Going within–exploring the hidden chambers of the heart to find one’s true Self–is really the first step in yoga. Continuing from that step, we can take the next one: bringing forth the latent divinity that we discover within, so that we may fully serve our individual dharma, or life purpose.
Although I began watching my parents practice with B.K.S. Iyengar when I was three, and joined them at age seven, it took me years to fully absorb this basic lesson. For the first 13 years of my yoga practice, my effort was directed at physically mastering pose after ever-more-difficult pose. In my late teens, I often practiced seven hours a day, many days in a row. Staying half an hour in Headstand and an hour in Shoulderstand would leave my neck so stiff that I could not even turn it the next day! In some sessions, I would perform 150 or more Viparita Chakrasanas (Reversed Wheel Poses), starting in Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose), walking my feet up a wall, and then kicking over to land in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). By age 20, I had a repertoire of hundreds of poses, including high-risk asanas rarely seen and almost never taught. I brought enormous energy to my practice, but it was more in service to my ambition and ego than to a higher or deeper purpose.
Then, helping a friend lift some crates, I ruptured two disks in my lower back. For what seemed like an eternity, I was unable to sit, stand, or walk without experiencing excruciating pain. When I could finally do asana again, I had to start from the beginning. The muscles around my pelvis, legs, and spine had seized up to protect my back, and I was stiffer than most beginners. This whole experience was a great lesson in humility, and it began the transformation of my asana practice to the much more heart-centered approach that is now the core of my teaching.
The second catalytic experience that transformed my practice was when my wife, Mirra, developed a critical illness. Three times I saw her almost die and be revived. I was once again forced to search for the deeper meanings of my life and the place my daily asana practice had in it. Watching the woman who mattered so much to me struggle for life made me question the haughty attachment I had to my body and the asanas it could do.
Assisted by the penetrating and often astonishing insights my wife had gained through her trials, I began to discover what was for me an entirely new approach to yoga practice, an approach that included yet transcended my old one. My teachers and several ancient texts had already introduced me to this kind of practice, but I suppose I was unable to heed their guidance until experience had softened my heart. And the heart was at the core of this new approach: the surrender of the brain to the heart as well as the lifting of the pelvic energy to the heart. Mirra explained to me, time and time again, the importance of opening the heart center. Speaking from the depths of her own inner experience, she reminded me that it was the heart that held the secrets to self-knowledge and the heart that was the portal to the universe within.
Now, as I teach, I no longer ask students to make the performance of the postures their primary focus in yoga. Instead, I ask them to discover, explore, grasp, and then lift the awesome power of the pelvis into the heart center, giving the heart attention, energy, and nourishment. As they work in the poses, I also teach them techniques to help them enlist the intellectual, analytical abilities of the brain in the inner quest that takes place within the heart.
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose) is an excellent way to learn this heart-centered approach, because performing the pose with elegance and openness requires you to discover and harbor the power inside the pelvis, to lift that power into the heart center, and to open the chest in a wide, resplendent expression of the heart’s inner luminosity.
Tapping into pelvic power isn’t unique to yoga; it is cultivated in the martial arts as well, where it is used for movement, stability, and self-defense. My approach is a bit different, however: I teach students to live the yogic life by having them move pelvic power up to the heart center and then having them ask the heart to guide them toward this power’s highest use.
To lift the pelvic energy into the heart center in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, it is critical to begin the process before entering the full pose. If you move into full Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana without first lifting the pelvic energy, the muscles of the lower belly and perineum will be in such strong extension that you will not be able to completely engage this crucial power source.
Lifting the energy of the pelvis requires two types of actions, the first physical and the second pranic (involving subtle energies). In Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, as in all seated poses, the physical actions include pressing the sitting bones into the earth and lifting the pelvic floor upward by contracting the perineal muscles to create Mula Bandha (Root Lock). Additionally, you must lift the pit of the abdomen and then build on all of these actions by widening the diaphragm, opening the chest, and moving the shoulder blades down and apart. As you draw the pit of the abdomen upward, you should take care not to hold your breath or tighten your belly; lifting the pit of the abdomen is a soft action that moves the front of your belly toward your chest, not toward your back.
To develop and refine this action, come into Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), sitting upright with your legs spread to about a 135-degree angle. Bring your mind into the four corners of the diamond shape anchored by the two sitting bones, the pubis, and the coccyx (tailbone). Let the sitting bones descend while the coccyx and the pubis also gently move down toward the earth and then toward each other, their energies meeting at the perineum. Then, from deep in your core, lift this concentrated energy upward. You will know you are doing this properly when you feel the bowl of the pelvic bones widening and descending and the contents of the pelvis (the abdominal organs) ascending. The lift of the pit of the abdomen should create an internal sense of strength, upward movement, and erectness in your torso.
The subtler, pranic actions involved in lifting the pelvic energy are a function of your intention, the directed movement of your consciousness. On an inhalation, as you contract your perineal muscles and lift the pit of your abdomen, create the intention of moving the pelvic energy toward your heart center. You can imagine this energy as heat or light that rises upward like a flame.
On an exhalation, create the intention of releasing the energy of your thoughts down through your brain stem, through your neck, and into your heart center. I often picture my thoughts softening and flowing down through my neck to merge with my heart.
Opening the Hips and Hamstrings
Now let’s apply these principles as we proceed toward Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. Since the pose is an intense stretch for the hamstrings, you should prepare for it with hamstring openers like Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), Upavistha Konasana, and Parsva Upavistha Konasana (Side Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend). Once you’ve done a few poses to begin preparing the hips and hamstrings, continue by practicing Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose).
To come into Janu Sirsasana, sit with your legs stretched straight out in front of you in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Exhaling, bend your right knee, placing the sole of your right foot on your inner left thigh, with your right heel at your right groin. Place your hands on either side of your buttocks, fingertips on the floor and palms cupped. Lift the sides of your waist toward the front of your armpits. Inhale deeply, then exhale and tip your pelvis forward, pressing your sitting bones into the floor. Lifting your spine, twist it to your left so that your belly button is above your left thigh. Grasp your left foot from the top with your right hand, fingers holding the mounds of the toes. Place your left hand on the floor about a foot to the left of your left knee.
Pressing the fingertips of your left hand into the floor, cup your palm and imagine that you are sucking energy up from the earth into your arm and body. Inhaling, tip your pelvis farther forward, bringing your weight onto the front of your sitting bones, and lengthen your torso by pushing down with both arms. Inhale as you lift the energy of the perineum and the inner pelvis toward your heart center.
Exhaling, move both sides of your waist toward your left foot, creating a slight backbend in your lumbar (lower) spine and drawing your belly up toward your heart. Maintain this length in the front of your body as you exhale and bend both elbows, pulling your torso down toward your left leg. Continue pushing the floor with your left hand to lift your left shoulder and make both shoulders equidistant from the floor. Then, exhaling, bring your chest to your thigh and your chin toward your left shin. (For a softer, less intense variation, rest your forehead rather than your chin on your shin.)
Once you have come down to your shin, inhale. Then exhale while reaching forward with your left hand and placing the back of your left palm against the sole of your left foot; the back of your wrist should touch the outer edge of your foot at the bottom of the arch. Next, reach forward with your right hand, palm facing away from you, and grasp your right wrist with your left hand. Then gently make a fist with your right hand. When you have created this clasp, bend your elbows. You’ll find that this action moves the elbows apart and away from each other rather than down to the floor. This action also spreads the shoulder blades, and it is the correct way to extend the sides of the waist in Janu Sirsasana.
Once you have attained the maximum possible stretch in the sides of your waist by bending your elbows, slowly bring your elbows toward the floor. Breathe slowly and deeply, moving your breath into the sides of your ribs and your back. Make sure not to overinflate the front of your chest while doing this pose; if you do, you will agitate your nervous system.
Janu Sirsasana can have a soothing, restorative effect when done passively and held for a fairly long time (up to three or more minutes on each side). But when you are going to use it as a preparation for Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, you should do the pose actively and hold it for only around nine breaths–which is about a minute or so. Then, inhaling, lift your head and chest, straighten your arms, and look up for a few seconds, extending the front of your spine and working to make your spine concave. Slide your abdomen farther forward on your thigh, moving it toward the left knee, and draw the bones of your lumbar spine toward your left thigh. Maintaining the concavity as much as possible, exhale as you once again roll the front of your chest onto your left leg. Hold for another three to nine breaths. Then, as you inhale, lead with your heart to lift your torso back to an upright position. Return to Dandasana and repeat the pose to the other side.
Now, let’s begin to move into Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana itself. You may come into the pose from Upavistha Konasana by simply bending your right knee and placing your right heel at the right side of your pubis without changing the angle between your thighs. Alternately, you can begin in Dandasana. Exhaling, bend your right knee as you did to come into Janu Sirsasana, but this time draw your right knee much farther back so that your thighs form the same 135-degree angle that they do in Upavistha Konasana.
However you come into the pose, press your cupped right hand into the floor beside your right buttock, directly in the line formed by your left heel and left sitting bone. Cupping your left hand in the same way, place your left fingertips on the floor just to the right of your left knee. Press both hands into the floor and imagine that you are sucking energy through your arms up from the earth and into your body. Exhaling, press both sitting bones into the ground and stretch your left calf muscle into your left heel; push your heel away from your hip while also spreading and pushing into the mounds of all five toes. Inhaling, contract the quadriceps of your left leg, pressing your left thighbone toward the earth. Exhaling, press your right thigh and shin toward the earth. Applying everything you’ve learned about firming the perineum and lifting the pit of your abdomen, inhale and move your pelvic energy toward your heart center. Expand your chest fully, dropping your shoulder blades down your back. Maintaining the lift, twist your spine and your head to the right.
From this position, exhale and tilt your spine to the left, while maintaining the length of your left waist. Bend your left knee so that it lifts eight to ten inches off the floor, and place your left elbow, forearm, and palm on the floor, elbow just to the inside of your left knee. Pressing your left palm into the floor, inhale, sweep your right arm overhead, and grasp the outside of your left foot with your right fingers. (If you can’t reach, wrap a strap around the sole of your foot and hold the strap with your right hand.) Maintain the lift of the pelvic energy toward your heart center as you walk your left hand away from your pelvis, extending your left waist and bringing your left waist and shoulder closer and closer to the floor. Keeping your left knee bent, press your inner left thigh against the back of your left waist and ribs as if you were trying to glue them together; similarly, press your inner left knee into the back of your left shoulder.
Without letting the leg and the torso move apart, slowly straighten your left leg, walking your left hand even farther in the same direction. In such a deep stretch, the hamstring is quite vulnerable, so move slowly and carefully, with great consciousness. Once your left knee is straight, rotate your left arm externally, first making your palm face the ceiling and then rotating it even further to face your left foot. Bend your left elbow and hold the inside edge of your left foot with your left hand; the thumb of your left hand should be toward the floor and the little finger toward the ceiling, with your inner wrist and inner elbow facing your left leg.
Pull your left foot with both hands to further extend your spine, and then bend your elbows as much as possible to extend the sides of your waist. Moving the back of your head toward your left shinbone, look up at the ceiling from underneath your right arm. Contract the quadriceps of your left leg very strongly, pressing the back of your left knee into the floor. Then extend your calf muscle away from your knee, pressing your left heel away from your hip. Press the toe mounds of your left foot into your hands to further extend the spine and the sides of the waist.
Achieving the Impossible
Many students look at the full version of this pose and give up before they start. After all, how many of us imagine we can rest our upper backs onto the front of our thighs? To do it, we first must believe we can do it. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” Inner belief in our latent abilities creates a confluence of all of our energies–mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual–to produce actions that otherwise would never be possible.
When I was small, my father taught me the phrase “Difficult things can be done right away; the impossible takes a little longer.” When we are confronted with something that appears to be impossible, we must consciously take a step outside the closed box of our minds, beyond what we already know. Indeed, even after all these years of practice, if I attempt Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana in a normal state of mind, my body resists my efforts and I get stuck in a very mediocre excuse for the pose. It is only when I go deep inside myself and break through the boundaries of everyday consciousness that I can charge my actions from my perineum, expanding and twisting to create the length and magnificence of this stunning pose.
To move into the fullest expression of Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, bring your awareness completely into your body and move very slowly, carefully, and consciously. This is an extremely powerful and intense stretch for the body–it turns the seemingly impossible into the possible. Working at your edge in this pose requires intense consciousness to prevent injury. Focus on your breath and make every action connect with it. When the breath leads, there is more consciousness and, hence, more safety in the movement.
From the position in Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, slowly move your hands down the left foot: right hand to the bottom of your arch, left hand to your heel. Inhaling, pull the outer edge of your left foot with your right arm; exhaling, press your outer left arm and elbow into the floor. Straighten your left leg to its maximum, pressing the back of your knee into the floor very strongly. Then push your left heel into your fingers and pull your left foot with your arms to create the maximum possible stretch on the sides of your torso.
Twist your spine to its maximum position, bringing the back of your left ribs onto the front of your left thigh. To increase the twist, press your left elbow farther into the floor and bend your right elbow as much as you can, drawing it up toward the ceiling and then back and down toward the floor behind you. You will feel an extreme stretch in your right armpit and along the side of your right ribs. Press the back of your head into your left shinbone strongly. This action will further increase the length of your spine and the opening of your chest.
Your right buttock may lift off the floor. If it does, don’t worry; this is fine. However, make sure to press the top of your right foot and the front of your right shin into the floor, turning your ankle so that the sole of your right foot faces the ceiling. Using all the power of Mula Bandha, draw the pelvic energy up into your heart center and use it to expand your chest into a joyous smile.
After lengthening your torso, twisting your spine, pulling your foot, and opening your chest as much as you can, burnish the pose to a final polish with two more actions. First, without letting your left heel slip back toward your calf, point your toes away from your head. Second, carefully stretch your right hip toward your right knee, opening your right groin as much as possible. You should feel a deep stretch from your inner right knee across your right hip and along your right waist, chest, armpit, and upper arm. Hold this intense action for three to nine breaths, breathing deeply and enjoying the fruits of your efforts: the lift of the pelvic energy into the heart center and the spreading out of the heart energy into the lungs, the ribs, the chest, and the armpits.
The Infinity Within
This spreading of the heart energy can dispel grief, bringing joy; dispel fear, bringing power; and dispel ignorance, bringing wisdom. Emotionally speaking, memories of childhood difficulties and traumas are often held in tightness around the pelvis. Similarly, we often create constriction around the area of the heart, closing it down, when we feel wounded by the actions of others. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, more than most poses, creates a tornado-like effect in the inner energy channels of the body, churning up concealed emotions from the pelvis as well as blowing open the closed doors of the heart. Many students have told me that after performing this posture, they feel more open and more vulnerable. After doing this pose, when the heart and emotions are so open and exposed, it is important to sit quietly and center your energy. Close your eyes and draw your gaze into your heart center, looking within; allow the flowering to begin there, yet also consciously create a sense of protection surrounding you so you do not feel vulnerable.
To practice this deep, heart-opening yoga off the mat, experiment with asking your heart center when making decisions about matters such as your spiritual practice, a relationship, or your livelihood. You will find that with practice, you will be able to hear its quiet voice. The heart center doesn’t use words to express itself; it is not a brain. Rather, it expresses itself through a felt sense of yes or no, an affirming feeling of expansive, welcoming embrace or a negating feeling of withdrawal and retreat. As we learn to move our brains out of the way–and thus also our egos–our consciousness can be more truly guided by the heart center.
Just as the thinking mind must be guided by the heart center if we are to serve our dharma instead of our egos, the energy of the pelvis–the energy that lends power to our actions–must be guided by the heart lest it instead merely empower our animal natures. In yoga, we learn that the heart is truly the seat of the soul. If we come to our asana practice with this in mind, our work in the body can be moved into the heart and beyond. All of our efforts will gradually reflect the joyous adventure of self-discovery and the glow of our inner infinity, the soul.