~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Learning to Love a Triangle

January 15, 2010
I’d had about enough of triangle pose. I rarely practiced it at home. And when I mustered up the discipline to teach it, I had trouble climbing out of my half-hearted box: Turn out your leg 90 degrees, watch your kneecaps, reach your arm.... blah, blah, blah. No doubt about it, from any angle, triangle was just plain boring.

One morning, in a fit of desperation I opted for direct confrontation. I unrolled my yoga mat, lit a candle and vowed to stare my nemesis in the face for an hour. We’re going to sit here together, I thought, until we can find something to love about each other.

In hopeless situations, my mother once suggested playing a little game: Ask yourself if you can learn at least one interesting morsel about the world. I took her advice and found my way into triangle.
“Aha,” I thought, “I’m going to do every triangle variation in the book, every one I’ve ever learned.” Out came blocks, straps, walls, the whole parade. Arms out, arms up, arms over, arms revolved.

I tried it the Vanda Scaravelli way, legs close together. I tried it a la Iyengar, jumping my feet three-and-a-half-to-four-feet apart. I heard Manouso Manos shout, "Wider - your legs are so long!" and came full circle back to Larry Schultz: "What are you trying to do, the splits?" That’s when it finally dawned on me that maybe there’s not a right way to do triangle pose after all. Maybe every day "right" feels a little different. Maybe it just depends on what we’re looking for.

The rules began to crack. A little angularity melted from my pose. As I began to play with all the subtle shifts inside, I noticed the obvious: Each variation did feel different, changing the sensations in my hips, my spine, my belly.

No one was there to tell me how or why or what to do next, so I was forced to pay attention. What is this pose doing for me? Why would anyone want to do utthita trikonasana with one leg on a block against the wall? I had to climb inside to figure it out myself.

I exhausted all my known triangle variations and then, without even noticing, slipped into a new world where my triangles took their own form.

“Where am I stuck?” I asked. “How effortless, how full, how vibrant can I grow?” As I climbed out of the formal, well-baked asana, my playfulness bloomed. The pose began to breathe and shift and move. Triangle and I smiled at each other.

I began to understand where all these crazy ways of playing in poses came from. Ancient yogis weren’t born with wooden blocks at their sides, or with straps or balls or bolsters. They weren’t handed a list of 108 triangle pose variations, or maybe even poses at all. They climbed inside their skin, played around in forms we now call asanas, and watched what happened.

These yogis took life as their playground and used their own ingenuity while trying to reconnect with the big soul of the world. All the variations we learn in classes come from somewhere, either from our teachers’ creativity or from their teachers’ ingenuity. There’s no reason we can’t find our own way, when we grow sensitive and true enough to follow our own inner teacher.

Isn’t this what yoga is all about after all: exploring the energy inside so we can live more vibrantly and truly? It’s not just marching through a checklist of postures, but rather climbing into them and exploring, playing, observing within. It’s about watching how our inner life shifts with the movement, the body, the breath. Sometimes other people’s rules just get in the way.

With this realization, a funny thing happened. Triangle pose disappeared. I disappeared. Everything fell away - the rules, the form, the effort. All that was left was movement, life spiraling in and through and around the playground of my body. No grand design, no fireworks or epiphanies, just lots of space and freedom. Play. Energy rolling and rippling and laughing through me. I felt just like a kid in a playground, jumping and swinging and dangling and exploring.

This discovery brought to life a Sanskrit word I've heard from time to time: lila, or divine play. Some philosophers say that’s really all there is, just an endlessly shifting, shimmering play of energy. It expresses itself in the world through colors, shapes, people, nature. The forms we take as so solid - our homes, careers, families - may be just the shifting stage for this lila, the canvas across which its colors are strewn. I like that image a lot. Maybe life is just a verb and not a noun after all.

Perhaps yoga at its heart is meant to be lila, too. The poses are our playgrounds - slides, merry-go-rounds, jungle-gyms - that help us give form to the free flow of life. They help us open all the spaces inside so that illuminating, generous, revitalizing life can make its way into all our nooks and crannies. And so that when we run home from the playground our cheeks are rosy, our hair is tousled, our belly is tingling and we shine everywhere.

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (April 1999)