The end of a year inspires reflection: What has transpired over the past year? What haven't we completed? Where do we intend to go in the next year? Forward bending poses express introspection. I like to practice them toward the end of a yoga session—and the end of a year. As we fold our bodies forward, we internalize and integrate the benefits of whatever poses came before. Their cooling and calming effects prepare your body/mind for Savasana (final relaxation).
Forward bends calm the brain and nervous system; relieve anxiety, headaches and fatigue; lower blood pressure; improve digestion; and stretch the muscles and connective tissue of the back body. This month's pose is Janu Sirsasana, an asymmetrical forward bend—with a twist.
Often called Head-to-Knee Pose, I prefer a lesser-known translation from the Sanskrit: "Head-of-the-Knee Pose." The former implies that the point is to bring your head close to or onto the knee of your extended leg. The latter emphasizes the opposite, bent knee, that grounds and extends, stabilizing your pelvis and creating a more dynamic stretch.
To practice Janu Sirsasana, sit on a mat, with a blanket and strap handy. Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you. Bend your right knee and use your right hand to draw your foot in toward your right groin. Extend your right knee out to the side so that your foot is not pressing into your left inner thigh, but slightly separated from it. Stretch outward through the right thigh and knee.
Turn slightly toward your left leg and place your right hand on the outside of the leg. Rotate your trunk toward your extended leg so that it aligns over it. Take a few breaths to allow your body to find the twist. Then stretch your sit bones back, lengthen both your front and back torso, and extend your torso out over your left leg, walking your hands along your shins toward your feet. When you have extended forward as far as your hamstrings will allow, then relax your torso, shoulders and neck, folding gently over your leg. If your foot is not within reach of your hands, you can lasso it with a strap and hold an end of the strap in each hand. Breathe deeply, inflating your back body with your inhalation, and allow your body to soften over your leg on the exhalation. You can stay for as little as five breaths or as long as a few minutes.
When you bend forward, it is important that the action comes from the pelvis, not from the spine. You can determine whether your back body is flexible enough to bend forward safely by placing your hand on your low back and feeling your spine while sitting upright with your legs extended in front of you. If your lumbar vertebrae are poking out, your spine is already flexing, which means you will very likely bend from the spine rather than the pelvis.
In this case, place a folded blanket under your sit bones to elevate your pelvis. Test again, and bend forward a little to see if your pelvis is able to lead the action. If one blanket is not enough, you can try two. If two blankets aren't enough, you can still bend forward—from the pelvis—but rather than allowing your body to curl down, stay upright and loop a strap around your left foot, then pull gently on your strap with both hands to bring your torso upright. Extend your sit bones back and the top of the pelvis forward.
While you are in Janu Sirsasana, tune into your intention. Are you striving to move your head closer to your knee? Are your shoulders tight or relaxed? Do you feel as if you are inflicting the pose on yourself or allowing it to unfold naturally? Explore the idea of breathing deeply—expanding your back body on the inhalation and relaxing into your pose just as it is on the exhalation.
If Janu Sirsasana is to give us a window into ourselves, it can happen only if we are present to the truth of the pose we are currently practicing. When our minds are skipping forward to the pose we believe we should be in, we can't be at peace in the present. Nothing magical happens when your head touches your knee. The truth resides in this pose, in this moment, not in some concept about what we think a pose should look like. Relax and let Janu Sirsasana give you a window into this moment.