I remember my budding days in the Mysore room watching 2nd and 3rd series Ashtanga yogis effortless slipping their legs behind their heads and looking serene while I struggled with Half Lotus with no knee pain. I often thought they came from a different planet where flexibility was the norm and I was their subservient inflexible minion. I watched in awe hoping that one day I could get dual citizenship into their crazy, beautiful world. I kept practicing. I made it through the first series and into the intermediate series. I practiced vinyasa flow on the weekends, held my externally rotated standing poses with strength, and spent plenty of time surrendering into my Pigeons. Keep in mind, I was never trying to put my foot behind my head. Honestly, it seemed like a silly idea to even try.
By the time I got up to the dreaded Eka Pada Sirsasana (Foot-Behind-the-Head Pose), I was shocked. It certainly wasn't a walk in the park, but it also wasn't pulling teeth. My hips responded, slowly working their way toward the mountain top. With patience and perseverance, I got there! My foot slid behind my head and I sat as tall as I could. The bummer was there were no angelic horns or gates of heaven opening—it just felt like a freaking foot behind my head, and it was heavy! The realization made me laugh. It's so easy to get caught up in aesthetic of the practice and wanting what other advanced yogis do so seemingly effortlessly. The danger is we forget to enjoy all the little juicy tidbits that happen everyday on our mat: The strength and stability that Warrior II builds in the lower body and in the mind. The surrender and openness that Pigeon creates in the hips and heart. And the deep, deep gratitude toward our body for even being able to roll out of bed and stand up each day.
Sliding your foot behind your head then becomes a victory, but also a realization that you've been fabulous all along. You don't need to have a deep contortion to feel accomplished—just a strong foundation and love for your everyday practice and the willingness to learn and expand.
*This sequence will help you get your foot behind your head, but I highly recommend spending some serious time in externally rotated standing poses to build heat in your hips before you dive into this pose.
Depending on the depth of your single Pigeon, have a few blankets handy. Start in Downward-Facing Dog and step your left shin bone to the front of your mat and drop your back leg and pelvis down. If your hips are nowhere near the ground, grab your blanket(s) and place them under your left hip to help level everything out. If you want a lighter hip opener, keep your front heel close to your body. If you want to intensify the external rotation, work the shin bone so it becomes parallel with the front of the mat, keeping your foot flexed. Roll your outer right thigh and right hip down toward the ground to help level your pelvis. Press down into the baby toe of your right foot and make a slight internal rotation of your upper inner right thigh. Inhale as you balance on your fingertips and lift your chest high. Exhale, walk your torso forward over your Pigeon leg and rest your head on the ground, blankets, or a block. Hold here for 8 breaths or up to 5 minutes.
*note: There should be NO knee pain in this pose. Strong hip sensation, yes, for sure. Knee pain is an indication that you're going too deep into your hips. Either bring your heel closer to your body or prop yourself up on blankets for additional support.
This amped-up version of Thread the Needle is a fantastic prep pose for foot-behind-the-head on your back or seated upright (or for whenever you want a deeper hip opener). Start on your back in Thread the Needle: Bend both knees and cross your left ankle directly below your right knee. Lift the right foot off the ground and the leg in toward your chest. Reach your left arm through the gap in your legs and your right arm around the outside of your right thigh to clasp your fingers behind your hamstring. Hold here for a few breaths (keep your head relaxed on the ground).
From here you have two options: cradle or forklift your shin. If you cradle (my preference), take your inner left elbow around your left kneecap and inner right elbow to the sole of your left foot and clasp your hands in front of your shin bone as you straigthen release your right foot down onto your mat, with your knee still bent. If you forklift, slide both arms under your shin so the elbows hook at the leg. Try both and see what feels best. Once you put your right foot on the floor, you can stay like this or extend it straight, which will considerably intensify the stretch.
After holding this variation for a good 8 breaths, hook your right elbow under your shin just above your ankle and reach your left arm straight back overhead. Bend your left elbow, take the arm behind your head, and try to clasp your hands together. Press your head back into your elbow like a pillow to deepen the opening (this mimics the feeling of a foot behind your head). Hold another 8 breaths and gently release to switch sides.
From sitting, bend your left knee and take the forklift or cradle option from Step 2 (I'm doing the cradle variation in the photo). Once you have your left leg, sit up as tall as you comfortably can. Keep the lower back lifting and the chest up. Flex your right foot to give you an anchor in the pose. If possible, lift your left foot to be in line with your left knee (this will deepen the rotation) as well as pulling the foot side in closer to the body. Hold for a good 30 seconds or so.
Continuing on from where we left off in Step 3, it's time to put your backpack on! Imagine your left leg is like the strap of a backpack and you're working it up your arm so it will sit comfortably on your back. Keep your left shinbone where it is, but grab your left foot with both hands. Gently press your knee and shin out and back to the side, then put your left hand under your calf to help boost it up your arm. Do this several times until you can't take the leg any higher.
Remember before you go forward: If it feels like you're forcing something, then you probably are. You want this pose to be as effortless as possible (considering the situation), so please make a promise to yourself that you will not try to cram your foot behind your head for a painful moment of glory. You'll get there.
Once you've completed Step 4, place your right hand on top of your left foot and bow your head down. Give a nice boost of your shin up with your left hand (which is still under the shinbone) to help slide the shin behind your head. Once it's there, you'll start a wiggle process trying to get the left shoulder forward and the chest up. Don't think of the shin being behind your head—try go get it to the base of your neck. This will prevent the head from being forced down into your chest. You will need to press your head back into your leg to prevent the chest from collapsing and in the beginning, you might need to hold onto your foot with your right hand the entire time so it doesn't slip off off your head immediately. Once it's far enough down you neck, you can bring both hands to anjali mudra in front of your heart. Press your heart into your hands, sit up as tall as you can, and press back into your pillow. Keep the bottom leg active and engaged. Broaden through your collarbone and take a few breaths here. Grab the foot with your right hand, dip your chin, and lightly slide the leg back to the ground.
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MBG, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD and is currently writing Rodale’s The Big Book of Yoga. Follow her on Twitter; Facebook; or on her website.