From Pain to Possibility
Episode 15: The Treasures of Triangle
Intro: You're listening to From Pain to Possibility, with Susi Hately. You’ll hear Susi’s best ideas on how to reduce or even eradicate your pain and learn how to listen to your body when it whispers so you don't have to hear it scream. And now here's your host, Susi Hately.
Susi: With this episode, I want to dig into and explore triangle pose. I get a lot of questions about triangle pose. And in all my years, I think triangle sits in the top five poses that have been called horrible; terrible; brutal for the spine, SI joints, and the knees. I get a lot of questions about, should triangle pose be retired? Should we just not do it at all? Is it that horrible for the SI joints?
And my response is, well, yes, it is horrible. If you compensate, just like we do anything, if we compensate in anything, over a period of time, it will be horrible. When we borrow from one area in an attempt to become stronger, we're actually losing out from both. We're becoming weaker because we're not moving the body the way it's actually designed to move. So, yes, any position in yoga can lead to horribleness in our spine, our SIs, and our knees.
But it begs the question about, why triangle? Why that one? Why is that one so commonly blamed for the SI and the spinal issues and the knee issues that it gets blamed for? Well, in this episode, I want to spend a little bit of time exploring why that is. And then I want to explain a little bit about why I also think, on the flip side, that triangle is actually a really decent, awesome position, especially when someone has recovered from SI joint issues and they're looking to become more agile, they're looking to becoming more nimble, and stronger.
So let’s first explore this position. The position of triangle is actually quite complex. We take our legs wide into abduction if we're stepping from tadasana, and then we're rotating the legs. Now, because most people in the West are unable to rotate the legs and keep the pelvis square, then typically what happens is that we rotate the front leg externally, we rotate the back leg internally, and then the pelvis also moves.
Now, sometimes the pelvis will move with the front leg as it rotates; sometimes it will move with the back leg. That one, I don't spend a whole bunch of time picking apart. What's more important is that there is a different movement of the legs in the front leg to the pelvis and the back leg to the pelvis. And the reason I feel that this is important is, because there's a different movement, there's different forces acting on the pelvis and the SI joint. So there's sort of this inherent instability that's already there before we even get moving into the next part of triangle.
Now, because there's an inherent instability is not a bad thing. There's lots of things we do in our life that have us put an unstable position in our SI joint, whether it's getting out of the car or stepping off the curb or jumping over and then landing after going over a snowbank. I mean, there’s many, many times when we can be unstable. In fact, there is a certain point in the recovery process where we want to practice being in unstable spaces so that we can build that ability to be agile and nimble and supple, to have a versatility to the way that we move. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So when we're moving into triangle, we already have an unstable position. So then what we do next becomes really important. How we move will either add more grief perhaps to this SI joint, to this unstable space, or will be supportive. Now, what I have found is when people do a very traditional way of moving into triangle, there tends to be more SI joint pain. This is just what I've seen over time. And that way is, from the lag position I just mentioned, they reach the front arm forward in attempt to keep both sides of their body long, and the pelvis stays exactly where it is. So the rib cage moves laterally from the pelvis.
But then what starts to happen is we still need to reach toward the floor, right? And what I often find happening is people side bend their way to the floor and almost collapse between the rib cage and the pelvis. And there can be an incredible amount of, call it, tension or strain or tightness, whatever subjective word you want to use there, but there can be some of that aggravation that builds in that area because we're not honoring the integrity or the necessary scaffolding to support the pelvis in the legs.
Instead, what I like to do is I like to move from the hip sockets themselves. So from the very same position, the legs wide, rotated, is that we then focus on the hip-joint movement. So the nose or the third eye stays aligned with the pubic bone. And then over we go through the hips.
Now, what becomes really interesting in teaching this way, particularly in the workshops that I've taught and to teachers if they're doing my one-to-one sessions, is that they're really surprised at how limited their hip movement is. Many of them will say, “But I thought I was so mobile in my hips. I thought I was open in my hips.” And it is indeed very interesting. It's a line I hear a lot from yoga teachers, thinking that they are mobile and open in their hips when, in fact, the objective reality is that they're not.
One of these reasons is that we do a lot of cueing, not for the hips themselves, even though the practice of yoga demands, perhaps asks maybe is a softer word, or demands or asks for hip movement. But if you look closely at the way the practice is done, there is very little hip movement that is actually spoken about and cued. Instead, we cue from the ribs or we cue from the feet or we cue from the knees. We don't actually cue from the hips. Watch and listen as you attend your next class. What are the instructions really?
To the point where I've been running my Facebook Lives, I make a very, very, very impassioned point in many of my morning classes where I'll say, “I want you to rotate the leg bones in the pelvis. Yes, I know you've heard the instruction of turn your feet out or rotate your feet out. But the movement itself is a leg-bone motion in the pelvis. I like to articulate from the actual joint that I want to support its movement.” The movement is the leg-bone-in-the-pelvis movement. That's what I want to foster. So when people are moving into triangle, but they're not actually fostering and nurturing the movement of where it's supposed to be happening, then it makes sense that issues arise.
Now, let's peel this back just a little bit, and I want to tell a story about how I developed the way that I teach, and it will have a lot of pertinence to this triangle conversation. One of my first teaching jobs was at a studio where we had registered classes, and there was a curriculum that each level of class was required to fulfill. I taught a beginners’ class, and over an eight-week period, I was asked to make sure that all of the students could complete a certain repertoire of yoga poses. When I looked at the list and I saw one of them being triangle, I sort of scratched my head and thought to myself, “How am I going to enable this?” because when I stepped into class, what I saw was a lot of people who did not move very well through their hips. And knowing that this movement required some good hip mobility and some great stability, I questioned. How am I going to do this?
And that is when I started to break down movements into their smallest component parts, because when someone can't do a larger movement, chances are there's some smaller pieces of that movement they also can't do. So when I was able to support my students in developing the capability to do the smaller movement, then we could gradually build up to the bigger pose.
So here is the point. I love yoga poses. I think yoga poses are some of the best movements that are out there. Trouble is, is that most humans who are doing it don't have the foundational capacity or capability to actually do the poses. And triangle is a biggie. And that is a reason why people can get hurt in it. They don't have that foundational component. In the case of triangle, they don't have that foundational component of hip mobility and hip stability. And if we looked further down the chain, they often don't have the component of connection between the feet and the hips.
So let's take this another stance further. When people step wide, the instruction is typically about the feet. It carries on by saying, now rotate or turn the toes out. And if people practice this for a period of time, they really can become quite good at moving only at the feet and the ankles and not moving a whole lot at the hips. So just imagine the strain that starts to build down and through the lower part of the leg when that is generating or driving the force, rather than the movement of the femur and the hip socket.
Now, add to this what that will then create in terms of a neuromuscular connection between your brain and the rest of your body, because basically what signal we're sending back to the brain is this is the way you're supposed to move. This is hip mobility, when you drive that movement through your foot in your lower leg. So it becomes really interesting. You start to be able to see, as you discover what it is that we're doing, how we're building more and more tension in other parts of the body in an attempt to do something that we don't even have the foundational component to do. So there’s a lot happening under our level of awareness that continues to build on top of each other.
So then, what is it that we can do? Well, I want to answer that question, or at least respond to that question, by continuing on this idea of building up component parts and to highlight why triangle can be absolutely tremendous for people. So when someone comes to see me and they have SI joint or spinal issues, they often have issues through the leg bones and the pelvis, they have issues between the feet and the pelvis, and they often have issues between their shoulder girdle and the pelvis. And I can use smaller movements that work specifically at those joints to help them become aware of how those joints actually move. And oftentimes those abilities are under their level of awareness. They don't know how to move. They tend to compensate by doing all sorts of other things. But they can learn to quiet the compensation and build up in their awareness the way that they're meant to move, the way that their body is designed to move. Their tension starts to fall away. They become more coordinated. Their jaw tension settles. Their tension through their feet settles. They become more fluid. They feel stronger. They start to feel more nimble. Generally, their pain and their symptoms abate.
So then it becomes time to add more complexity, to add more load, to add a quicker practice or maybe a longer hold, or maybe getting more joints involved in any given movement. So then I'll take them up into standing and then do a movement that's often referred to as goddess pose, where they're standing in tadasana, they take their legs out into abduction, they take them out wide, and then they learn to rotate in standing the leg bones and the hip sockets with that pelvis square. So both legs are externally rotating, and then they start to move into a squat.
They begin to recognize how the legs are moving in the pelvis and that the foot being at the bottom of that kinetic chain moves as a result of that hip movement. The foot doesn't drive it; the foot follows it. And then they start to be able to play through that movement of a squat and then back to standing, down to a squat and back to standing. They begin to recognize how they're breathing, how they're gripping, where they're holding, where else they're compensating in their body to enable that movement to happen. And because of their growing awareness, they're able to quiet that compensation and really enable that pure and precise movement. They feel the lightness starting to return more and more back into their spine. Their SI joints stop feeling painful because they're loading their body much more effectively.
Then we can start to move towards triangle. They can start to play with one leg doing one thing, the other leg doing the other thing, as they move into the prep position for the triangle pose. And then they start to do the movement by continuing to move through the hips.
Now, I will post a link in the show notes where you can explore this movement in a video that I've posted on Facebook and on Instagram so that you can get a visual sense of what I'm talking to here.
The bottom line here is that triangle can be horrible. Triangle can be terrible. It's all how you do it. And if you can really honor your movement capabilities, if you can honor your movement capacity, and you can really understand what are the foundational building blocks to doing the position, and you can understand the tissue that you have and the dynamics of that tissue and learn how to bring ease to your system, then triangle could actually be a pose that really serves you well, bringing in more nimbleness, more agility, more strength, more suppleness, enabling you to do even more complicated positions, and then enabling you to be out in the world doing more complicated positions.
It's just a matter of peeling it back to what's simple versus what's complex and to understanding principles of movement, to understanding how your breath plays a part in this, how stillness and awareness plays a part in this, and that you can't solve anything if you keep it under your level of awareness.
I think I'll finish off this episode with this one thought, that you might have tension in your body—maybe it's from an injury, maybe it's from getting older, maybe it's through the practice—and you might have in your headspace that this is just the way it is and that triangle is just not going to work. And that's all okay. That is a state from which you can live. I want to challenge you, though, with a lot of love and say that there is a ton of neuroplasticity in our body. The key is, are we giving our system—and what I mean system, I mean our whole self, our whole being—are we giving our system the stimulus that it actually needs? Because when we give our system the stimulus that it actually needs, things change really quickly. So if things aren't changing really quickly, maybe where you can start to question, become curious about, is maybe the stimulus is not the right stimulus.
If you are really interested in this conversation of triangle, I'm leading a two-hour course coming up on triangle pose specifically, where we will dig into some more of the mechanics, some more of the dynamics of the pose, and then I'll walk you through some foundational movements, breathing, awareness exercises, to really explore your own self and movement and show you how you can build yourself up into triangle for you to be able to explore triangle in all of its glory. If you're interested in registering, go to www.functionalsynergy.com/trianglepose. The link is in the show notes. I look forward to seeing there. Have a great, great time exploring.