As your yoga practice deepens, complex asanas become more than just interesting shapes to strive for. Often, the real juice comes during the learning process, when you pick up lessons that you can apply when you’re off the mat, too. Charles Matkin, yoga teacher and cofounder (with his wife, Lisa) of Matkin Yoga in Garrison, New York, believes that learning the inner workings of Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose) provides guidelines for weathering life’s difficulties. “It’s a backbend, a forward bend, a side bend—and a twist,” he says. Winding yourself into all of those shapes at the same time requires moving from a place of deep solidity. Once you find your center in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, you can extend your spine and limbs safely. Then, when life presents challenges, you can remember that sense of center, steady yourself, and expand outward and face things with ease. “If you stay true to your essence, you can balance yourself when you’re being pulled in a million different directions,” Matkin says. “You’ll be able to flip over backward without losing your sense of who you are.”
As you work your way through Matkin’s sequence, you will create the foundation of Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana by establishing a stable pelvis. Once you have that solid base, you will open the hips and hamstrings to help you expand into the final pose with grace and steadiness. It may seem as though some of the preparatory poses are more difficult than the final asana. That’s no mistake. “In North America people work and work and work and work, with no end in sight,” Matkin says. “There’s very little time for pause. But in this case, all the hard work you’ll do goes toward a deep stillness that is delicious.”
If you’re unable to extend into the final pose right now, remember that the heart of the sequence is about connecting to your core and your pelvis, Matkin says. “These poses give you an opportunity to find out what’s at your center. You’ll begin to feel your potential to bend over backward out in the world, while developing the support you need to stay there.”
Stretches intercostal muscles (improving respiration);
Increases circulation to the spine and relieves back pain;
Helps stabilize the lumbar;
Stretches the hamstrings, groins, quadratus lumborum, and chest
Sacral instability or injury;
Knee instability or injury;
Torn hamstrings, groin pulls;
Lower back strain or spinal disk injuries
Twisted Fan Pose
This pose appears simple, but it can be challenging to hold your center. Stand with your feet parallel and about a
leg’s distance apart. Work with your knees slightly bent and firm the hamstrings against the quadriceps to avoid
hyperextension. Squeeze your legs toward each other isometrically—as though you were riding a horse.
On an inhalation, lengthen the waist. Then exhale and tip the torso forward, keeping it long. Walk your hands forward
as far as you can while keeping the spine long and even. Stay stable: You should be able to lift your hands off the
floor without falling. Inhale and draw the shoulder blades together; as you exhale, press the navel toward the spine.
Before you twist, bring your right hand onto your lower back to check what Matkin calls the “temperature” of
your spine. If you overextend the lumbar, you’ll have a spinal dip that’s too deep, which he calls a “hot
spot.” If, however, the area is not extended enough, it will feel a little “cold.” So if your lower back
is rounded toward the ceiling, make it “hotter” by arching a bit more, or you can “cool it down” by
lengthening the tailbone away from the waist. Finding a balanced “temperature” will feel like a relief if
your hamstrings are overstretched.
Maintaining a long axis from your left hand through the spine, twist and grasp your left ankle with your right hand,
and look under your left armpit. To keep stable in your core while opening, allow the twist to feel expansive and
luxurious, but don’t let the pelvis rotate too much.
Stay in the pose and work with your breath long enough that, as Matkin puts it, instead of “doing” the pose,
you start “being in” the pose. Don’t push right away to your edge; it’s more advanced to start where it’s
easy and explore without pushing. When you’re ready to come out of the pose, reach your arms forward and, keeping the
waist long, try the other side.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose)
Of all the poses in this sequence, it’s most challenging to stabilize the pelvis in Parivrtta Trikonasana. It’s a pose
that requires you to find your stability and stay honest about your limitations while you extend over a fully stretched
front hamstring and twist without toppling over. But here’s some motivation: When you learn to keep the pelvis even and
aligned in this pose, you’ll access a profoundly deeper twist in the upper spine.
Instead of aligning your feet heel to heel, Matkin asks that you be a little “spicy” by using a broad stance,
keeping the feet directly aligned with the hips.
To get there, stand sideways on your mat with your legs wide and point your right foot to the front of your mat. Turn
your left foot in to a 45-degree angle and square your hips. Then step your left foot to the left, so that your feet
are wider apart than your hips. “Challenge yourself to find the most benefit, rather than the hardest variation of
the pose,” Matkin urges.
From here, exhale and draw your legs together isometrically. Inhale as you pull your shoulder blades together and
stream your spine forward and down your midline as far as you can go while keeping the spine long. Spend a few breaths
finding an even “temperature” through your spine before twisting.
Then, bring the left hand to the outside of the right foot, and bend the right knee just a little bit (this makes the
pose easier for those with tight hamstrings and offers a new challenge to advanced yogis). As you lift the right hand
to the ceiling, draw the right hip back, spin your chest forward, and arch your upper back. Draw the arm bones into
their sockets and lift your chest away from the pelvis, along the axis of your lengthening core.
Keep the pelvis square to the front of the mat and keep the shoulders aligned vertically. If you feel unstable or can’t
find the twist, either drag the fingers of your left hand against the floor and toward you for a little extra traction,
or rest the hand on your shin. You can turn your eyes to the ceiling, but don’t crank your neck. “Inchworm”
the spine longer and longer with each breath.
Typically, this pose tests one’s ability to stay centered. One reason for this, Matkin says, is that this asana works
to untie the brahma granthi, the psychic “knot” that yogis say is located in the top of the lumbar
area, where the fibers of the diaphragm intermesh with the fibers of the psoas muscle. “This is where you start
tugging on your fixed sense of who you are, what you think you can and cannot do,” Matkin explains. The trick is
to stay true to your center while you twist and turn your spine backward, he says.
Come out of Parivrtta Trikonasana as you exhale. Before doing the other side, first flow into Baddha Trikonasana,
keeping the right foot forward.
Baddha Trikonasana (Bound Triangle Pose)
Baddha Trikonasana foreshadows Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, because the torso mimics its shape: The front hip flexes
deeply, and when you bind the pose, you’ll experience the challenge of the torso remaining fixed against the front
thigh while you simultaneously try to twist the torso open, toward the ceiling.
To get into the pose, shift your left toes back so that the foot is at a more open 15-degree angle, and line up the
right heel with the arch of the left foot. Bend your right knee a lot, as if you were going into Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose).
Then, roll your right shoulder down to the inside of your right knee. Reach your right arm underneath your right thigh
and your left arm behind your back until you can clasp the left wrist with your right hand. Straightening the left arm
will shorten the left waist, so if you can’t clasp the hands while keeping the arm bent—or if you simply can’t do
the bind—put your left hand on your sacrum and your right hand on your shin. Matkin prefers that you don’t use a
strap as a prop for this pose so that you don’t fixate on the goal of binding.
Exhale as you work your right hip beneath you; inhale as you arch your spine. Then, exhaling, open your belly and chest
toward the ceiling, and straighten the right leg while lengthening the right waist. If you feel as though your lower
back is jamming, you’ve gone too far.
Breathe in Bound Triangle and feel the pose emerge, focusing on how it feels, rather than being hung up on its shape.
When you’re ready to move on, release your wrist and spin your toes to face the other end of your mat. Widen your feet
for a stable base and flow into Revolved Triangle, then Bound Triangle, with the left leg forward.
<a href=”http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/2493″ target=”_blank”Eka Pada Rajakapotasana II (One-Legged King Pigeon
Pose II, variation)
Before heading into the delicious opening of the final pose, use this low lunge variation to deeply open the
backbending, and come into Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Downward-Facing Dog Pose) for a few breaths.
From Down Dog, step your right foot between your hands and set the back knee on the floor. Take a long stance so that
your weight moves forward toward your thighbone, not directly on the kneecap. Once again, keep your knees at least as
wide as your hips, which will provide more space for the hip and sacral area to move. Hug your legs toward each other,
spin your hips toward the front of the mat, keeping both hip bones at the same height and the sides of the waist even
to avoid compressing the lower back.
Once you’ve established your base, use your left hand to draw your left foot toward you. Reach straight back with the
left hand, keeping your thumb pointed upward. Externally rotate your left arm so that your shoulder blade stays
connected to the back of the ribs. Lift the left shin off the floor and grab the inner edge of the left foot. With the
top of the big-toe knuckle in the center of your palm, pivot the fingertips forward and firmly clasp your hand over the
top of your toes, pointing your elbow to the ceiling. As you draw the foot in, don’t worry about how far it goes.
Instead, focus on squaring the hips and lifting out of the low back.
Continue lifting up while you exhale and settle deeply into the lunge. Press your front knee forward while pulling the
front foot toward you isometrically. Draw the chest and pelvis vertically away from each other to give extra length to
the right waist. As you inhale, send your breath high into the chest. Exhale and draw your abdominal muscles in toward
your spine to even out your lumbar and to build a sense of lifting energetically and muscularly, as if water were
flowing up the spine. Feel for that same lifting sensation as you move back to Downward Dog and into the lunge with the
left leg forward.
The King Pigeon lunge is a key preparation for the final pose. “Opening all sides of the pelvis prepares you for a
deep seat and a free lumbar spine,” Matkin says. “If this pose doesn’t get you started with surrender, we
need to talk.”
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee
Take a few moments again to cultivate your sense of being in the practice, rather than doing all you can to push into
the final pose. In Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, Matkin says people tend to grab for as much as they can get, rather than
acknowledging where they really are. “If you seek to understand what’s going on in your body rather than fixing or
changing it, you shift your perspective,” he says. So instead of blindly pushing yourself beyond your limits,
choose to become curious about the truth of what’s currently happening.
This is key for your emotional well-being, but it’s also key for protecting your hamstrings and spine from injury. As
Matkin points out, “This is delicate equipment you’re working with. You have to take time to find the pose that
feels right for you. The pose that is the most beautiful is the one with the most integrity.”
Sit with your legs in a wide straddle. Bend your left knee and bring the left foot toward your pubic bone. Use your
hands to roll open the flesh of the hamstring and calf toward the ceiling; this external rotation will encourage the
knee to roll away from the pelvis. Then lay your bent leg on the ground. The farther your knee points away from your
straight leg, the harder the pose will be. Engage the straight leg toward center to rotate it internally.
To prepare, reach your hands to the floor behind you and lean your torso back, lifting the chest and lengthening the
spine. Then establish the first of two twists that build the foundation of this pose. Lean back and twist toward the
bent knee, with the chest open. Take a few breaths to ground both the left sitting bone and knee into the floor.
Come back to center, then flow into traditional Janu Sirsasana by twisting toward the straight leg. Ground both sitting
bones as you come into a forward bend over the right leg. Stay here for a few breaths, focusing on lengthening your
spine before moving on.
From here, get ready to flip the spine open. Grab your right foot with your right thumb and first two fingers. Keep the
palm facing up. Plant your right elbow against the inner right shin or calf. Roll your bottom shoulder back and
underneath you as much as you can. Reaching the left arm out and overhead, open into a deep twist. If you can do it
without compromising the twist, move the right hand onto the arch and grab the toes with your left hand. Keep the bent
knee rolling way out and keep it grounded.
Matkin suggests working this pose with a wavelike breath that pulses through the asana. As you exhale, roll the chest
down toward the floor; as you inhale, roll it up toward the ceiling so that you’re moving from twist to countertwist:
“That’s the action that lengthens the spine. That’s the inner pulse that the breath connects us to,” Matkin
explains. Do this three or four times before switching sides, so it isn’t a one-shot deal. “It’s like going back
for dessert time and time again,” he says.
As you melt into the pose, you will apply the alignment that you’ve worked with through this entire sequence. You will
bend forward and lengthen your spine down the line of the leg as in Twisted Fan Pose and Revolved Triangle. Then you
will flip the spine open as you did in Bound Triangle, all the while accessing some of the lift of the King Pigeon Pose
“The challenge,” says Matkin, “is taking an asymmetrical position and trying to make it as symmetrical
as possible. You’ve done neutral, reverse, and bound twists in the three prior poses; now you’re mixing all three of
those flavors. The taller you work your hip crests, as you did in the King Pigeon lunge, the more access you get to
both sides of your waist.”
For Matkin, it’s the complexity that makes Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana so beautiful—and helps reveal deeper wisdom
about your practice, both on and off the mat. “Often, people think they have to strain or struggle to do a pose
correctly. But in yoga you get to just keep showing up—again and again. The process is the reward. And the more
you do it, the more intimately you’ll get to know yourself.”
Charles Matkin began his formal study of yoga and meditation at the age of five. He studied biology, theater, and
Ayurveda at Maharishi International University, and his yoga training includes certifications from the Yoga Zone and
Jivamukti schools, plus extensive education in Iyengar Yoga and Viniyoga. Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher
in San Francisco.