Names, as well as looks, can be deceiving. Janu Sirsasana is typically translated as Head-to-Knee Pose, which might lead you to believe the pose is all about touching your head to your knee. In truth, it is more about stretching your body and quieting your mind.
As you bend forward and bring your head towards your knee, turn inward and find stillness. Rather than round your spine in an attempt to bring your chest to your thigh or grasp your toes, turn your focus instead on lengthening your spine and folding forward from your hip crease towards the knee of your outstretched leg. There is no merit in how far forward your chest falls or where your hands rest. (Looping a strap around your foot can help you close the gap.)
Illusions of grandeur can take hold when a desire to get as far as possible into an asana, or pose, takes you past your limits. These are as much asmita, or ego, as inability or meekness. In order to keep your ego in line with reality, approach any pose with humility and focus. Stay present, without trying to move too fast. Try to experience what you are feeling in your body without getting wrapped up in achieving a goal.
Athletes, including runners and cyclists, may especially appreciate this pose, not only for the opportunity to stretch tight hamstrings, calves, and hips, but also to slow down and focus on the breath, a practice that will also help you off the mat in your respective sport.
Sanskrit: Janu Sirsasana (JAH-new shear-SHAHS-anna)
janu = knee
sirsa = head
Pose type: Forward Bend
Targets: Lower Body
Head-to-Knee Pose improves posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting. It can be helpful for recovery after challenging physical activities, including running. It can bring calm to the mind and help with depression, anxiety, and fatigue.
Other Head-to-Knee Pose perks:
0 seconds of 1 minute, 20 seconds Volume 90%
Keep your foot on your bent leg active. Broaden the top of the foot on the floor and press the heel toward the inner thigh of the straight leg.
Consider a more intense shoulder and side stretch in this pose by trying the revolved version it, Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana.
Allow your body to release on a deeper level with the Yin version of this pose, known as Half Butterfly. It is the same shape but you relax your muscles and remain here for 3-5 minutes.
Increase the challenge in this pose by widening the angle between the two legs past 90 degrees and bring your heel more toward the same-side inner thigh. Do this only if you have sufficient flexibility in the legs, hips, and back, as taking your knee out at a wider angle can create stress on the sartorial muscle, which runs down the inner thigh.
Practice this posture toward the end of your practice to begin slowing and grounding down, and follow with the rest of your forward bends.
Extend your reach by looping a strap (or a belt) around the ball of your straight-leg foot. Elongate your spine and flex at your hips to fold forward slightly. Do not round your back.Photo: Eleanor Williamson
Sit on folded blankets or a bolster. You might want to place a rolled-up blanket under your straightened knee to prevent locking (hyperextension) or to make the stretch less intense. You can also place a block or other support under the thigh of your bent knee for support, especially if you feel strain or tightness in that knee.Photo: Eleanor Williamson
If getting onto the floor is challenging, use two chairs. Set up the chairs close together, then sit down, and get your legs into position. If your chair has arms, you can use that as support for your bent knee. Use a strap if needed.
Janu Sirsasana is typically sequenced toward the end of class, when you have already stretched your back body and your hips in other poses. Counter the pose by stretching and expanding in the areas that were just compressed; in this case, your chest and hip flexors.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank | Upward Plank)
Virasana (Hero Pose)
Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
Janu Sirsasana is an asymmetric forward bend that creates an intense stretch in the hamstrings of your straight leg and your back, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga teacher. As with other poses that connect the upper and lower extremities, Janu Sirsasana also affects your lower back and shoulders.
In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.Illustration: Chris Macivor
A couple of stretches contribute to the overall stretch that takes place in this pose. One is the action in your bent leg and the other is the action in your arms. In your bent leg, the femur flexes, abducts, and externally rotates, drawing that side of the pelvis away from your straight leg. Although the main focus is on your extended leg, periodically bring your attention to your flexed knee. Engage the muscles of your leg to make the pose more active.
Grasp your foot with your hands to link the shoulder and pelvic girdles, transmitting a stretch from your lower back into your leg. Connect the action of your bent leg with your same-side arm. For example, as your bent knee draws back, flex the same-side elbow more strongly to draw the side of your body more toward your extended leg, stretching the side of your body. This creates two counterbalancing forces with simultaneous movements in different directions.
Observe the effect of flexing your trunk. Squeeze your torso against your thigh to engage the psoas. Also, engage your abdominals to turn the bent-leg side of your trunk. Experience how this action changes the feeling of the stretch in the lower back muscles, including the quadratus lumborum. Note that when the femur flexes, your pelvis tilts forward.
Draw your shoulders away from your ears by engaging the lower portions of the trapezius.
This orchestra of movement culminates in the characteristic stretch of Janu Sirsasana. Your entire back body stretches, including the erector spinae, quadratus lumborum, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, and gastrocnemius and soleus complex. The bent-leg quadriceps also stretch, and the back muscles on this side stretch more deeply than on the straight leg.Illustration: Chris Macivor
The muscles, tendons, and ligaments at the back of the body are all linked. Tightness in one muscle affects the position of joints in other muscles; for example, tightness in the lower back can make it difficult to straighten the knee, and tightness in the hamstrings can make it difficult to flex the trunk. Identify areas of inflexibility and modify the pose to accommodate these regions.
Excerpted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends by Ray Long.
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Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.
Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.