For Beginners: Janu Sirsasana
If you are reading this in November or December, you are probably beginning to feel the transition of the seasons within your body. Underneath the bustle of the holidays, the Earth is preparing in the northern hemisphere for a long period of inner stillness before the rebirth of spring. The closing of the year elicits contemplation: What has transpired? Where are we headed? What is left undone?
Within yoga, self-reflection is called svadhyaya: "study" (adhyaya) of the "self" (sva). As one of the eight limbs of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga described in the Yoga Sutra, this practice of self-study refers to both the understanding of the Self through the study of sacred texts as well as the skill of self-observation that leads to yoga or unification.
In yoga practice, svadhyaya helps you observe moment-to-moment changes in your body-mind. How are you feeling in your body? Is your mind present? What subject matter draws your mind away? Applying svadhyaya to the yoga postures is one way of connecting to the truth within yourself. As we head into the new year, let's apply svadhyaya within a subtle twisting forward bend, Janu Sirsasana (pronounced JAH-noo sheer-SHASH-annah), to cultivate the quality of balance, introspection, and connectedness that we long for during the changing of the seasons.
Embrace the Asymmetry
To begin, you may benefit from the use of a yoga blanket and belt. Although I am trained in the Ashtanga-vinyasa system where props are used minimally, if at all, I also appreciate the Iyengar approach, which uses props as tools for finding the integrity of the form.
Let's work with props first. With a strap nearby, sit on a yoga blanket or flat pillow to elevate your hips. Take your right hand to the inside of your right knee and draw your right knee back so that you are consciously opening from your hip. Place your bent leg on the ground, with your right heel in front of your pubic bone and your toes touching your left inner thigh. For the moment, let your arms relax by your sides. Pause. Notice how your torso is no longer facing your left leg. Here is where you begin to activate the pose with awareness and observation. Start by getting the foundation through your pelvis, legs, and feet. Take a look at your left foot. Flex your foot and feel the sensations come alive in the back of your leg.
Now push through the ball of your foot as if you were stepping on a gas pedal, but keep your toes spread and drawn back. Observe how both your front and back leg are activated. Extend evenly through the inner and outer edges of your feet. Press the back of your left knee into the ground and root your left sitting bone into the earth. Now bring your awareness to your right thigh—your other anchor. Keep the right thigh grounded by pressing your outer thigh down, further opening your hip. Try to maintain this connection through your legs and hips to strengthen and open your lower body and flex the inner muscle of your concentration.
Now let's embrace the asymmetry of Janu Sirsasana and begin to twist, working with the breath to gradually shift the torso to face straight ahead. Place your hands on the floor inside and outside of the left leg and pause. On an inhalation, ground through your sitting bones and lengthen your spine out of the pelvis, using your arms as anchors. As you exhale, gently contract your belly towards your spine and twist the core of your body towards your left leg. This is a gradual, continuous process.
Working with your hands on the floor can help you find your balance within this twisting action. Place a strap around the ball of your left foot and take up the slack of the strap so that your arms are fully extended. Using the strap helps you avoid doing forward bends with a hunchback and stay out of what I call "Quasimodo Land." It is easy for the chest to cave in during forward bends and twists. Maintaining the actions of the lower body described above, lengthen your spine evenly through the front, back, and sides of your torso. As you ground your sitting bones into the earth, feel as if your spine moves in towards the front of your body. Your shoulder blades should slide down your back and towards your heart. Lift your navel towards your spine and let your sternum lightly rise.
As you twist with the breath, see if you can stretch evenly through your torso. On an inhalation, lengthen your spine. As you exhale this time, begin to fold forward, twisting to the left to center the torso over the left leg, keeping the spine long. Repeat this action until you reach your edge—the point where you are stretching the back of your left leg without losing the length of your spine.
Explore Janu Sirsasana within your body anywhere from five breaths to several minutes (on each side). As you extend your spine forward, observe how one side of the body shortens. Can you try to move with both sides of your torso even and extended? When you hinge forward, do you lose your ground? Try to keep the pelvis connected to the earth (your right sitting bone may come off the ground). Where do you feel your breath in the pose? Feel the flow of your breath in the back of your body. Does it touch your entire back, sides, and front? Allow your face to relax as you deepen your forward bend. As the pose takes you inward, what do you feel inside? Are you aware of an emotional tone? And behind that feeling what is there? Like the sage Ramana Maharshi—who came to the joy of his Self by meditating on the question, "Who am I?"—allow your natural observation of your Self within yoga practice to lead you to the truth within each moment.