Joel Kramer, a well-known yoga teacher from Bolinas, California, once described in Yoga Journal an aspect of his approach to yoga he called "playing the edge." Kramer's ideas have influenced my practice ever since. "Playing the edge," as I understand it, means taking yourself to your limit and, through subtle awareness and refined adjustments, continuing to practice without stepping back from or going over that edge.
To illustrate this concept, let's consider the first stage of Supta Padangusthasana. In this pose, you lie on your back with your legs stretched straight out on the floor. Then you raise your right leg and catch your right foot by either grasping your big toe with your right hand or by holding a strap around your foot. Keeping your right leg straight, you pull your foot back toward your head. As you move your leg, you are going to feel the stretch in the back of your leg intensify. At some point, the increasingly intense sensation of stretch will begin to turn into pain. Lilias Folan used to refer to the point just before pain as a place of "sweet discomfort." The art of playing the edge is to find and work at that exact point of transition, without losing either the sweetness or the discomfort.
A challenging aspect of practicing this way is that these edges are not at all static. They are in constant flux. Thus, playing the edge skillfully requires unwavering concentration and calm awareness. It transforms your practice into a meditation, and to my mind, is one of the primary differences between practicing yoga asanas and "exercising."
One possible result of playing your edge is that you might find yourself practicing increasingly difficult poses. For example, you may have become flexible in your forward bends to the point where you can rest your torso on your straight legs with ease in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). In terms of flexibility, Paschimottanasana no longer
brings you to your edge. To find your flexibility edge, you might need to practice Kurmasana (Tortoise Pose).
Seen in this light, the practice of more advanced poses is not some ego-gratifying game of one-upmanship or a spiritually materialistic approach to acquiring more and more difficult asanas. (Bumper stickers notwithstanding, I suspect that when we die, the person with the most poses doesn't win anything in particular.) Instead, if you're committed to playing the edge in your practice, doing advanced poses may simply be a natural and appropriate progression.
When you say "advanced yoga pose," one of the poses that may come to mind for many folks is Eka Pada Sirsasana (Foot-behind-the-Head Pose—not to be confused with the Headstand variation that has the same Sanskrit name). It is difficult for almost everyone and is a real eye-catcher of a pose. I recall that the first time I thumbed through a book of yoga postures, the ones that jumped off the page were Eka Pada Sirsasana and
its more advanced cousin, Yoganidrasana (Yogic Sleep Pose). My reaction was not unlike that of a couple who, some years later, happened to observe me practicing Eka Pada Sirsasana on a remote beach. I was unaware of their attention until I heard the woman exclaim incredulously to her partner, "Oh, m'God, Harry! Look at that!"
An Ounce of Preparation
Before you even think about doing Eka Pada Sirsasana, you should maintain a well-rounded practice for many months. This is true even for practitioners who begin yoga with enough flexibility to perform Eka Pada Sirsasana or who may achieve it fairly quickly. Flexibility is necessary, of course, but strength, stability, and integrating your whole body within the pose are just as important.
In fact, I often tell my students that it is more difficult to be flexible than to be stiff. An expression that says, "Oh, sure," usually crosses the faces of the stiff ones. All they know is that when they stretch, they are really uncomfortable, and they don't move anywhere nearly as much as their more flexible classmates, who seem to slide into many poses with such ease. Those more flexible (and seemingly more fortunate) students have the difficult task, however, of trying to find balance in their poses without constantly overworking the areas that move so readily. Super-flexibility, without the balance of strength, can result in instability in the joints—which, in time, can lead to pain and injury. I have found over the years that loose, very flexible students seem to have physical problems more often and of a more serious nature than stiffer students. So maintaining a balanced practice for a prolonged period is valuable not only for building up to Eka Pada Sirsasana; it also allows you to practice the pose in a safe way.
Despite all my caveats about the need to balance flexibility with strength, you clearly do need flexibility in your legs and hips to do Eka Pada Sirsasana. It is usually best, therefore, to practice this pose as the culmination of a series of forward bends and hip openers. To avoid overstretching your spine and straining your lower back in any forward bend, it is important to lengthen your hamstrings and fold forward from your hip joints rather than bending at the waist. Eka Pada Sirsasana may not appear to be much of a forward bend since you do not lower your torso forward toward your legs. But all the principles of forward bends apply; you are simply varying the forward-bending process by bringing your leg up toward (and beyond) your torso instead of bending your torso down.
You can develop the flexibility required to work productively on Eka Pada
Sirsasana by practicing all of the forward-bending poses. The variations of Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) are particularly helpful, especially the one B.K.S. Iyengar presents as the second variation in Light on Yoga (Schocken Books, 1995). And proficiency in Kurmasana is a prerequisite.
Even if you've realized that strength is as important as flexibility for a balanced body, you may be surprised to learn that strength is necessary for Eka Pada Sirsasana. The pressure that the leg exerts is powerful, and needs to be balanced by the strength of the neck and back muscles. Sirsasana (Headstand), Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), and their variations are especially helpful in strengthening your neck and back. Akarna Dhanurasana (Archer's Pose) is also a particularly good preparation for Eka Pada Sirsasana, not only because it increases mobility in the hips and legs, but also because it helps build strength in the spinal muscles.
Getting a Leg Up
in order to avoid straining your back muscles and to provide support for your spine, you may find it helpful to begin to work on Eka Pada Sirsasana in a reclining position at first. Lie on your back with your knees bent and resting comfortably near your chest. Allow your left knee to remain in that position and take your right arm inside your right thigh. Wrap your right forearm behind your right calf and catch the outer arch of your foot. Then reach across your body and catch the inner arch of your right foot with your left hand. Your bent left knee should remain comfortably near your chest. Hold your right foot with both hands and raise it until your lower leg is perpendicular to the floor. Keeping your shin perpendicular, draw your right knee down toward the floor. Maximize the opening of the hip by staying centered on your back without rolling toward the right as you bring your right knee toward or, ideally, onto the floor. Then, while you keep your right knee on the floor (or moving in that direction), lengthen the back of your right thigh from the back of your knee toward your buttock and move your buttock and hip away from your abdomen and waist, respectively. As you do this, you should feel your sacrum release toward the floor.
Perform the same stretch on the left side and repeat the process on both sides one or more times. You should use this same incremental, repetitive approach as you continue to work toward Eka Pada Sirsasana. Like all forward bends, it is essentially a pose of surrender. Rather than forcing the necessary actions and movements, be patient and wait for any edge of tightness or resistance you encounter to soften and release. Keep your diaphragm relaxed, your belly soft, and your breathing easy throughout.
Once you've got your right knee as near the floor as possible without rolling toward the right, continue holding your right foot with your left hand and shift your right hand to your calf. Press your hand into your calf and push your lower leg and foot toward your shoulder enough that you can tuck your shoulder under your leg. (At this point, you might be up against any number of edges: in your right hamstring, hip, back, shoulder—or any combination of these.)
Remain with the back of your knee and thigh against your right shoulder for several breaths. If the intensity begins to shift to pain, release the position and repeat on the other side. If and when the intensity begins to abate, go on to the next step. Practice each step this way to bring deep awareness to your edges and expand them safely and effectively.
Now with your left hand still in the arch of your right foot, again press your calf with your right hand and lengthen the calf from the knee out through the heel. Draw your foot toward the floor, gradually bringing your leg toward a more nearly straight position. At the same time, once again lengthen your hamstring from the knee toward the buttock and roll your buttock toward the floor. Stay centered on your back. The stretch this gives your hamstring will help with the movements to come.
After exploring your hamstring edge, bring your shin back up to perpendicular and change your grip to hold your outer lower leg with your right hand and your outer ankle with your left hand. Keeping your right shoulder tucked beneath your knee and thigh, externally rotate your right thigh and pull your right ankle toward your ajna chakra (your "third eye" near the center of your forehead, just above your eyebrows). Avoid pulling the little-toe side of your foot toward the floor. If you pull on the foot rather than the leg, you are apt to bend and overstretch your outer ankle. The movement of your leg should come primarily from your hip. Keep externally rotating the thigh and move your right hip away from the right waist as you bring your foot as close to your face as possible.
From the leg-over-shoulder position, begin to lift your foot toward your sahasrara chakra (at the crown of your head) until your foot is above your head. Raise your head from the floor and pull your foot behind your head until your ankle is pressing into the back of your head. When you raise your head and move your foot, take care not to grip your abdominal muscles. It is possible to cramp those muscles, which can be a not-so-sweet discomfort. If that happens, lie back and relax for a few minutes until the cramp subsides. Once your ankle is behind your head, take a few breaths. Reconnoiter. Do what you need to do to respect your edges. Don't panic. Don't get greedy. If you can go on, do so; if not, repeat the same actions on the left side.
If you're ready to go on, press your head back into your ankle until your knee is no longer pressing your shoulder and, turning your chest to the left for a moment, tuck your right shoulder still farther under the leg. Then press your calf with your right thumb so it rolls backwards out of the way of your shoulder and pull the leg down so that your lower leg just above your ankle is behind your neck. Keep your inner ankle extended so that the inner and outer ankle are balanced.
You are likely to need to hold your ankle and lower leg with your hands for a while—seconds, days, weeks—to relieve some of the pressure that the leg exerts on your neck and to keep the leg from slipping from behind your head. As your hips loosen, your hamstrings stretch, your back lengthens, and your neck strengthens over time, you'll be able to slide your leg well into the curve of your neck. Then, if you lift your chin slightly, you will be able to hold the leg with your neck and let go with your hands.
When you can do that, bring your palms together in front of your chest in namaste position and stretch your left leg straight up toward the ceiling. You'll be in what might be called Supta Eka Pada Sirsasana (Reclining Foot-behind-the-Head Pose) or, perhaps, Urdhva Mukha Eka Pada Sirsasana (Upward-Facing Foot-behind-the-Head Pose).
There are several somewhat more subtle actions that can help you refine your preparations and will allow you to be more balanced and open when you attempt the final pose. When your right leg is drawn up to bring your foot behind your head, your right hip usually comes along for the ride. This movement results in congestion in the right hip joint that inhibits its freedom; it also contracts the right side of the spine and can put strain on the vertebral discs and/or the sacroiliac joints. Your left lumbar spine and/or sacroiliac joint may then overstretch to compensate, amplifying (in a potentially problematic manner) the natural tendency toward imbalance inherent in the pose.
To move toward a balanced spine with your leg tucked behind your neck, roll your right hip away from the right side of your waist. Your right buttock will shift toward the center line of the body, and you should feel more length come to the right side of your waist and spine. The stretch of the leg and hip joint will also increase, as will the pressure on your neck.
Another thing that usually happens when you put your foot behind your head is that your pelvis draws up toward your belly and your head drops down toward your chest. The result is that the front of your spine compresses and your back muscles overstretch.
To reduce this tendency, first draw your right hip away from the waist, and then press your neck back into your leg and lift your chest away from your abdomen, as if you were trying to lean back in a deck chair. As with the previous action, the intensity of the stretch in the leg and hip will increase, as will the pressure on the neck. The back muscles come more into play as you lift your chest, which prepares them for their work in the final pose. You can practice these actions while holding your leg with your hands at first, and then try them without.
Oh, M'God, Harry!
In many ways, the final pose is a lot like what we've called Supta Eka Pada Sirsasana, except that rather than "suptaing" (reclining), you are sitting up. That's a significant difference, though. Now your back will not be supported by the floor, and gravity will not aid you in bringing your leg into position. If you've done the preceding work, however, you will be prepared for these new edges.
Begin Eka Pada Sirsasana by sitting in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Press your thighs into the floor and stretch your inner calves and ankles away from you. Bend your right knee, raise your right foot from the floor, and catch the ankle and lower leg with your hands. With your right arm inside your right thigh, lift your right foot to third-eye level . Shift your right hand to your calf, and lifting the leg higher, bring your right knee back and raise your knee and calf over and onto your shoulder. Keep hold of the lower right leg with both hands. Lift your chest upward away from your abdomen and take a couple of breaths.
Now roll your outer right hip toward the floor, externally rotate your right thigh, and lift your leg so your right foot is above your head. Lean forward slightly, duck your head forward a bit, and pull your ankle behind your head. Then raise your head, pressing the back of your head into your ankle so that the weight of the leg on your shoulder is diminished. With your head and hands supporting your leg, turn your chest slightly toward the left and duck your right shoulder still farther under the leg. Keep pressing your head into your ankle; with your right thumb, roll your right calf back out of the way of your shoulder and pull your ankle behind your neck. As in the reclining preparation, you will probably need to hold your foot and leg with your hands for some time to keep your leg from slipping from behind your neck. Keep your inner ankle extended.
As much as you can, try to lift your chest while you hold your leg with your hands. The pressure of the leg on your neck and back may be intense. New edges will appear, perhaps in your hamstring or your hip, or maybe in your back or your neck. Move with patience and awareness. Take your time. Keep your abdomen relaxed and breathe easy.
Eventually, when you are able to move from a very hunched-over position to a nearly upright one, lift your chin so that your neck, with the help of your back muscles, is able to hold your leg and keep it from flying over your head. Gradually reduce the support of your hands on your leg, until you can rely solely on your back and neck. At that point, let go of your leg with your hands completely and join the palms in front of your chest in namaste position. Keep your left thigh pressing into the floor and lengthen out through your inner left calf and ankle. Roll your outer right hip toward the floor and lift your chest as you did when you worked on the refinements in the reclining preparation.
At first, you probably won't be able to hold Eka Pada Sirsasana for long. Begin with 15 seconds, or whatever is possible, and build up to one minute. To come out of the pose, use your hands to lift your leg and ankle from behind your neck. Lower your right leg onto the floor next to the left leg, place your hands on the floor by your hips, and sit in Dandasana. Then perform Eka Pada Sirsasana with your left leg behind your head. After you have finished the left side and returned to Dandasana, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, comfortably near your buttocks. Rest on your back for a minute or two to release any tension you may feel from Eka Pada Sirsasana. Going on to twists and then backbends will help reduce any tightness you may feel in your back and help balance your practice.
The End (Not!)
Even though you may have played your edges well and are able to do an "advanced" asana, you have hardly reached the end. Although we sometimes use the term "final pose" to describe the shape of a particular asana, there are really no final poses. New edges appear, both within Eka Pada Sirsasana and in the expansion of possibilities of other asanas. For instance, once you have become more accomplished in Eka Pada Sirsasana, there are many challenging poses you can work on that incorporate putting your leg behind your neck.
Furthermore, as subtle and difficult as playing the physical edge is when practicing Eka Pada Sirsasana (or any asana, for that matter), it is complicated by the fact that we have lots of different edges: physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, energetic, and spiritual. You may seem to be playing your physical edge in your practice quite skillfully and yet be way off base with respect to your appropriate energetic edge. I see this in some overly ambitious students who push themselves constantly to do more difficult, demanding poses—and more and more repetitions of them. They may be achieving the physical movements of the poses, but at the same time they are irritating their nervous systems and compromising their mental and emotional equilibrium.
I might suggest to such a student that he consider de-emphasizing his physical edge for a while and refocus his attention on the quality of his breath and his state of mind. This would give him a chance to consolidate his practice and find a more subtle internal edge, rather than constantly forcing himself further physically. I find that students sometimes strongly resist such a suggestion, either openly or passively. It is often difficult—and really quite enlightening—to realize that playing your edge may occasionally mean not doing advanced poses. This realization can have a transformative effect on your practice by shifting you away from
an acquisitive and perhaps aggressive approach toward a more internally perceptive and holistic attitude. You may become more interested in playing the edges of consciousness than performing wowie-zowie advanced poses. Ironically, advanced poses may then come more readily, like guests who are invited to dinner rather than employees who are ordered to attend.
Every spiritual tradition employs the art of playing the edge of consciousness; each has its own methods and disciplines. Whatever techniques you use, bringing yourself to your perceived limits is a way to deepen your understanding of who you are and how you approach the world. And when you rub up against your limits and work to expand them, you can generate a powerful shift in your consciousness. The altered states of consciousness that playing your edges induces can pry you out of stuck places and open up creative energies previously unavailable to you. And they can move you beyond the edges of your small self and bring you into contact with the limitless, edgeless Beyond.
A longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar and a certified senior Iyengar teacher, John Schumacher directs the Unity Woods Yoga Center in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.