Parivrtta Trikonasana was on the agenda in Level 2 classes recently. “I found the pose disorientating” said one of my students. At first I felt caught on the hop by this observation, then I was intrigued. I remembered something that Amy Matthews once said: “If it’s not a question of survival, confusion is not a problem“. Of course confusion and disorientation are not quite the same thing but there are parallels. I think Amy was suggesting that a degree of confusion (or disorientation), can give rise to questions and useful insight.
In the class I also sought to clarify a difficulty that many yoga practitioners have when practising Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle). They may struggle if the homolateral developmental movement pattern is not embodied/integrated. In the ‘belly crawling’ manifestation of homolateral movement pattern, there needs to be a push from the back foot in order to move forwards. The push action from the back foot initiates a lengthening of the torso on that side. (See Homolateral Crawling video below). This action also needs to happen in Parivrtta Trikonasana – both sides of the torso need to lengthen before rotation of the spine is attempted, but it’s common for the back heel to lift a little, along with shortening of the torso on that side. It’s a tricky pose!
In this blog and in the video below, I describe preparation for optimal practice of Parivrtta Trikonasana.
Preparatory exercises/asana – in any yoga practice it’s important to begin by checking in with the breath and becoming present. The spine also needs gentle movement to prepare for more challenging asana. Apanasana is a suggestion for this, Cat/Cow also work well. The muscles in the backs of the legs might need ‘lengthening’ – as in Supta Padangusthasana. Shoulders will also need gentle limbering. The Sea Anemone exercise shown here is great for this:
Two approaches to rotation of the spine – are demonstrated briefly in the video below ‘HOW TO SEQUENCE TOWARDS PARIVRTTA TRIKONASANA.’ The approaches are described in more detail in the inquiries described here and are incorporated into the instructions for practising Parivrtta Trikonasana.
The depiction of the curves of the spine shows there are 7 vertebrae in the cervical spine (neck), 12 vertebrae in the thoracic spine (upper/middle back), 5 vertebrae in the lumbar spine (lower back). It’s useful to remember that the cervical spine has the potential for up to around 50 degrees rotation, the thoracic spine – up to around 35 degrees rotation, the lumbar spine – up to around 5 degrees. There are implications from this information when doing twist poses a) we need to take care not to do too much with the neck, b) we need to remember that the lumbar spine isn’t designed to twist – rotation is limited. For a healthy spine therefore, it’s helpful to find rotation in the thoracic spine and to pay attention to any areas of restriction there.
First inquiry: rotation of the spine from the top vertebra down – in order to sense the location of the top vertebra of your spine, bring a finger, or couple of fingers to the base of your skull. If you nod your head, the location may be easier to feel. Another method (not for the squeamish) is to make sure your head is level and then put a finger to the back of your throat, you should feel the topmost vertebra there. So your top vertebra is roughly level with your mouth.
Now sit with legs folded – in Sukhasana. This is ‘easy pose’, so make sure it is easy and you have sufficient support from props for your spine to be in a neutral position. Allow the curves of your spine to be present. (NB If you ‘lift and lengthen’ to prepare for a sitting twist, you will in fact inhibit your ability to rotate. This is because the muscles around your spine will be working to ‘lengthen your spine’ rather than co-operating with each other to support rotation. In addition, if you’ve done the ‘lifting and lengthening’ action, your neck/head may become a little fixed.)
Have your arms out in front of you now – this is because we want to leave the arms out of the equation until last. It’s easy to pull the spine into a sitting twist with force from the arms and hands – we don’t want to do this! So arms are out in front and have eyes closed, once you understand the inquiry. Bring your awareness to the topmost vertebrae of your spine, make a tiny turn to your right from there. Then continue to sequence the rotation down through your spine, with small movements. Notice if there are places that feel a little stuck, ‘dark’ or ‘foreign’. Pause in those places – they may become more available to rotation with awareness. Allow your arms to follow the rotation movement until you can readily bring your left hand to your right knee, right fingertips to the floor behind you. Open your eyes and see where you got to. If your hands didn’t arrive at those places it doesn’t matter – be accepting of what your spine is managing – take care not to force the rotation. Return to centre in reverse – i.e. sequencing movement upwards. Then repeat to your left. Pause. Notice if you rotated more readily to one side than the other?
Second inquiry: moving into a twist from the soft front of the body (the organs) – still in Sukhasasana, take a few moments to check in with your breath. Feel the breath movement in your belly, is there a feeling of ease or any restriction there? Visualise the movement of your diaphragm up and down. As your lungs fill, can you sense your diaphragm moving down? As your lungs empty, can you sense your diaphragm moving up? The free movement of your breath/diaphragm gives the organs of your abdomen a gentle massage. As your diaphragm moves down, your guts, stomach and liver are subtly compressed. As your diaphragm moves up, your organs are released from the compression. Next check in with the breath movement into the sides of your ribcage – notice how your lungs are feeling. Do they feel expansive – filling the space within the bony container of your ribcage? Or does it feel as if they’re hiding away in there?
Now we’ll move on to the sitting twist part of the inquiry. Move your left hand to your right knee, your right hand behind you with fingertips to the floor. Breathe into your belly, then as you exhale, roll your belly around to your right. Take more breaths if you need to. Then breathe into your upper abdomen and continue the twist from there – spiralling the soft front of your body around to the right. Finally, bring breath awareness into your right lung, all the way up to your right collar bone, and continue spiralling around. Allow your neck and head to follow. Release. Then practise the twist from the soft front of your body – around to the left. Pause and take a few moments to notice how you feel.
Preparatory asana continued – in the video I also demonstrate Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana, as a useful precursor to Parivrtta Trikonasana. Once into Wide Leg Forward Fold, the aim is to have a sense of the spine as an axis between head and tail, followed by a spiral of the soft front body upwards to initiate the twist – with the arm following. This is the same principle as the second twist inquiry. The reason for this approach is so the movement can initiate from the centre/belly, rather than from the shoulder/arm. It’s common for yoga practitioners to try to bring themselves into this twist (and into Parivrtta Trikonasana) with force from the shoulder, which is not pleasant for the shoulder and inhibits openness in the pose. Many students need props in order to enjoy a feeling of openness once arriving into the pose and for the health of the spine.
The next exercise in the video is where I’m showing alignment for feet, legs and pelvis in Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1). NB The feet need to be a little wider from side to side than in Virabhadrasana 2 and the back foot needs to turn in further towards the midline, thus enabling the pelvis to orientate forwards. Useful reference points are ‘alignment of heads of femurs to heels’. In Parsvottanasana the alignment of feet and pelvis are similar to Virabhadrasana 1 but the legs are straight. The peak pose of the sequence – Parivrtta Trikonasana also requires this foundation.
Practising Parivrtta Trikonasana – the stance remains as for Parsvottanasana but a little more length between the back foot and front foot might create more space for spinal rotation in the ultimate expression of the pose. The spine needs to remain neutral in order to rotate safely, for this reason many yoga practitioners will have a better experience of Parivrtta Trikonasana with a block or brick placed to the inside of the front foot.
Here’s how: with your right foot facing forwards and left foot turned in towards the mid line, make sure your pelvis is orientating forwards. Both legs need to be straight. Have your heels aligned with heads of the femurs (thigh bones). As you inhale, raise your left arm and lengthen the left side of your body. As you exhale, make a tiny turn from the top vertebrae and then sequence rotation down your spine (as in first inquiry). The movement only needs to travel as far down as your upper back – it’s just the beginnings of rotation. Inhale, then on an exhalation, fold forwards from the hip joints. Release your right sitting bone back as you move forwards and down. Bring your left hand or finger tips to the block/brick. Now bring your right hand to your belly, pause as you feel your breath movement here. Sense the connection between your head and tail and visualise your spine as an axis between your head and tail. Inhale, and then as you exhale, spiral the soft front of your body up and around to the right (as in second inquiry). Last of all, raise your right arm up to vertical. Breathe! Bend your right knee when ready to exit the pose.
More advanced version – the full pose begins as above but the left hand/fingertips will be placed to the outside of the right foot. You will need to be sufficiently flexible in the backs of your legs, hip joints, spine, shoulders. Make sure that you’re not forcing yourself into the full pose – when yoga practitioners do this, they may create torque in the places of least resistance. These are examples of the ‘places’: knees – may hyperextend and twist a little; spine – may flex instead of remaining neutral – along with too much rotation in one spot; shoulders – may be pushed beyond healthy ROM.
Transition from Parivrtta Trikonasana and into counterpose – in the video, the sequencing from Parivrtta Trikonasana continues to Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon). They’re in the same family regarding alignment and it’s relatively easy to transition from Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana to Uttanasana – the symmetrical counterpose for the preceding asymmetrical asana. In practising Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana, it’s helpful to open out into the pose from the centre, with the feel of a push through the standing leg and a reach back with the other leg. After Uttanasana, the sequence needs repeating on the other side from Parsvottanasana – with the left foot forwards.
I think one reason why even experienced yoga practitioners have difficulty with Parivrtta Trikonasana, could be they’re in too much of a hurry to ‘arrive.’ I suggest spending time regularly enjoying all the warm ups and preparatory poses in this blog – including homolateral crawling, which btw can help with balance and co-ordination. Then with less focus on the outcome, the asana may eventually be practised with ease and flow!
But I’m still pondering the ‘feeling of disorientation’ question that my student raised in class. I remember something else that Amy Matthews said “One of the things that our habits do is they resist changing. So it’s easier to stay in a familiar pattern. And when we go to get out of that pattern we meet some resistance, which is informative.”