if the pelvis cannot laterally tilt over the front leg, there will be considerably more stretch on the adductors of the back inner thigh... which could pull the inner thigh/knee toward the floor and stress the medial collateral ligament.
With a longer stride, balance will also be more of a challenge for less experienced students.
Swami Satchidananda is the founder of The Integral Yoga Institute (the IYI), where I first began my study and practice of yoga back in the early 90s. The image of him on the right is from the book that I received in the Hatha I teacher training, entitled Integral Yoga Hatha. Trikonasana is practiced very differently today at the IYI, with a longer stride, the foot pointing forward, and generally with more "Iyengar-like" alignment cues. But this variation is probably still out there being practiced by old-school yogis within the Integral and Sivananda styles, where students might be cued to "square the hips toward the side wall" in order to emphasize the stretch along the side body.
There is a very short stride with a strong curved line of energy along the outer hip, top side waist and arm
There doesn't seem to be much attention given to the alignment of the feet, and many modern postural yoga teachers would probably take issue with the fact that the front foot is turned in and the back foot turned out (although an argument can and will be made for the merit of this alignment below)
The top arm is reaching overhead alongside the ear (versus toward the ceiling), and the gaze seems to be toward forward toward the hand
The Back Leg & Foot
Due to the shorter stance, the back foot is relatively neutral with regard to inversion/eversion, and is turned out slightly
The back thigh is adducted at the hip joint (relative to the pelvis)
The Front Leg & Foot
The front foot is pointing inward significantly (about 45 degrees)
The front thigh is medially rotated at the hip joint, such that the anterior aspect of the thigh and knee are pointing the same direction as the foot
Relative to the pelvis, the front thigh has abducted slightly... but is not really flexed to any significant degree
The Axial Body
The pelvis seems to be somewhat square to the side, contra-laterally tilting at the back hip (tilting away from the back thigh, increasing the adduction of the back hip), and contributing to the abduction of the front hip
The trunk is laterally flexed to the left and slightly flexed
The head and neck are extended
The Upper Body
The bottom hand is braced on anterior aspect of the ankle
The top arm is reaching toward the front of the mat, alongside the ear, along the same arc as the side waist
Based on the all of the above joint actions, I would say that the main musculoskeletal and energetic benefits are:
increases the flexibility of the outer hip/thigh muscles, including the gluteus medius and minimus, gluteus maximus (superior fibers), TFL and iliotibial band
increases the flexibility of the top side waist muscles, including the quadratus lumborum, internal and external abdominal obliques and erector spinae muscles
increases the flexibility of the latissimus dorsi and posterior fibers of the deltoids (top arm)
mild stretch for the adductors and medial hamstrings of the front thigh
the shorter stride makes the pose a little more manageable from both a balance and flexibility perspective
When I first learned this variation at the IYI, I think I got caught in a transition between the way Satchidananda is shown practicing this posture and the evolution of the posture to be more "Iyengar-like." We were still taught a shorter stride and there was an emphasis on "squaring the pelvis to the side," however, we also received the cue to point the front foot straight forward. This is problematic, because if you attempt to square the pelvis to the side while at the same time pointing the foot straight forward, you will either create compression in the front hip between the neck of the femur and the posterior aspect of the acetabular labrum, or you'll create excessive torque in the front knee. Try this and see for yourself, but make sure that you don't work it too hard! By allowing the front foot to turn inward slightly, as Satchidananda does, you avoid these biomechanical stressors and can more safely work to square the hips to the side... which lends to a greater stretch along the outer hip and side waist.
CONCLUSION: THERE IS NO "RIGHT" WAY!
I only chose to illustrate two different ways of practicing trikonasana... but of course there are countless others! Just looking at variations within the Iyengar version of trikonasana, you could:
place the hand on the shinbone, which would center the upper body over the lower leg, accommodate less flexible hamstrings
press the back of the hand into the medial aspect of the tibia, which would increase the isometric contraction of the side waist muscles and the eccentric contraction of the front hamstrings
place the hand on the inside of the leg (as opposed to the outside, as shown in the Iyengar picture), which would allow you to leverage the forearm against the inner calf to assist the rotation of the trunk toward the side wall and be somewhat strengthening for the posterior deltoid and rotator cuff muscles
wrap the top arm around the back to stretch the front deltoids and the clavicular fibers of pectoralis major
When all is said and done, I think that there is a lot of value in practicing several different variations of trikonasana in order to diversify the practice and receive more benefit from the posture. I also think it's good to know what benefits that you're going for when you practice, so that you can tweak the posture in a way that allows you to more fully attain those benefits.
As a final note, while the Iyengar variation is my go to, if you've never practiced a Satchidananda trikonasana (as pictured above), it feels fantastic and I highly recommend that you practice and teach it from time to time ;-)