Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
The seated forward bend Janu Sirsasana has tremendous physical benefits: It stretches the hamstrings, calves, and lower back; opens the hips and knees; enhances digestion and elimination. But its greatest gifts are often mental and emotional, boosting flexibility of mind as well as muscles.
Like all other forward bends, Janu Sirsasana can be calming and restorative, slowing the heart rate and quieting the nervous system. But tight hips and hamstrings can make sitting on the floor difficult and bending forward seem impossible. To make this pose accessible in the beginning, you’ll probably need props, typically a folded blanket to elevate the pelvis and a strap to catch the foot. It’s perfectly normal to become impatient and frustrated with these modifications. But if, in your ambition to achieve the “real” pose, you haul yourself forward with your hands and strain to reach your toes, you’ll risk injuring yourself.
This asana is about much more than stretching stiff legs and backs. Janu Sirsasana offers a profound lesson in truthfulness a moral discipline called satya, one of five ethical behaviors, or yamas, outlined in the sage Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra. An attitude of total honesty is critical in this pose of humility, which bows the head over the knee. Only by taking your ego out of the posture and being truthful about where you are can you progress safely and effectively. The rewards of its subtle twist are enormous; this asana helps cultivate patience, acceptance, and surrender and teaches the delicate art of letting goof tension in the body and of striving in the mind.
Protect Your Lower Back
In Sanskrit, janu means “knee,” and sirsa means “head,” which is why the posture is often translated as “Head-to-Knee Pose.” But “this is very misleading,” wrote the late yoga master Esther Myers in Yoga and You. “When you are able to go forward fully, your head will go past your knee,” and extremely flexible people will rest their faces on their shins. In his classic guide, Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar says to “rest first the forehead, then the nose, then the lips and lastly the chin beyond the right knee. ” Richard Faulds addresses this confusion in his book Kripalu Yoga by calling the posture “Chin-to-Knee Pose.”
The name Head-to-Knee Pose suggests the head rests on the knee, which may cause students to round their low backs. “Rounding your lower back puts hundreds of pounds of pressure on the discs between your lumbar vertebrae, ” writes Judith Hanson Lasater about the asana she calls “Head-of-the-Knee Pose” in her book 30 Essential Yoga Poses. “It is very important that this movement be accomplished by tilting your pelvis forward and not by rounding your lower back.”
To prevent lower back problems, remember that the neutral position for the lumbar spine is a concave arch. Keep this natural curve in the low back as you move into a forward bend, tilting the pelvis forward first and letting the spine follow.
Since Janu Sirsasana is both an intense stretch for the back body as well as a slight twist, it is generally practiced near the end of class, after the body is warmed up. Prepare with several rounds of Sun Salutations and continue with a standing pose that opens the hips, such as Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II); a standing twist, such as Trikonasana (Triangle Pose); and a standing forward bend, such as Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend). Then sit and prepare the hips with Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) and energize the back with Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja’s Twist).
Set up by sitting on the edge of a folded blanket and extend both legs straight in front of you. Use your hands to move the flesh away from your buttocks and plant your sitting bones firmly on the blanket. Bend your right knee and bring the heel of your right foot toward your left groin, placing it as high on the inner left thigh as you can . Allow your bent right knee to release away from your hip and drop toward the floor. If it doesn’t reach the floor, place a block or folded blanket under the knee or thigh for support.
Sit tall, place your hands on your hips, and square them to the front of the room. Flex your left foot and extend through the heel, with the toes and knee pointing up to the sky. Release your pelvis down as you exhale and extend your spine up as you inhale. Keep this length in your spine as you bring your right hand to the floor behind you. Rotate your rib cage slightly to the left and bring your right hand to the outside of your left leg at the thigh, knee, shin, or wherever it comfortably lands.
Mind the Stretch
Inhale and lengthen your spine, then exhale and hinge forward from your hips by bringing your sacrum forward and drawing your pubic bone back. Be sure to keep the natural curve in your lower back as you gently slide your right hand down the outside of your left leg toward the pinkie toe. Maintain an attitude of honesty, curiosity, and cautious exploration as you take your left hand off the floor and your right hand off your leg and extend both arms toward your left foot. If you can’t comfortably reach your foot, place a strap around it and hold on to each end. Keep your face and throat soft, shoulders relaxed, and neck in line with your spine as you slowly extend out over your left leg. Bend your elbows outward to keep your collarbones broad and to avoid collapsing the back.
Let the sensation in the back of your straight leg determine how far you go in the pose. Keep the muscles of the straight leg engaged, drawing your kneecap and your quadriceps up toward your hips. Don’t allow the straight leg to splay out to the left. As you approach an “edge ” of resistance, stop, breathe, and invite your muscles to soften and release. Bring your attention to the wavelike action of the breath moving in your body. Notice how your torso rises slightly with each inhalation and relaxes with each exhalation, perhaps taking you just a little deeper into the pose or not. Direct your breath into the back of your rib cage, your hamstrings, or wherever you feel any tightness.
If you can catch your foot without strain, bring the little-toe side of the foot toward you. As you continue to move deeper into the pose, invite your lower rib cage toward your thighs and continue to keep your head in line with your spine and keep your gaze soft. If possible, clasp your wrist beyond the foot. When you reach your full forward bend, stay where you are and breathe deeply for 10 breaths and try to let go of tension. To come out of the pose, bring your hands alongside your hips and lengthen back up slowly. Repeat on the other side. If you can sit upright and comfortably on the floor so that an imaginary line from the navel to the pubic bone is perpendicular to the floor, try the pose without sitting on a blanket.
Go Deeper by Doing Less
Janu Sirsasana is an eye-opening experience for many goal-oriented people, because it counters our tendency to “give 110 percent.” Simply put, you can’t force yourself to relax. The harder you “work” at letting go, the less success you have.
It’s great fun to watch the light bulb of recognition turn on as students make the profound discovery that the way to go deeper in this posture is to do less. Be honest about where you are in the moment, have patience, breathe, and let your body unfold. Recognize that the attitudes and practices you use to release the resistance in your hamstrings can help you let go of other unwanted tension in your life.
Carol Krucoff is a registered yoga teacher and journalist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She is coauthor of Healing Moves: How to Cure, Relieve and Prevent Common Ailments with Exercise. Visit www.healingmoves.com for more information.