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Head-to-Knee Pose

Janu Sirsasana, or Head-to-Knee Pose, is appropriate for students of any level and melds a forward bend with a spinal twist.


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Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) is a full forward fold that offers a stretch from your ankle to your hips, along the full length of your back, and along the side-body as well.  It can help calm your mind as well as stretch your body. As you fold forward, close your eyes and cultivate a sense of inner peace.

Lengthen your spine and bend from your hip crease, rather than round your back. Reach your head and heart forward—but don’t over-do it. Illusions of grandeur can take hold when a desire to get as far as possible into an asana, or pose, takes you past your limits. These are as much asmita, or ego, as inability or meekness. In order to keep your ego in line with reality, approach any pose with humility and focus. Stay present, without trying to move too fast. Try to experience what you are feeling in your body without getting wrapped up in achieving a goal.

The more you practice Janu Sirsasana, the more you will realize that the goal of this posture is not about touching your toes—it’s about slowing down, focusing on your breath, and calming your mind.

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Sanskrit

Janu Sirsasana (JAH-new shear-SHAHS-anna)

janu = knee

sirsa = head

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Head-to-Knee Pose basics

Pose Type: Forward Fold

Targets: Lower Body

Benefits: Head-to-Knee Pose improves posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting. It can be helpful for recovery after sports and activities that include running. It stretches the back of your body, including your back muscles, and can help relieve low back tightness and low back pain. Also, it can bring calm to the mind and help with depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

Other Head-to-Knee Pose perks:

  • Stretches your entire back body
  • Helps relieve low back tightness and low back pain
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How to

  1. Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Bend your right knee and place the sole of your right foot high on your left inner thigh.
  2. Inhale and lengthen your spine; exhale and take your right hand to the outside of your left thigh and your left hand behind your left hip.
  3. On an exhalation, bend at your hips and lean forward over your left leg.
  4. Reach for your left foot. If it is available to you, clasp your left wrist with your right hand.
  5. Inhale and reach your sternum forward; exhale and revolve your right ribs toward your left knee even more.
  6. To exit the pose, inhale and lift your chest. Straighten your right leg, returning to Staff Pose.
  7. Repeat on the other side.
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Beginner tip

If you experience knee pain, move your bent knee closer to the straight leg. Having your knee out at a wider angle can create stress on the sartorial muscle, which runs down the inner thigh. If the pain persists, come out of the pose.

Explore the pose

Keep your foot on your bent leg active. Broaden the top of the foot on the floor and press the heel toward the inner thigh of the straight leg.

Consider a more intense shoulder and side stretch in this pose by trying the revolved version it, Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana.

Allow your body to release on a deeper level with the Yin version of this pose, known as Half Butterfly. It is the same shape but you relax your muscles and remain here for 3-5 minutes.

Increase the challenge in this pose by widening the angle between the two legs past 90 degrees and bring your heel more toward the same-side inner thigh. Do this only if you have sufficient flexibility in the legs, hips, and back, as taking your knee out at a wider angle can create stress on the sartorial muscle, which runs down the inner thigh.

Sequencing tip

Practice this posture toward the end of your practice to begin slowing and grounding down, and follow with the rest of your forward bends.

Be mindful!

  • Don’t lean backward with your low back.
  • Be sure not to pull yourself forcefully into the forward bend, which only rounds your back and compresses your chest.
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Teacher tips

These cues will help protect your students from injury and help them have the best experience of the pose:

  • Pushing, pulling, or any kind of aggression in this pose will create more tension and possibly injury. Remind your students to only come into the forward bend to the degree that they comfortably can. The muscles will release into the pose over time.
  • Suggest that students elevate their pelvis by sitting on a folded blanket, bolster, or block. Lifting the seat enables the body to bend at the hip crease rather than at the waist.
  • Offer the option to put a rolled-up blanket under your straightened knee to prevent locking (hyperextension).
  • The bent leg in Janu Sirsasana also works the same way as the bent leg in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) and Uttitha Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle). When you are working on these standing poses, begin to explore how to create external rotation in the bent leg by softening into your outer hip creases and creating space there. Try working with less effort in your hips.
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Variations

Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

Seated leg stretch with a strap

Extend your reach by looping a strap (or a belt) around the ball of your straight-leg foot. Elongate your spine and flex at your hips to fold forward slightly. Do not round your back.

Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

Supported seated leg stretch

If you experience tightness in your hips or low back, sit on folded blankets or a bolster. If you have tight hamstrings or you tend to hyperextend your knee, you can place a rolled-up blanket under your straightened knee. You can also place a block or other support under the thigh of your bent knee for support, especially if you feel strain or tightness in that knee.

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Why we love this pose

This pose is proof to me that there’s honor in trying. I definitely can’t place my head on my knee as I fold forward—not even close—yet I can still enter the posture. How? It’s because this pose makes me return to my breath, going only as deep as my body allows. That lesson carries with me into every other pose that I try. You don’t need to assume the perfect shape to be practicing yoga, you just have to be willing to find your edge. — Kyle Houseworth, former Assistant Editor

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Preparatory and counter poses

Janu Sirsasana is typically sequenced toward the end of class, when you have already stretched your back body and your hips in other poses. Counter the pose by stretching and expanding in the areas that were just compressed; in this case, your chest and hip flexors.

Preparatory poses

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)

Counter poses

Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank | Upward Plank)

Virasana (Hero Pose)

Matsyasana (Fish Pose)

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Anatomy

Janu Sirsasana is an asymmetric forward bend that creates an intense stretch in the hamstrings of your straight leg and your back, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga teacher. As with other poses that connect the upper and lower extremities, Janu Sirsasana also affects your lower back and shoulders.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

Head of the Knee Pose: Janu Sirsasana
Illustration: Chris Macivor

A couple of stretches contribute to the overall stretch that takes place in this pose. One is the action in your bent leg and the other is the action in your arms. In your bent leg, the femur flexes, abducts, and externally rotates, drawing that side of the pelvis away from your straight leg. Although the main focus is on your extended leg, periodically bring your attention to your flexed knee. Engage the muscles of your leg to make the pose more active.

Grasp your foot with your hands to link the shoulder and pelvic girdles, transmitting a stretch from your lower back into your leg. Connect the action of your bent leg with your same-side arm. For example, as your bent knee draws back, flex the same-side elbow more strongly to draw the side of your body more toward your extended leg, stretching the side of your body. This creates two counterbalancing forces with simultaneous movements in different directions.

Observe the effect of flexing your trunk. Squeeze your torso against your thigh to engage the psoas. Also, engage your abdominals to turn the bent-leg side of your trunk. Experience how this action changes the feeling of the stretch in the lower back muscles, including the quadratus lumborum. Note that when the femur flexes, your pelvis tilts forward.

Draw your shoulders away from your ears by engaging the lower portions of the trapezius.

This orchestra of movement culminates in the characteristic stretch of Janu Sirsasana. Your entire back body stretches, including the erector spinaequadratus lumborumgluteus maximushamstrings, and gastrocnemius and soleus complex. The bent-leg quadriceps also stretch, and the back muscles on this side stretch more deeply than on the straight leg.

Head of the Knee Pose: Janu Sirsasana
Illustration: Chris Macivor

The muscles, tendons, and ligaments at the back of the body are all linked. Tightness in one muscle affects the position of joints in other muscles; for example, tightness in the lower back can make it difficult to straighten the knee, and tightness in the hamstrings can make it difficult to flex the trunk. Identify areas of inflexibility and modify the pose to accommodate these regions.

Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends by Ray Long.

Put Head-to-Knee Pose Into Practice

How to Move Safely From Janu Sirsasana to Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana

10 Grounding Poses to Balance Your Vata Dosha This Fall

5 Calming Yoga Poses You Can Do in 5 Minutes


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About our contributors

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.