So often in yoga practice, you'll feel a craving for deep sensation, like that of a cat luxuriating in its morning stretch. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose) is one of those asanas that can inspire this desire, and if you practice with a focus on stretching, the pose can definitely provide a great deal of sensation. It's a beautiful and intense seated sidebend and twist. However, Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana has much more to offer than just a big stretch.
When you first start practicing this challenging pose, most of the extension in the body, and therefore the stretch, is experienced along the side of the torso closest to the ceiling. The side closest to the floor tends to contract. With targeted action and extension, however, you can lengthen the side of the torso that is closer to the floor, bringing more evenness to the two sides of the body. When you also learn to bring firmness to the hips and encourage an opening in the inner thighs and groins, you can use the hips to generate power behind the twist, moving the rotation of the body closer to the spine and lower back. Together, these actions bring stability to the pose so that you can extend and turn deeper. Otherwise, you'd most likely use your arms to generate the power of the twist, and the rotation would be limited to the upper chest and side ribs.
What's wonderful is that the stabilizing effect goes beyond the physical. Moving your attention from the desire for a superficial stretch to the inner action and alignment of this pose helps to stabilize your mind, giving you a sense of calm. When your practice is directed only toward stretching, your senses lead you on an outward journey, which has an agitating effect on the mind. But when you turn your awareness to establishing evenness in your torso and compactness in your hips, you can begin to rein in your senses, and your mind naturally settles as your awareness moves inward. The result will leave you free to expand into the exhilarating twist of Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana with a more satisfying feeling of quiet focus and calm.
Listen: Practice along to an audio recording of this Master Class sequence online at yogajournal.com/livemag.
1. Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
You'll start lengthening your inner thighs and contracting your hips as you learn to lengthen both sides of your torso in Utthita Parsvakonasana. From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), step or jump your legs wide apart and extend your arms horizontally, aligning your feet underneath your hands. Turn your feet to the right and externally rotate the right thigh from the hip. Then, bend your right knee to a 90-degree angle.
Lengthen your right inner thigh from the pelvis toward the inner knee and keep the knee in line with the right ankle. Extend the right side of your torso along your right leg and place your right hand on the floor behind the right foot. Lift the left arm overhead near the left ear. Keep the left leg straight and press the front of your left thigh back as you push the outer edge of the left heel into the floor.
Contract from the right outer knee to the right outer hip. This contraction in your right outer hip is the key to establishing stability and openness in your pelvis throughout this sequence. Keep your left leg straight and press it back as you move your right outer hip and buttock forward to open and lengthen the inner thigh toward the knee.
Extend from the left side ribs out through the left arm and see if you can lengthen the right side of the torso. Release the right buttock down toward the floor as you extend your right bottom ribs toward the right armpit to create more space along the right side of your waist and ribs so that the right and left sides lengthen more equally. Without contracting your right side waist, move your back ribs on the right side of your torso forward and turn the left side of the rib cage back. Maintaining the evenness in your sides and compactness in your right outer hip, rotate the entire front of your torso to face the ceiling. Breathe smoothly here for a minute. Then press into your left heel and reach up with your left arm to come up and out of the pose. Turn your feet forward and take the pose on the left side.
2. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
Baddha Konasana is a great way to help you increase knee flexion and learn to lengthen your inner thighs. You'll need to be able to do both actions well in the final pose. Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) and relax your right leg as you hold the inside of your right knee with your right hand.
Keeping your knee close to the floor, pull the knee back to bend it out to the right side. Use your hand to pull the right foot in close to your pelvis. Now do the same with your left leg and join the soles of the feet together.
Place your hands behind you on the floor and lift from the bottom of your torso to the top of your chest. If your knees are lifted higher than your pelvis, sit on a couple of folded blankets.
Lengthen the inner thighs out to the sides and toward the knees, to open the groins. Contract your outer hips as you did in Utthita Parsvakonasana to see if you can open the inner thighs and release the knees apart from each other even more. When the inner thighs lengthen, the knees will start to release apart and toward the floor on their own.
Now, without lifting the legs, raise the front of your torso. Lift your abdomen and waist away from your inner thighs and move the back ribs forward to help open your chest. Relax your eyes, forehead, and jaw as you encourage your inner legs to open from the stability of your hips. Hold for up to 3 minutes and breathe smoothly. Use your hands to lift the outer knees and join the legs together. Then come into Dandasana before taking the next pose.
3. Parsva Upavistha Konasana (Side Seated Wide Angle Pose)
Parsva Upavistha Konasana will help prepare your legs for the final pose by lengthening the hamstrings and inner thighs. You'll also continue to practice bringing symmetry to the sides of your torso while you contract your hips.
Sit with your legs wide apart and press the tops of your thighs down into the floor while you keep the knees and feet pointing straight up toward the ceiling. Place your hands behind you and lift the front of your torso up.
If it's difficult to sit up straight here, sit on a couple of folded blankets. Now turn your torso to face the right leg and hold the outside edge of your right foot with your left hand. If you can't reach it, hold a belt around the foot. Place your right hand beside your right hip and push the floor as you lift and lengthen the right side of your rib cage away from the waist. Contract the right outer hip and press your left thigh down.
From here, hold the right foot with both hands and begin to bend your elbows out to the sides as you lengthen your torso forward over your right leg. Keep both legs straight and extend from the left inner thigh to the left inner heel. Turn your abdomen and waist to the right to face the right leg. Move the left ribs to the right to lengthen the right side of your body and extend both sides of the torso evenly. If you're able to easily hold the foot and bend your elbows, you can hold your right wrist behind your foot with your left hand. With mindfulness and informed effort, you can go beyond merely stretching the left side of the body to bring a symmetry to the pose that allows you to go deeper without tension and overstretching.
Breathe here for a minute. On an inhalation, lift your torso and come back to the center in Parsva Upavistha Konasana before repeating on your left side.
4. Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Janu Sirsasana involves both a forward fold and a twist. When you're in the pose with the right leg forward, you can feel how the left side of the torso pulls to the left and up toward the ceiling while the right side contracts. You'll practice counteracting this tendency in order to bring evenness to both sides of the torso.
The contraction of the outer hip will give you the stability from which you can extend your spine and inner thigh and release your bent knee. Come back to Dandasana and relax your left leg so that it falls out to the side as it did in Baddha Konasana. Hold the left inner knee with the left hand and keep it close to the floor as you pull the knee to the left side. Bring the left heel close to the left inner thigh and turn the sole of the foot to face the ceiling as you lengthen from the left inner thigh first toward the inner knee and then toward the floor. If your left knee won't descend or you feel strain in the knee, sit on a folded blanket or two until you feel the knee descending.
Keep the right leg straight and sit up tall. With your torso facing the right leg, raise your arms overhead and lift both sides of your torso. Reach forward and hold the right foot with your hands (feel free to hold a belt if you can't reach the foot). Lift the front of your torso and chest as you press the front of the right thigh straight down into the floor.
Turn your abdomen to the right, keeping the left knee down. Begin to bend your elbows to the side and extend the front of your torso forward. If you can, hold your right wrist with your left hand. Keep the left inner thigh lengthening toward the left knee and descending as you extend over your right leg.
Instead of letting the left side of the torso lift and pull to the left, roll the left side ribs toward the floor and move them to the right to broaden the right side of the rib cage. Lengthen the right side of your trunk. Relax your neck as you look down, or rest your forehead on your shin, and spread your shoulders away from your ears. Hold for a minute. Then inhale and raise your arms overhead as you come up and out of the pose. Return to Dandasana before repeating on the other side.
5. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose)
Bend your left knee as you did for Janu Sirsasana. But this time pull the knee even farther back, increasing the distance between the two knees. With your hands behind you, lift and turn your torso to the left to face the left knee. Lean back over your right leg as you extend the right side of your waist, rib cage, and right arm along the inside of your right leg. Reach your right hand beyond your right foot and then straighten the right leg, extending all the way from the right inner thigh to the right inner heel.
Lengthen from the left inner thigh toward the left inner knee. It should feel like both inner knees are reaching away from each other. Rotate the upper right arm out and turn the palm up as you revolve your chest to the left and up toward the ceiling. Turn the right palm to face the arch of your right foot and then hold the right foot with your right hand. Bend your right elbow and bring it down to the floor as you lengthen the right side of your rib cage and waist along the inside seam of your right thigh.
If you can, place the back of your right shoulder or shoulder blade against your right inner leg. Now press your elbow into the floor and rotate your torso toward the ceiling. Lift and extend your left arm overhead by your right ear.
Keep lengthening your left inner thigh toward your left knee as you lean back. Contract your right outer hip so that it moves in and forward toward your inner thigh as you extend the inside edge of your right thigh toward your right inner heel.
Lengthen along the right side of your torso so that the right and left sides become parallel. Revolve your chest and abdomen from right to left, reach your left arm behind your left ear, and hold the outside edge of your right foot. Bend and separate the elbows away from each other as you open the front of your torso toward the ceiling.
Contract both outer hips to create a stable base from which you can lengthen your inner legs away from each other and so that you can turn from a lower point in the torso. Revolve the front of your body, starting from the bottom of your pelvis to the collarbones and up toward the ceiling. Breathe smoothly in the pose for up to a minute and relax your throat and tongue so that there is no strain. Slowly release and take the second side.
With informed effort and mindfulness, you'll find that you may penetrate deeper into your practice. Your body will be warm and ready for your finishing poses now, and the opening in the side body, firmness in your base, and mobility in the low back offer a state of measured calm that is carried into the rest of your practice and beyond.
Listen to an audio recording of this practice.
Marla Apt is a certified senior Iyengar Yoga teacher based in Los Angeles.