Where to yield and where to hold firm? That is the question in both asana and life. Yield everywhere and your pose is mush; yield nowhere and you go nowhere. The same principle works off the mat. Yield to your child's every wish and she runs wild; impose relentless discipline and she is stifled. Give way on all points in a business negotiation and you end up with a bad deal; refuse to compromise and you get no deal at all.
It is this balance between holding on and letting go that puts you where you want to be and keeps you there. Nothing embodies
this more than Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana (Revolved Split-Legged Headstand). To fully express the beauty and joy of this
complex, twisting Headstand, you need an exquisite mix of control and abandon. But how can you tell where to cut loose and
where to hang tight?
First, you have to learn some rules, then you have to learn to fudge them, using common sense, sensitivity, and awareness. To find grace and happiness, you need to act mindfully, not just blindly follow a formula. When learning a difficult pose, it helps to know the rules of alignment and how to fudge them in preparatory poses. These poses will also warm up and mobilize the parts of your body that the final pose challenges the most. For Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana, we'll focus on four preliminary postures: Parivrtta Supta Padangusthasana (Revolved Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), a version of Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), Sirsasana (Headstand), and Parsva Sirsasana (Side Headstand). It's also a good idea to warm up first with several minutes of general asana practice, including one or more poses that mobilize the shoulders and neck for Headstand—Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), for example, and/or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Downward-Facing Tree Pose, better known as Handstand).
Our first preparatory pose is a twisting variation of Supta Padangusthasana. It requires some of the actions you'll use in the front leg in Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana. It also helps you learn how to twist while staying properly aligned in the spine from head to tail.
Begin by lying on your back with your legs together and your right palm on your right thigh. Keeping your right leg strong, straight, and on the floor, bend your left knee and grasp your left big toe with the index and middle fingers of your left hand. (If you can't grip the toe because of tight hamstrings, loop a belt around the ball of your foot and hold it instead.) Draw your left sitting bone and the head of your left thighbone horizontally away from your head and maintain these actions as you straighten your left leg and direct it vertically toward the ceiling. Be careful that your thighbone rises straight out of your hip socket, rather than tilting left or right. Then straighten your left knee even more firmly, rotate both thighs slightly inward, and draw your left foot closer to your head. Next, tilt the top of your pelvis slightly forward to create a small inward curve in your lower back. Try to maintain this curve as you move into the twisting variation.
To prepare for the twist, grasp the outer edge of your left foot with your right hand, thumb pointing toward the heel. (If you're using a belt, switch it to your right hand.) Reach your left arm to the left at shoulder height, bringing the hand to the floor, palm down. Slightly lift your pelvis off the floor, slide it three or four inches to the left, and put it down again. This isn't the most graceful movement in the world, but it will keep your tailbone, spine, and head in a straight line, which is the alignment you'll want in Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana.
Now for the twist. Keeping your left shoulder as close to the floor as possible and maintaining an arch in your lower back, roll your pelvis and left leg to the right until your pelvis is completely on its right side and your left foot is on the floor to your right. Keeping your right leg strong and straight, let your right foot roll onto its little-toe side. Draw your left thighbone and hip away from your trunk, working to keep your left and right pelvic rims equidistant from your shoulders.
To complete Parivrtta Supta Padangusthasana, you will turn your head to the left. But since we're using this pose to learn about Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana, keep your face pointing toward the ceiling for now. Feel a line running from the crown of your head through your tailbone and commit that feeling to memory, because maintaining this line is one of the alignment rules you'll try not to break in all the upcoming Headstand variations. Once you've noted what this alignment feels like, turn your head to the left.
Now that we've looked at the muscular engagements needed to create alignment and stabilization in this pose, we can consider the letting-go part. As you bring your left foot to the floor, soften all the muscles of the front and side waist and note how it feels to release them. Eventually, to turn as far as possible in the Headstand twists, you'll need to selectively engage some of these muscles while completely releasing others. But since many people tend to contract muscles that should release in the more advanced twists, it's helpful to relax all the abdominal muscles in this easier twist, which allows that release.
Once you've come into full Parivrtta Supta Padangusthasana, hold for one minute, breathing naturally. Then repeat the pose on the other side.
The second pose is a variation of Virabhadrasana I in which you lift the heel of your back leg and press it into a wall. This helps you focus on extending the hip joint of the back leg while straightening the knee and rotating the thigh inward, actions you'll also need to do in Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana. However, lifting the heel makes it harder to balance in Virabhadrasana I. If balance is a problem, practice the regular version with your back heel on the floor but still pay special attention to your back leg.
Begin by standing with the outer edge of your left foot against the wall and your right foot about four to four-and-a-half feet away, with both feet pointing straight ahead, parallel to the wall. Raise both arms overhead as high as you can, stretching the sides of your trunk upward. Without losing this lift, turn your left foot in an inch or two, raise your left heel and press it into the wall about four to six inches above the floor, and turn your right foot out 90 degrees. Aim to rotate your whole left leg in about 60 degrees from its starting position; you may need to move your left heel a little higher up the wall to achieve this.
Keeping both legs straight for now, reinforce the straightness of the left leg by pressing the heel firmly into the wall and powerfully contracting your left quadriceps muscles. Press your left thighbone back toward the wall and up toward the ceiling, pushing your inner thigh back even more strongly than your outer thigh to rotate your whole leg in. Maintaining these actions, and without bending either knee, turn your pelvis toward the right by moving your left sitting bone forward as much as you can and scooping it under, as if trying to move it farther away from the wall than the pelvic rim. To reinforce this, contract the muscles that overlie your left sitting bone.
These actions all stretch the front of the left groin. To intensify this stretch, move toward the complete Virabhadrasana I. Start by reaffirming the pressure of the left heel against the wall and the right foot against the floor. Then progress in stages: Each time you exhale, bend your right knee a little, release your left groin, and turn your left sitting bone and the left side of your chest forward; each time you inhale, straighten your left leg more firmly and lift your chest and arms higher. Aim to bring your right thigh as close to parallel with the floor as you can while maintaining the actions of the left leg; if the knee of the right leg moves farther away from the wall than that ankle, adjust the length of your stride so the ankle is directly under the knee.
Then, on an inhalation, lift your chest farther and release your head back so you face the ceiling. Bring your palms together without bending your elbows (if you can't do that, keep your hands shoulder width apart) and look past your hands as if gazing through the ceiling into the infinite. (If looking up makes you lose your balance, look straight ahead.) Breathing gently, stay in the pose for about 30 seconds to a minute, then repeat it on the other side.
Before you can do the twisting Sirsasana variations, you of course need to be able to do regular Sirsasana. In fact, it's best not to attempt any twisting variations until you can hold a stable, well-aligned regular Headstand for at least three minutes. So let's review the fundamental rules of alignment and balance for basic Sirsasana and investigate the blend of firmness and softness that helps you stand on your head with lightness and poise.
Kneeling in front of a folded mat, interlace your fingers and place your elbows on the mat shoulder width apart. Press your outer hands, outer wrists, and outer forearms firmly and evenly into the mat. Envision a spot that lies halfway between the crown of your head and your forehead, and put this spot on the mat, placing the back of your head against your hands without disturbing the position of the hands, wrists, or forearms. Lift your shoulders away from your ears, press your shoulder blades firmly forward against your back, and straighten both knees, lifting your pelvis high in the air.
Redouble the lift and the forward press of your shoulder blades and tilt your pelvis to lift your sitting bones higher. Walk your feet closer and closer to your head, keeping your legs straight and your pelvis tilted. Then, with control, lift both legs up and balance on your head. As you come up, either keep your weight on the point between the crown and the forehead or shift the weight-bearing spot back, partway or all the way to the crown. Do not bear weight behind the crown, because this can stress the disks between the vertebrae in the neck.
The line of your lower spine in Sirsasana should be the same as in Tadasana (Mountain Pose)—a gentle curve, neither overarched nor flattened. The most common tendency is to overarch. To counter that, lift your tailbone, firming the muscles that overlie your sitting bones.
Next, make your whole body exactly vertical, bringing your legs and trunk forward or back as necessary. If you're aligned vertically, you can relax both the front of your waist (your abdominal muscles) and the back of your waist (your lower back muscles). In this alignment, the front of your groin is neither completely soft (as it would be if your legs were too far forward) nor rock hard (as it would be if your legs were too far back). Now that you're aligned front-to-back, imagine a line that runs vertically from the spot where you're bearing weight on your head up through your tailbone and on to infinity. Balance your trunk side-to-side around that line and place your legs evenly on either side of it.
As you remain in Sirsasana for three to five minutes, keep your feet and knees facing straight ahead. Reinforce the pressure of your outer wrists and forearms into the floor, lift your shoulders even higher toward the ceiling, flatten your shoulder blades firmly on your back, lengthen the sides of your waist, straighten your legs completely, and reach up through the balls of your feet, pressing the big-toe sides of your feet up a little farther than the little-toe sides.
Applying all of these instructions creates the basic alignment for Sirsasana. The hallmark of this alignment is neutrality: You're neither twisted nor bent forward, back, or to the side. The weight bearing down on your head is centered and the weight in your forearms is equally distributed. When you advance to the twisting variations of Headstand, the challenge will be to maintain most of this neutrality while intentionally abandoning it in specific, targeted areas of your body.
Twist the Rules
Our last preparatory pose is Parsva Sirsasana (Side Headstand). In this pose, with the legs still together and vertical, you'll learn where to apply extra effort to preserve the basic Headstand alignment while you twist, but you'll also learn where you can relax some of the rules of Headstand to make the twist work better.
Start in regular Sirsasana and apply all the instructions already provided, but especially concentrate on pressing your forearms evenly into the floor. Feel the power this gives you to lift your shoulders toward the ceiling, and maintain this lift as you practice both of the twisting Headstand variations.
Before you begin to twist, sense the plumb line that runs from the crown of your head through your tailbone. Then, using that line as your axis of rotation, exhale softly, press your right shoulder blade forward against your rib cage, push with both forearms as if to twist the floor to your left, and turn your hips and feet to the right. The arm and shoulder actions don't actually provide much twist in Headstand, but they do prevent the shoulders from following the rotation of the rest of the body—a movement that could stress your neck if taken too far. The actions also help activate the muscles of the spine and the sides of the waist, which are the true movers in the pose.
Twisting the trunk fully requires a complex balance between contracting and releasing various muscles around your abdomen, waist, ribs, and back. In the abdomen, waist, and rib areas, the muscles that must work and the muscles that must release lie in layers directly atop each other; in the spine, many of the crucial muscles are small and difficult to isolate. With continued practice and a bit of experimentation, you'll gain an ever-clearer sense of where to work and where to release. Scan for areas of hardening in your trunk that are stopping your twist, then consciously soften them so you can turn farther. Twist in stages, going a little deeper each time you exhale and pausing while you inhale. Reinforce the forward, counterrotating movement of your right shoulder each time you turn, and soften your diaphragm by allowing (not forcing) a little extra breath to escape at the end of each exhalation.
Eventually, you'll reach a point where you can't rotate any farther and still keep your shoulders square. Here's where you fudge a Headstand neutrality rule. Allowing your right shoulder to move back a little, turn your hips and feet still farther to the right. Use your sensitivity and good judgment here. If you completely collapse your right shoulder back, you may twist your neck into an uncomfortable and possibly hazardous position. If you don't let the shoulder go back far enough, your twist will be limited and feel stiff. Find a happy medium, a balance between holding on and letting go.
Even though you're now in an asymmetrical position and you've also just consciously bent the basic principle of neutrality in Headstand alignment, you must still maintain neutrality in more places than you've disturbed it. Take special care not to lean your head to the right or left and to maintain equal weight on your left and right forearms. Keep the left and right sides of your waist long and even, instead of letting the right side shorten as you turn your hips to the right. Keep your lumbar curve neutral, not overarched, and keep your legs vertical, instead of letting them drop backward or forward. When you find the sweet spot of balance in the pose, you will feel an internal sense of lightness and quiet. Hold the posture for 30 seconds to one minute or more, then repeat it on the other side.
Now it's time to apply everything you've learned from the preparatory poses to Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana. Start in Sirsasana. Then, keeping the sides of your big toes together, move your heels about two inches apart so both thighs rotate slightly inward. With your knees completely straight, simultaneously bring your left leg forward and your right leg back, as though you're coming into a split in midair.
You're aiming to bring both legs the same distance from the floor, but doing so requires careful attention. If you bring both legs down as far as you can, your front leg will end up much lower than your back one, and you won't be able to twist efficiently. Instead, press and release the back leg down as far as it will go while restraining the front leg from dropping as far as it could.
The extra effort you put into moving your right leg back will cause challenges of its own. If you drop your tailbone and the right side of your pelvis back with the leg, you're likely to overarch your lower back. To avoid overarching, press your right sitting bone up and forward, and firm the muscles that overlie that sitting bone. These actions are very similar to those you practiced in Virabhadrasana I, and they will produce a similar result: a sensation of stretch and, hopefully, release, in the right front groin. The sitting-bone movement won't totally prevent your lower spine from arching past neutral, and it doesn't have to. You can compromise neutrality here, judiciously allowing a little movement of the tailbone toward the floor to help the back leg get as low as possible.
As you draw your right leg back, you will also notice a strong tendency to let it rotate outward. Work to prevent this by reinforcing the inward rotation of the thigh, much as you did with the back leg in Virabhadrasana I. Also as in Warrior I, strongly straighten your knee.
At the same time, reinforce the inward rotation of the front leg; in other words, move the inner thigh upward relative to the outer thigh. This upward movement can serve as a reminder to lift the whole left side of the pelvis toward the ceiling, countering its tendency to drop as the left leg moves forward and down. This lift in the pelvis is similar to the effort you made to move the hip and upper thigh of the lifted leg away from the head in Parivrtta Supta Padangusthasana.
Before you move into the twist with your legs split, check that you're conforming to the Sirsasana rules of neutral alignment as much as possible. Go through a checklist of your body from the floor up. First, make sure your head isn't leaning left or right, then check that you're placing equal weight on each forearm and confirm that your shoulders are square and lifted. You'll want to retain equal height in both hips and equal length at both sides of your waist, and check that your tailbone is precisely above your crown. Make sure that your legs extend straight out of the hip sockets; notice that your knees are completely straight; and doublecheck that you're pressing out through the balls of your feet.
From arms to hips, Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana is virtually identical to Parsva Sirsasana, so initiate your twist just as you did in that pose. At first, keep your shoulders strictly square and strive to achieve a balance between action and release in the muscles of your back and side waist. And, as in Parsva Sirsasana, use your hips to drive your legs at first, keeping your legs coming straight out of your hip sockets rather than pulling your hips into the twist by turning your legs first.
When your hips can turn no farther to the right, start fudging the rules—but make it honest, conscious fudging. Continue to press your right shoulder forward, but let it yield and move slightly back, accentuating the twist as you did to complete Parsva Sirsasana. At the same time, let your front foot move slightly across the midline of your body. Let your back foot reach farther in the direction of the twist as well. Bending the rules and consciously freeing your shoulder and legs to move in this way brings your hips and trunk into a deep yet controlled and balanced twist, and gives you a sense of completion in the pose.
If you've managed to do all of this while maintaining most of the integrity of basic Sirsasana, there's a good chance you'll find a moment of blessed stillness in the midst of all the complexity of Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana. Hold the pose for 30 seconds to a minute or more, then repeat it on the other side.
Finish your practice with a nice, long Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Savasana (Corpse Pose). Then, when you leave your practice room, carry the lessons of Parivrttaikapada Sirsasana with you. Break down complicated problems into simple steps. Learn and honor principles to guide your actions, but apply them with common sense; know when to be strict and when to make exceptions. And above all, cultivate happiness and peace in the process.
A research scientist and Iyengar-certified yoga teacher, Roger Cole, Ph.D., specializes in human anatomy and in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. For more information, see http://rogercoleyoga.com.