The first time my four-year-old son Matteo saw me in Yoganidrasana (Yogic Sleep Pose) he said, "Mama, that's crazy!" I have to agree with him; this pretzel-like pose can look a bit extreme at first. But once you're able to get into the pose safely, you'll find that the experience is anything but crazy. In fact, the shape of Yoganidrasana—a deep forward bend with the limbs drawn in close to the torso—stimulates pratyahara, or the deep state of peaceful relaxation that comes from withdrawing the senses.
Pratyahara is the fifth of the eight limbs laid out in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. In classical yoga, pratyahara is studied after the first four limbs, which include asana and pranayama, and before dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). There's a reason for that sequence. To cultivate pratyahara, you must apply what you've learned from the physical poses and breathwork; in turn, pratyahara prepares you for the deep inward concentration required for meditation.
Plus, the experience of pratyahara just feels good. As you draw your awareness inward, like a tortoise retreating into its shell, your breath slows, your muscles relax, and you feel yourself completely letting go. The sights and sounds around you feel far away, but at the same time you feel connected to the universe. The goal of pratyahara is not to tune everything out, but instead to find the source of stillness and calm that resides within you, even in the midst of chaos. It may be a state you've never felt before, but once you do, you'll want to return to it.
After years of practicing yoga I am most grateful for such moments of utter calm that arise during my practice. Like little drops of nectar, they are surprisingly sweet, and they are far more satisfying than those times when I "achieve" a difficult pose I've been working toward. They offer a chance to let go of any commotion around me, of the effort I put into my practice, of any ideas I have about how things should be—so that I can just be. And in my experience, though Yoganidrasana may look kind of crazy, once you're in it, it provides that rare experience of true stillness.
But just as a yogi doesn't tackle pratyahara without establishing a foundation in asana and pranayama, so you wouldn't want to try Yoganidrasana without ensuring that your body is ready for it. Open hips and loose hamstrings are essential to practicing this pose safely. Let me emphasize the word "safely" for a moment. Much as you might want to put both legs behind your head, doing so before your body is ready puts you at risk for an assortment of unpleasantries ranging from sacroiliac pain, to lumbar problems, to torn hamstrings, to neck pain.
For example, if your hip rotators and hamstrings are tight but your knee joints and sacroiliac are flexible, you'll unknowingly recruit those joints to compensate for the lack of flexibility in your muscles. And that can lead to injury. So it's critical that you stop doing Yoganidrasana—or any of the poses in this series—if you feel any knee, lower back, or neck pain.
The safest way to open the hips and lengthen the hamstrings is to consistently work on standing poses. It's also vital that you pay attention to your breath. If you find yourself gasping, holding your breath, or shaking during any of the poses in this sequence, then ease up. If, however, you sail through the first four poses with steadiness and ease, then you're probably ready to attempt Yoganidrasana. Remember, even though it takes a lot of effort to get into this pose, the only place you're trying to get is inside. You should feel comfortable, as though you could stay there for a while. Legend has it that the ancient yogis fell asleep in this pose. It may sound a little out there, but with patience and perseverance, anything is possible.
Before You Begin
Don't make the mistake of going into Yoganidrasana cold. Start with Sun Salutations (A and B versions, five of each), and then stay in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) for 3 to 5 minutes, resting in Balasana (Child's Pose) when you need to. Next, do about 20 minutes of standing poses. Include Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) and Virabhadrasana I and II (Warrior I and II). By then you should be warm enough to try the following sequence. Breathe smoothly through your nose throughout the whole practice and rest in Child's Pose as often as you need to.
In my opinion, this is one of the best standing postures ever. Almost everyone who comes to yoga has stiff hips in the beginning. When done correctly, Parsvakonasana safely opens the hips and elongates the adductors (the muscles along the inner thighs). It also stretches the whole side of the body, from the outer heel to the fingertips, creating space for the internal organs to move freely. Challenge yourself to stay in the pose for 20 to 30 breaths on each side, breathing smoothly and evenly through your nose. Do it 2 or 3 times for maximum effect.
Stand in the middle of your mat with your feet together. Inhale and step or jump your feet 4 to 5 feet apart. Exhale and turn your right leg out 90 degrees and move your left heel slightly to the left. Line up your feet heel to heel. Inhale and raise your arms to shoulder height. Exhale and bend your right leg to at least 90 degrees so that your right sitting bone lowers to the height of your right knee and your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Continue to breathe smoothly while you place your right hand on the floor on the inside of your right foot. If your hand doesn't reach the floor, place it either on your foot or on a block. Bend the right elbow slightly and use it to press your right knee back—but not too far back. At the same time tuck the right buttocks forward to open the hips. This action is extremely helpful for stretching the inner thigh, which is often short and tight. That said, flexible students should not overdo this action.
Next, place the right hand on the outside of the foot, stamp the left outer heel down as you reach through your straight left leg and extend your left arm over your ear. With the palm facing down, spin the thumb side of the hand up toward the ceiling. Breathe freely and evenly as you gaze up at your left hand. Inhale the torso up, then slowly straighten the right leg. Turn the right foot in, left foot out, and try this pose on the other side.
Come into Downward-Facing Dog and breathe freely through your nose. On an inhalation, step your right foot forward and around your right hand. Ultimately, the back of your right thigh should be on the back of the upper right arm. To get it there, hop your left foot toward your right hand a few inches to shorten your stride. Now exhale, bend the right knee, and pressing your right hand against the calf muscle, work your right shoulder underneath your right leg. Keep breathing and then place your right hand on the ground and turn your body to the left, pressing the left foot into the floor while straightening the left leg. Simultaneously, straighten the right leg and lift it off the ground. Finally, raise the left arm straight up vertically and turn your head to look up.
Breathe deeply for as long as you can. To come out, lower the left arm to your side first, then release the right leg and step into Downward Dog. Rest in Child's Pose and then repeat on the other side.
Sit on the floor with your legs about two feet apart. Slowly move your legs wider, to about 60 degrees, and begin to bend forward with your back slightly rounded. Bend the knees and slide the arms underneath them with your palms facing down. The fronts of your shoulders should be on the floor. Slowly straighten both legs at the same time and place your forehead or your chin on the floor. Your knees should be near your armpits and the backs of your knees should be resting on the upper part of your triceps muscles. Take several steady, deep breaths. If possible, try to extend the legs so much that the heels lift off the floor.
To take it a step further, you can move into Supta Kurmasana (Reclining Tortoise Pose, not pictured). Starting from Kurmasana, turn the palms up to face the ceiling and move the arms back toward the hips. Bend the knees slightly and lift the shoulders and chest off the floor a few inches. From there, bend the elbows and reach the forearms behind your back to clasp your hands.
Walk your feet together one at a time and cross the right ankle over the left. Tuck the chin and place the head under the feet or just behind them with the forehead on the floor. Stay in the pose as long as you are able to breathe smoothly and deeply. If you crossed the right foot over the left, repeat the pose again, this time crossing the left over the right. This should keep the sacroiliac joints (the joints that connect the bottom of the spine to the pelvis) and the hip joints balanced.
Whichever version you are in, notice how this turtle-shaped pose can help bring the state of pratyahara into being. As you breathe deeply for 5 to 10 breaths, imagine that you are a tortoise retreating into your shell and withdraw all sensory perception. Feel your mind become soft and still with each exhalation.
Eka Pada Sirsasana
As with Yoganidrasana, when my students see this pose for the first time they often react by saying, "I could never ever do that!" But it's important to believe that, with practice, the impossible can become possible. You've undoubtedly seen postures that seemed, at first glance, as if you'd never be able to do them and now you are practicing them regularly. Eka Pada Sirsasana is no different.
But remember that, to master this pose, you need not only long hamstrings but also open hips. If your hips are tight and you force yourself into this pose, you'll put your lower back or your knees at risk. (It is almost always the joint above or the joint below the joint you are trying to open that gets compromised.) So even though this possibility is within reach, it's important to recognize that it may take a long time and will require a tremendous amount of dedication to your practice.
To come into Foot-Behind-the-Head Pose, sit down with your legs stretched out in front of you. Inhale and take the right ankle with both hands. Exhale as you bend the right knee. Keeping the knee bent, inhale and lift the foot off the floor. With your hands on your ankle, draw the right knee toward the back of the room. Keep your foot at the same height as your knee. Exhale and move the right hip forward so that the right sitting bone moves closer to the left. Keep breathing as you lean forward slightly and place the right leg behind the back of the neck and work your right shoulder under the right calf. The outer shin of the right leg above the ankle should touch the bottom of the neck. The real challenge here is to get the foot and leg in that spot where the top of your back and the bottom of your neck meet. If the foot is directly behind the center of your neck or too far up toward your head, it will push your head forward, which is dangerous for the delicate cervical vertebrae. If you feel neck or back pain, stop what you are doing and rest.
To get deeper into the posture, hold the right foot with the left hand and wiggle your right shoulder further underneath your right calf. Press your hands together in Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal) in front of your heart. Sit up nice and tall. Lift your chest up and breathe smoothly through your nose. Release the foot, rest in Child's Pose, then do the pose on the other side.
As you can see, Yoganidrasana is essentially Supta Kurmasana flipped on its back. Both feet rest behind the head and act as a pillow. The back acts as the mattress.
Lie on your back. Inhale as you bring both legs over your head. Exhale as you bend your legs and place both knees underneath your shoulders. Breathe steadily as you take hold of the left foot with both hands, lift your head, and place the left leg behind your neck. Work it down behind your neck, toward the back of your right shoulder.
Now take the right foot with both hands and bring it behind your neck and over the top of your left foot. Point your toes. Pull the feet away from each other to spread them so that they form a pillow for the head. Reach both arms behind your back and clasp your fingers together. Lift your chest up between your legs as you rest your head on your feet. Look up and breathe smoothly and deeply for 20 to 30 breaths. As you breathe, notice if you are calm or panicked. If you find yourself tensing or panicking, it probably means you're not ready to be in this stage of the pose. But if you feel calm, enjoy this state for as long as you like.
To come out, release the hands first and then the feet. Rest on your back for 5 breaths and then repeat the pose by taking the right leg behind the back first and then the left leg.
To end this intense practice, do a few supine twists and then take Savasana (Corpse Pose). To continue cultivating pratyahara, cover your body with a blanket and cover your eyes with an eye bag. The blanket will help your body retain heat and contain your energy. The eye bag relaxes the optical nerves and allows the eyeballs to feel as though they are dropping deeper and deeper into the sockets. After staying in Yoganidrasana, doing Savasana with a blanket and eye pillow will bring you into complete sensory withdrawal. Enjoy this very deep state of relaxation. You've earned it.