Friday Q&A: Aligning Your Feet in Standing Poses

Q: Hi Baxter! Would you please enlighten me on the Vira 2 and Trikonasana foot position? Front heel to arch of back foot or front heel to heel of back foot? 

A: Early on in my yoga life, most of my teachers were trained in the Iyengar tradition. I recall in my teacher training hearing the instructions to step your feet wide apart, 4 to 4 1/2 feet for Warrior 2 (Virabradrasana 2) and 3 to 3 1/2 feet apart for Triangle pose (Trikonasana). Then, came the instructions to turn the right leg and foot out 90 degrees and turn the back foot forward slightly to the right, lining your right foot with the arch of your back foot. However, our blog and in our book Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being—although we don’t directly state it—our foot position instructions should result in the front heel to back heel alignment. 

Interestingly, when I checked my copy of Light on Yoga just now, it mentions the width to step the feet apart, but not specifically how to line the left and right foot up with one another. My curiosity piqued and knowing that different traditions have different ways of practicing these poses, I took a look in my copy of The Viniyoga of Yoga, by TKV Desikachar, on Triangle pose (interestingly, Warrior 2 is not included in this text). Not only is there no specific written instructions on the alignment of the feet in the pose, the photos seem to show the feet no wider than 3 feet apart, maybe a bit less, and although the heels of both feet seem to be aligned, the front foot only turns out about 45 degrees, and the back foot turns out instead of in. Fascinating! 

And even among teachers in the Iyengar tradition, the emphasis on one particular foot alignment has changed with time. You may recall that our guest writer Sandra Razelli wrote a post Tricky Trikonasana about her challenges with Triangle over the years. There is telling advice she received from her (and my) faculty teacher Mary Paffard: 

“She warned us about how following rigid instructions and pushing oneself into the pose could cause harm. She debunked the then common instruction to line up the heel (of the front foot) with the arch (of the back foot) and encouraged her students to keep the pelvis free instead of keeping the hip points in the same plane.” 

Nina suggested I mention two other important facts regarding this issue. The first is the fact that these alignment cues were originally created by and taught by men, without considering the differences between male and female anatomical structure. In particular, women have a very different pelvic structure than men have—which causes their hip joints to be wider apart than men’s—and this can influence which foot position is best for them. Secondly, these alignment options do not take into account people with larger bodies. These people often struggle with alignment cues that most of us take for granted so they, too, may need to modify their foot positions.

So, given all of that, how do you decide how to align the feet in these two poses?

Really, your choice can depend on several factors. Does your foot alignment allow for: 1) balance and stability, 2) avoiding pain or strain in ankles, knees, hips, SI joints, or lower back, 3) your ability to easily move into whatever variation of the poses you are working on, maintain the pose, and exit, pain and strain free and balanced and stable, 4) the form to achieve the function of the pose, and 5) ease of breath? 

In regard to balance and stability, it may be that neither of the options, which are front heel to arch of back foot or front heel to heel of back foot, work for everyone, and, in fact for those with poor balance, I often recommend the front foot be offset from the back a few inches for greater stability. 

With respect to function over form, does your chosen foot alignment in Triangle fulfill your intentions for practicing the pose. For Triangle pose, a helpful intension could be: “This energizing pose strengthens and stretches your upper and lower body and strengthens the core muscles at the sides of your torso.” For Warrior 2, a helpful intension could be: “This grounding pose strengthens your lower and upper body while stretching your hips, legs and chest and challenging your balance.” This process of evaluating your choices in alignment fits nicely with the concepts of inquiry and agency that Carey Sims wrote about last week in his post The Importance of Inquiry and Agency in the Asana Practice).

My personal preference between these two particular options, front heel to arch of back foot or front heel to heel of back foot, is the later. The way I get into the starting position for both poses (for me the foot alignment is the same for both) ends up in that relationship. Here’s how I do it: 

1. Starting in Mountain pose, step the feet wide apart (how far apart will vary dramatically from person to person, but could range from 3-4.5 feet, depending on your height and the length of your legs and your physical ability), keeping your heels lined up with one another.

2. Pivoting on the heel pad of your front foot, turn your front leg and foot out 90 degrees, setting the ball of your foot down. 

3. To position your back foot, lift your back heel slightly up and, pivoting on the ball of the back foot, move your back heel back about 2 inches or so before setting it down. 

This results in your back foot being at about a 10 degree turn toward your front foot, and your front foot aligned with the heel of your back foot. From my experience the transition of my feet into this alignment feels stable and easy on the balance and I find most of my students find that to be true as well. From there, mindfully getting into and out of the pose will let you assess if your aligned feet successfully fulfill the five factors above. Enjoy the process! 

—Baxter


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